Sardines conjure strong feelings. Few people are neutral on the subject. I think of eating them grilled, al fresco under a wisteria pergola in southern France. With a glass of pale pink rosé. I think of being with an old boyfriend in a Portuguese fishing port, watching wizened women wearing all black choose the glistening fish in the market. And I think of cheap tins of sardines, devouring them whole on salted crackers with a squeeze of lemon juice. Yes, I love sardines.
The other day, crossing through Chinatown on my way somewhere, one of the fish vendors had fresh sardines piled high up front. I snapped up a pound ($2.39). That night, I made supper using what we had in the fridge, with these sparkly fish as the centerpiece.
Sardines are an oily fish found in many parts of the world. Called a “super food” for their high nutritional content, they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium and protein. They are plentiful and inexpensive. The best source of fresh sardines in the USA is wild-caught Pacific, according to the Seafood Watch List.
If you have an outdoor grill, cook the fish there. They kick up a lot of smoke and fumes when cooked, hence their bad reputation. Indoors, they’re best cooked under the broiler. I find the stove contains the cooking smells and our stove hood takes care of the rest. To eliminate cooking odors in the house, my friend Vander told me his 89 year-old mother boils a little sugar, water and a cinnamon stick or cloves. It works!
This recipe is based very loosely on a classic Sicilian recipe. Use a chunky dried pasta, such as fusilli, orecchiette or campanelle. Or use whatever you have. Fresh or tinned sardines can be used. Switch out the cauliflower for something else, if you wish. This is one-pot pantry cooking at its best.
Pasta with Sardines and Roasted Cauliflower
1 small head of cauliflower, stem cut away, and broken into bite-sized florets
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
½ teaspoon hot pepper flakes
½ cup unflavored bread crumbs, preferably homemade and not powder-fine
(whiz old bread, crusts removed, in the food processor until roughly cut into ¼” pieces and freeze in a plastic bag; they can be used straight from the freezer in this recipe)
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped fine
Zest from one lemon, plus the juice
1 tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1 pound fresh sardines or 4 small tins of sardines
1 pound dried pasta such as campanelle or fusilli
- Preheat the oven to 425˚F. Place the cauliflower florets on a baking sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Toss with your hands to distribute the oil and seasonings. Spread out the florets evenly in a single layer on the pan. Roast in the oven for about 10 minutes or until browned on one side. Remove from the oven and turn off the heat.
- Meanwhile, in a medium skillet over a medium-low heat, cook the garlic and hot pepper flakes in one tablespoon of oil for about 2 minutes until fragrant. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add another tablespoon of oil and brown the breadcrumbs in the same pan (about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally). Turn off the heat.
- Add the garlic and hot pepper to the bread crumbs, as well as the parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice, capers, and salt and pepper to taste.
- If using fresh sardines, light the broiler or fire up the outdoor grill. Rinse the gutted, scaled fish (get your fishmonger to do the messy part) under cold water and lay them out on a towel to dry. Pat dry on all sides. Lay fish on a rack set into a baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with the remaining olive oil and season both sides with salt and pepper. Cook under the broiler or on the grill for about 4 minutes on each side. Check for doneness by poking into the thickest part of the fish with a knife and looking to see that the flesh is white (cooked). Let fish cool a little, then remove the flesh (discard skin and bones), and cut into bite-sized pieces.
- If using canned sardines, drain off the oil and cut into bit-sized pieces.
- Make the pasta in a large pot of well-salted water. Cook until al dente (taste for doneness) and drain.
- In a large bowl, stir together the roasted cauliflower, bread crumb mixture and sardine pieces. Taste for seasoning and garnish with pine nuts. Serve hot or room temperature, with a light leafy salad, a lemon vinaigrette and a cold glass of Vermentino (Italian white wine).