I am feeling slightly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food-related treasure that keeps accumulating as the weather grows warmer and sunnier. First up was asparagus, appearing much earlier than usual, I'm sure, and enticing me to try more and more innovative ways of being able to tolerate the stuff (as mentioned previously, I'm generally not a fan, though this has changed recently). Then Jersey royals, widely lauded as some of the best potatoes money can buy, for their dense, waxy, nutty-flavoured flesh. Then the other day, I spotted a big box of samphire at the fishmongers. I was introduced to this 'poor man's asparagus' (what a joke - it sells for about five times the price of asparagus) by a chef I once worked for, and haven't sampled it since the days of peeling prawns and podding peas in his kitchen when I was seventeen. I figured it was high time to cook with it for myself.
This dish came about rather by accident. I initially had in mind an asparagus, boiled egg, Jersey royal and smoked salmon salad, having purchased a bundle of green spears on a whim and found some eggs in the fridge to use up. Then I spotted the samphire on the fishmonger's icy display, and nearby some lovely fresh sardine fillets. It brought to mind some stuffed sardines I recently tried at an Italian restaurant, which were wrapped in bacon and filled with a lemony breadcrumb mixture. The salad had to wait.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2007 referred to samphire as "a fiercely trendy vegetable you'll have to pay good money for". He isn't wrong - samphire retails in Oxford's market for about £13 a kilo. However, this actually works out as about £2 for enough samphire to feed two, which isn't too bank-breakingly lavish. Often compared to seaweed, it grows in muddy, sandy flats in tidal zones, and as a result has the most incredible taste of the sea: a satisfying salty tang, a delightful crunchy yet yielding texture, and a perfect affinity with fish, butter and lemon. It's almost rubbery, but with a bit of crunch to it. It's hard to find something to compare it to, but I suppose the texture is a bit like very thin runner beans. The taste is completely different, though; it has the moreish saltiness of an anchovy, but is much fresher.
I decided to use the samphire (I blanched it in boiling water for about a minute - you don't want to lose that lovely crunch) in a salad with some boiled asparagus spears, sliced Jersey royals, and the remainder of a packet of frozen broad and Edamame beans that I discovered lurking in the freezer. I put the warm, cooked vegetables in a bowl with some salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of garlic-infused olive oil, and some chopped dill. I had no idea how it would taste, but I figured it would be passable, at least. I wasn't quite prepared for the sheer deliciousness of this salad. I'm not sure if it's the delicate dill flavour or the garlic, but these ingredients work incredibly well together. It's probably due to all those different textures: soft, waxy potato; grainy beans; crunchy asparagus, and salty samphire. Needless to say, the salad alone would make a meal in itself, or would go very well with fish or chicken. You can't help but feel incredibly nourished as you tuck in, with all those beautiful shades of green, and the earthy potatoes complement it wonderfully.
For the sardines, I thought about replicating the breadcrumb stuffing from the Italian restaurant, but I feared it might turn into mush during cooking. Instead, I used bulgur wheat, which is rather like couscous but with larger, more irregularly-shaped grains. I soaked it in boiling water for half an hour to soften it, and then added lemon juice, finely chopped parsley and lemon zest, garlic oil, pine nuts, and lots of salt and pepper (the wheat can be very bland on its own, so needs judicious seasoning). There was something missing; I threw in a handful of raisins, and it was perfect. The garlic, lemon, parsley and pine nuts are all quite savoury and rich when combined with the wheat, and the little sweet nuggets of raisin are just the right thing to tie it all together. Also, raisins work incredibly well with sardines, as in the famous Sicilian pasta dish featuring saffron, raisins, fennel and pine nuts. It's because the flesh of the oily fish is so rich; you need sweetness to cut through it.
I simply made a sort of sardine sandwich using the stuffing as a filling. To keep the sardines together and stop the sandwiches falling apart during cooking, I had the inspired (I think) idea of using asparagus 'ribbons' to tie them together. I cut strips off an asparagus stalk using a potato peeler, and wrapped them around the sardines. Not only is this practical, it also looks beautiful. I was rather impressed with myself after I'd lined them up neatly in a baking dish. They went in the oven at 180C for about eight minutes. This is the kind of dish that never fails to impress people: it looks like you've spent ages painstakingly stuffing and wrapping each sardine, when in actual fact it takes about ten minutes, maximum, to achieve. The flavours of the stuffing are also quite unusual, and make for a great contrast against the oily fish. It's also a good dish to cook at this time of year, because a lot of my friends are about to sit their Finals, so the more brain food and omega-3 oils, the better!
I really love this dish, especially because it tasted even better than I imagined it would in my head. The sardines are rich and meaty, complemented by their lemony, herby stuffing, and the salad is fresh and crunchy, the perfect accompaniment. The samphire gives an unusual dimension to the flavours, providing a salty, savoury element that goes so well with the rich fish. This is the perfect thing to cook for early summer, when it's not warm enough to eat just salad, and you want something vibrant and flavoursome. It combines most of the ingredients I love about this time of year in a way that emphasises their individual qualities, and I'm very glad to have been reunited with samphire, which I predict will become a bit of an obsession while its short season endures.
Stuffed sardines with samphire, asparagus and Jersey royals (serves 2):
- 12 sardine fillets
- 100g bulgur wheat, soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes and drained
- 2 tbsp raisins
- 2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
- 4 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, very finely chopped
- Zest of 1 lemon, very finely chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- One bundle of asparagus spears
- 100g samphire
- 4 Jersey royal potatoes
- 200g fresh or frozen broad beans, or frozen broad bean and edamame bean mix
- 2 tbsp finely chopped dill
First, boil the potatoes until tender and set aside. Pre-heat the oven to 180C and oil a baking dish or tray, or line with baking parchment.
Mix the wheat with the raisins, pine nuts, parsley, lemon zest, half the lemon juice, half the garlic oil, and liberal amounts of salt and pepper, to taste - add more raisins/pine nuts/lemon if you think it needs it. Lay the sardine fillets out on a chopping board, flesh side up, and cover half of them in the stuffing mix. Lay the other fillets on top.
Use a potato peeler to peel strips off one of the asparagus spears, and gently wrap around each sardine sandwich. (You can skip this bit if you can't be bothered - it isn't essential).
Place the fish in the baking tray or dish and bake for about 8-10 minutes, until opaque and flaky.
Slice the potatoes and place in a large bowl. Boil the asparagus and broad beans for about 3 minutes until almost tender, then add the samphire and cook for another minute. Drain and add to the potatoes. While still hot, toss with the dill, the rest of the garlic oil and lemon juice, and salt and pepper.
Serve the sardines with the salad alongside, and lemon wedges for squeezing over.