Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sweet & Sour Sardines

As a general rule, Americans (at least those without predominantly Northern European bloodlines) tend to shy away from small oily fish. This certainly was the case during my childhood, where eating an anchovy was considered only marginally preferable to covering one's naked body with maple syrup and belly flopping onto a fire ant mound. Indeed, even as an adult, I wouldn't have given pizza with anchovies a second thought until I met the great Mrs. Hackknife, who convinced me that the idea had merit, and, by golly, she was right! The humble, salty anchovy proved to be a gateway to other tiny swimmers - I no longer feared herring, smelts, or sardines, even willingly seeking them out at times, sold on the rich, dense flavor and the well-documented health benefits. This leads me to our featured recipe, which is included in the current (March 2012) issue of Saveur in an article on Venetian "cicheti" (essentially one-bite bar snacks). Of the dozen-odd dishes presented, one of them (sweet and sour sardines) stood out to me as being 1) easy to prepare, 2) enticing to Mrs. Hackknife, 3) a good companion to pesto pasta (yes, that same pesto left over from my earlier gnocchi disaster), and 4) full of several ingredients already in the larder (e.g., white wine, raisins, olive oil, pine nuts).

My initial challenge was getting the sardines. The recipe listed 2 lb. worth - if that seems like a lot to you, you'd be right. At first, all I could locate were canned sardines, which were quite expensive if you bought 2 lb. of them (each tin held about 4 oz., meaning I would need 8 tins at $3/tin, well, you get the picture). Luckily, the deli at my local ethnic grocery offered sardines packed in salt for about $8/lb. - even then, I stopped at only a pound after I realized that still gave me about 12 decent-sized fish (each about 4 in. long). Bringing my quarry home, I had planned to whip the dish up right before dinner until by chance I noticed the text "marinate in refrigerator for 4 hours" appended onto the very end of the recipe, which caused me to launch into a flurry of panicked activity between lunchtime and picking up Hackknife Jr. from school in order to get my fishies prepped and into the fridge. Really, all parts of the process were simple, with one exception - cleaning the sardines. Since they were salt packed, I followed the Ruhlman technique of soaking them in milk for 30 minutes to remove the salt crust. Next, like anchovies, I figured I'd need to slice each sardine open to remove the backbone and, hopefully, many of the smaller pin bones at the same time. Unlike anchovies (which are smaller), I discovered that sardine backbones are much more embedded and, therefore, harder to remove without breaking into pieces (and as for the small bones, forget it - they all mostly stayed behind in the flesh). Still, the picture of the finished dish in my magazine clearly shows pin bones protruding from the fish, so I pressed onward unconcerned.

Now we get to my main epiphany, revealed after broiling the semi-deboned sardines in a hot oven for 3 minutes - they're exceedingly oily. And this oil is, shall we say, incredibly pungent, leaving behind a persistent, smelly trail wherever it makes contact, even after repeated cleaning. For days afterwards, my sink, towels, cutting board, and hands carried a faint, oceanic odor that was readily apparent anytime someone wandered by the Commissary (Ed. note - for those of you readers in the Taliban, I daresay that sardine oil would make a far better dirty bomb material than plutonium, with its stink rendering any city completely uninhabitable for centuries). Despite its olfactory condition, the marinated, chilled sardines looked pretty much like they did in the article photo. I would characterize their taste, however, as very salty, maybe overbearingly, high blood pressure-inducing salty (perhaps 30 minutes more in the milk bath were needed). And although the pin bones are edible, I wouldn't exactly describe them as pleasantly so. Mrs. Hackknife and I both agreed that the dish worked on principle, but the salt/bones really detracted from the experience and pretty much overwhelmed the flavor of the pesto pasta (which is usually strong on its own). I suspect that in more capable hands (especially someone who knows how to properly fillet small fish), the end result could be much more balanced and appealing. Perhaps some reconnaissance to Venice is needed to sort these issues out....

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