Britain. You need to eat more sardines.
In this current age of austerity, economic climate, blah blah blah, when food prices are continually rising, supermarkets are trying to pull the wool over our eyes by proffering multibuy offers that actually involve spending more, and there is barely a single source of protein available that doesn't carry a heavy cost both literally and in terms of animal welfare, I honestly believe the solution lies in the humble sardine.
I went to the fish counter the other day and asked for five sardines. The woman behind the counter scooped up their plump, shimmering bodies and dropped them on the scales to weigh them. I could barely believe my ears when she told me that those five beautiful specimens, plump, meaty and very decently sized, were going to cost me a grand total of £1.60.
Therein lies the first major bonus of sardine consumption. It's cheap. I make that 32p a sardine, and given that two or perhaps three will quite adequately feed a normal adult (I've been known to eat four at a time), you're not exactly breaking the bank.
The second pro is of course the nutritional benefit. Sardines are one of those much-heralded 'oily fish' that we all know are hugely good for you. Or if you don't know, then have you been living in a cave? Get out there and ingest some omega oils before you waste away and die.
If only they weren't given such an unfortunate branding...calling anything 'oily' is hardly going to get people flocking up to put it in their mouths. I think maybe "firm-textured deliciously rich and meaty fish" might be a better tagline, but it's not quite as easy to cram onto packaging labels.
Thirdly, they're ethical. Sardines are one of the few sustainable fish species left to us now. Eat them with a clear conscience, and let your cod live out its happy life under the sea rather than meeting a speedy and ignominious end encased in batter and served on a piece of newspaper.
The fourth plus point of sardines, and oily fish in general, becomes apparent when you get them into the kitchen. There you can assault them with your entire arsenal of flavourings and spices, and they'll just sit back meekly and let you get on with it. These are tough creatures; I can't think of a single ingredient that an oily fish couldn't stand up to. These are fish you'd want on your side if you were ever getting a fish army together. Which, let's face it, is probably unlikely, but I thought I'd just mention it in case the occasion ever arises and you're stuck choosing between a mackerel and a monkfish. Monkfish may look impressive and threatening, with their hideous faces, gaping mouths and creepy spines, but the cool and unassuming mackerel will always win.
I literally have no idea what I am talking about. Back to the sardines.
There you have it: I can't think of a reason not to enjoy these lovely fish. They're so cheap, so ethical, so versatile and so good for you.
And please, to those of you who whine about all the little bones, I really, really don't have time for you. Nothing annoys me more than people who complain and say they don't eat fish because of the bones. Jesus, get over yourself. Take the five minutes to pick out the bones and just man up.
Here's a lovely way to eat sardines. Their skins are rubbed with a mixture of olive oil, salt and pepper, ground cumin and sumac (a lemony Middle Eastern spice, but you could use lemon zest if you can't find it). They're grilled until crispy. Then they're served on a bed of vibrant, fresh, zingy, citrussy salad. It has wafer-thin slices of crunchy raw fennel, for that aniseed bite that works so well with our oily friends. It has curls of red onion, to add savoury depth. It has a handful of fragrant mint, for freshness, and lemon juice, for zingy bite. Finally, it has thin segments of pink grapefruit to deliver a punch of zesty flavour that works so well with the creamy flesh of the fish.
The salad on its own is lovely, but it needs something rich to mellow all those vibrant flavours. Mackerel would work beautifully - either fresh or smoked. Spicy chicken could be an excellent substitute if you're one of the above annoying fish-bone-haters. Even a tangy cheese like goat's cheese or feta, or slices of grilled halloumi, could replace the sardines.
But, given my highly cogent and persuasive argument above, why would you want to replace the sardines? They are the answer to Britain's problems, and possibly the world's.
Grilled spiced sardines with fennel and grapefruit salad (serves 2):
- 1 bulb fennel, thinly sliced on a mandolin
- 1/2 a red onion, thinly sliced on a mandolin
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A small bunch of fresh mint, leaves picked
- Juice of half a lemon
- Two pink grapefruits
- 5 sardines, filleted (yes, the ones in the photo are whole, but only because my fishmonger apparently misheard 'filleted' as 'gutted' - if using whole ones whack them under the grill rather than pan-fry)
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp sumac
- A couple of handfuls of spinach, rocket, watercress, or a mixture
First, make the salad. Mix together the thinly sliced fennel and red onion with the lemon juice and a good glug of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, add the mint, and toss together well. Use a sharp serrated knife to cut the skin off the grapefruits, then cut in between the pith all around the grapefruit to release the segments. Add these to the salad and toss gently to mix.
Rub the sardine fillets with olive oil and season with the cumin, sumac and some salt and pepper. Get a non-stick pan very hot and cook the sardines, skin side down, for a couple of minutes until crispy, then flip over and cook for another minute.
Divide the spinach/rocket/watercress between two plates and top with the grapefruit salad. Place five sardine fillets on each plate and serve.