Mint pesto stuffed and roasted sardines
The sardine, with the mackerel I featured previously, is another very popular fish in France, probably the cheapest one, which may explain its popularity. It is true that, under the current standards, the sardine has some drawbacks: its small size, hence a high ratio bone/meat, and a fishy smell. Let's address first the latter point. Yes, it has a strong fish odor, you may like it or not, but it has nothing to do with the smell of non fresh fish. For me, they just smell like the sea... and I love it! And as some Maine's fish mongers would say, once you cut their head, they don't smell anymore...
Like good wines
Yes, the sardine is a very popular fish and a staple of the summer barbecues in France, somehow the "chipolata of the sea". I even used to cook them in my first flat in Montmartre in Paris, on the window ledge, thanks to a mini cast iron barbecue that a smelting company client gave to me. The sardine is popular everywhere in France, including on the West coast (Oléron island, Brittany) where an important canning industry has developed. The best sardine cans are considered as high end products and it is recommended to keep and mature them... like good wines!
But it has become the symbol of a region and in particular a city. The region is Provence and the city is Marseilles. The sardine is also, and obviously, largely fished in the Mediterranean sea (it is named after the island of Sardinia) and people of Marseilles are said to always exaggerate "a bit", the famous galéjades, where everything is more beautiful or bigger in Marseilles. And is true as far as the sardine is concerned, as testified by this very famous sardine that was so big as it blocked the harbor of Marseilles, back in the 18th century... Except that the said sardine was in fact the Sartine, a ship named after Antoine de Sartine, the navy ministry of Louis XVI. After a navigation error, the ship sank in the mouth of the harbor and blocked it for a while.
That said, on top of blocking the harbor, sardine is also a fish specialty of the area. Twenty-five years ago, I had some in a small bistro restaurants in a village of the Cannes or Nice hinterland, stuffed with mint and other herbs and simply grilled. Those were so good as I regularly tried to replicate this recipe when I have the chance to find fresh sardines. This was the case yesterday. Here is my recipe, inspired by this 25-year old memory. Note that the sardine's alleged cons, the bones and the strength taste, are here largely mitigated or leveraged thanks to a meticulous boning process and to the use of mint.
For 4 servings, as a starter or a small entree:
- 12 sardines (normal size, c. 6/7 inches... too small to block the harbor of Marseilles)
- Mint leaves (12 big leaves for wrapping, 12 small leaves for decorating, and sufficient* quantity for the stuffing)
- Fennel "feather" green*
- Bread crumbs (1 tbsp.)
- Grated Parmesan cheese (1 tbsp.)
- 6 pitted black olives
- 6 black garlic cloves
- Olive oil, for stuffing (1 tbsp.) and for cooking (at discretion)
- 1/2 glass of Pastis (French anise-flavored alcohol, here Pernod 45)
- Cayenne pepper, salt
For the side:
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 yellow red peppers (or other color combination)
- 4 garlic cloves
- Thyme, cayenne pepper, salt
For the cook (the 1-2-3 rule):
- 1 dose of Pastis
- 2 ice cubes
- 3 doses of water
Preparation of the sardines:
- Scale and gut the sardines, cut their fins and tail, or ask you fishmonger to do it (personally, I prefer to do it myself), and gently (their flesh is fragile) rinse them
- Make a diagonal slot behind the head without touching the central bone
- Finish cutting the fish belly beyond the anus, on the full length
- With a small knife or the finger, start to separate very delicately the meat from the central bone. Identify a point located at around 1/3 length from the tail, pinch the central bone here, and while maintaining the fish with your other end, pull the bone from the tail part of the fish. It comes with almost no resistance, just ensure that you pull softly so that all the tiny side bones come with it. Now, you can pull the central bone, again, and for the same reason, softly, out of the meat up to the head, and detach it with the head -it comes out naturally- out of the fillets. Remove with a knife or a tweezer the small bones that have survived this surgical process, and clean and trim the fillets.
- Put the fillets (in fact those are double fillets, see pix), skin side on the bottom, in an oven dish generously coated with olive oil, and salt the inside of the fillets. Let them rest for 15 minutes. This will also contribute to firm them up.
The bell pepper side:
- While the sardine fillets rest, cut the bell peppers in strips.
- Crush and peel the garlic cloves.
- Put the bell peppers in a oven dish, with olive oil, the garlic cloves, thyme, Cayenne and salt, and roast at 375F for around 25 minutes or till nicely roasted, and maintain them warm.
Stuffing and cooking the sardines:
- Mix together the mint leaves, cilantro, parsley, watercress, crumbs, Parmesan cheese, olives, oil and Cayenne, and blend the whole till obtaining a kind of pesto.
- Place a big stemmed mint leaf on top of each fillet.
- Place the equivalent of 1 tbsp. of this stuffing mix on each fillet, fold them to wrap the stuffing mix.
- Little personal tip, use for each fillet half of a black garlic clove to fix the stuffing... like with a chewing gum!
- Drizzle some olive oil on the sardines and spread some fennel greens
- Roast for 10 minutes in a 400F preheated oven.
- Serve the stuffed sardine fillets on the roasted bell peppers, with some mint leaves, olives, fennel greens, cayenne pepper... and savor with a glass of Rosé de Provence... while they still try to unblock the harbor of Marseilles!!!