Sardines are a very underrated fish. They are cheap and plentiful, but I rarely see mention of them in menus and even we as a family only seemed to eat the tinned version (very good in their own right). I saw them at the fishmonger and couldn’t believe how inexpensive they were, and bought 2 per person.
Part of the reason we started eating sardines late in life is that I had no idea how to cook them. Then I ate crumbed butterflied sardines at Osteria Mozza in Singapore and loved the dish. Although sardines are slightly fishy in flavour, (due to all the healthful omega 3 fish oils), crumbed and eaten with lots of lemon, they are an excellent appetiser. Or convert into a light supper as we did, with the addition of a salad.
For the coating, I also used panko breadcrumbs as I always have them in the larder, but Stein uses fresh breadcrumbs. I am a fan of panko, but use what you have. Also, Stein’s recipe calls for deep-frying but pan-frying works well, and a lot less oil gets used.
I did take the easy way out of butterflying the sardines, leaving it to the husband (they do have their uses!). It’s a little fiddly to do but worth the effort.
Butterflied Sardines with a Parmesan Crust
I was inspired to try cooking them at home when I found a simple recipe in one of Rick Stein's books, which works brilliantly. Stein does the Italian classic combo of Parmesan and parsley, but any hard cheese you have and fresh green herbs like coriander or even finely sliced chives or spring onion greens would taste good. The heads of the sardines are removed and most of the backbone taken out, leaving a little tail so that they fried fish has an attractive shape.
To butterfly the sardines:
Trim off the fins (if present) with kitchen scissors. Make a cut under the head with a sharp knife and then using the head, pull the head off. The head should ideally come away together with the guts. Then cut the gut cavity right down the side and clean out any remnants.
Open out each fish and place belly side down on a chopping board. Gently but firmly, press along the backbone with the palm of your hand so that you gradually flatten the fish.
Turn the fish over and carefully pull out the backbone, snipping it off at the tail with the scissors. Remove any small bones left behind with a part of tweezers. You don’t have remove all the bones if your family is adept at dealing with a few small fish bones.
To fry the fish:
Mix together the Parmesan herbs, breadcrumbs and some seasoning in a small plate.
Place the flour on a plate and the beaten egg in a bowl. Dip the butterflied sardines in the flour, then into the beaten egg and finally into the breadcrumb mixture. Press well so that the coating adheres well to the fish.
The sardines can be stored in the fridge at this stage, covered with cling wrap.
When ready to eat., pour oil of about 1-2 cm deep in a faying pan. Once the oil is hot (but not smoking), pan-fry the sardines one at a time for 1 minute or so, flipping them over half-way through so that they brown on both sides. Lift out and drain on to a paper lined plate. Serve hot with lemon wedges.