Sicily and Stuffed Sardines

Two years ago we visited a tiny Sicilian island. It was so small that we either walked, rode our bikes or swam to get around. But most of the time we did nothing, just laid on the rocks at the beach or in the garden, staring into the sky, amazed by how beautiful the world is. We only used a car when we arrived to get to the little farm where we stayed, a sturdy stone building tucked in between fig trees, hibiscus and oleander; and to go back to the harbor at the end of our trip, speechless and sad to leave our piece of heaven on earth. The island is so secluded and so special to us that I had to promise my man that I would never write about it or tell anyone where it is.

In the past couple months I’ve been thinking a lot about our tiny island in the Mediterranean, dreaming of a place that feels safe and makes me happy. I’m not allowed to write about its location, however I can write about the food we indulged in day after day. Our house was part of an organic farm and we could pick all the fruit and veg we wanted to eat. The juiciest tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, soft figs, zucchini, eggplant … As soon as I fell out of bed I’d walk – still in my pyjamas – through the field to pick zucchini flowers and fry them for breakfast. We enjoyed the farm’s olive oil and wine basically from tap and although there wasn’t really the need to, we also made use of the island’s fantastic restaurants and bars abundantly. We ate out every day and said to ourselves if we only had to eat Sicilian food for the rest of our life we’d live a happy life.

Dinners were spectacular: the freshest grilled fish and sun showered vegetables, raw prawn carpaccio, lobster, pasta, risotto and nana’s almond cake and bay leaf schnaps for dessert. Unforgettable, there’s no doubt. But our little luncheons at the piazza, at a rustic bar where mamma herself cooked all morning and laid out her delicious work on the counter by noon, this was the food that melted my heart. Casseroles, lasagna, tarts, focaccia and stuffed vegetables, fish and saltimbocca, framed by hearty salads made with legumes. We went there almost every day, pretending to go just for an espresso before snorkeling but always ordering more plates than we could fit on our round bistro table. It was strategically placed in the shade of a large tree, close enough to mamma’s kitchen to order more food (and wine) but still in the middle of the airy piazza to follow the village’s late morning life. A scene of true beauty.

So here, at this unimposing cozy bar, I enjoyed my first Sicilian stuffed sardines. The fish filets were wrapped around a filling made of breadcrumbs, orange zest, crumbled bay leaves, pine nuts, raisins, capers, fresh oregano and thyme. The whole bold and colorful culinary orchestra that Sicily’s cuisine is famous for in one single bite. Don’t ask why but it took me two years to recreate this recipe in my own kitchen. Last Saturday I was in the mood for a Sicilian lunch, so I drove to the fishmonger. Our wine was crisp and fruity and the recipe worked out perfectly – I only should have bought more fish. It was a little feast for two. We had five stuffed sardines, just enough for a lunch nibble, for a main I’d go for ten sardines for two people (recipe below). Anyway, get your loved one(s) into the kitchen, cool your favorite white wine, start the oven, pull out the dusty Adriano Celentano records and pretend you’re in Sicily!

Meike xxx

Sicilian Stuffed Sardines

Serves 2 as a main or 3-4 as a starter

You can enjoy stuffed sardines warm from the oven or at room temperature

  • 10 whole sardines, gutted and cleaned (about 800g / 1 3/4 pounds)
  • 2 tablespoons raisins
  • Olive oil
  • 85g / 3 ounces breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or marjoram leaves
  • 2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 6 small (or 3 large) bay leaves, finely crumbled (or ground with a mortar and pestle)
  • 2 teaspoons capers, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • Ground pepper
  • 20 wooden tooth picks

Preheat the oven to 200°C / 400°F. Grease a medium baking dish with olive oil.

Cut off and discard the heads of the sardines. To butterfly the sardines, spread and lay them cut-side (belly-side) down on a cutting board and, using your hand, push the back down gently (see 2nd picture from the top, right). Flip the sardines, gently pull out the backbone and cut the bone at the tail but don’t remove the tail; discard the backbone. Spread the sardines skin-side down on the cutting board.

In a small bowl, soak the raisins in hot water for about 5 minutes then drain.

In a medium, heavy pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium-high heat and roast the breadcrumbs, stirring, for about 2 minutes or until golden and crispy. Push the breadcrumbs to the sides, add the pine nuts and roast, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer the breadcrumbs and pine nuts to a medium bowl and add the raisins, pecorino, garlic, thyme, oregano, orange zest, orange juice, bay leaves, capers, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the salt and season to taste with pepper. Mix well with your hands, rubbing the mixture between your fingers.

Season the sardines with a little salt and pepper. Divide the filling among the sardines, pushing the filling down gently with the back side of a tablespoon. Gently roll up the sardines towards the tail and fix the roll with 2 tooth picks (see pictures below). Arrange the sardines, side by side and tail up, in the prepared baking dish, drizzle with a little olive oil, sprinkle with the remaining filling in case any is left, then season with a little salt and pepper and bake for 20 minutes. Let the sardines cool for a few minutes and enjoy warm or wait a little longer and serve at room temperature. Enjoy with good bread (drizzled with good olive oil), a simple green salad and a glass of white wine.