Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Condiment, Deconstructed: Pan-Seared Sardines with Lemon-Macerated Olives


To be honest, whether the food I buy is "sustainable" or not isn't a major concern to me.

Heresy, I know.

That's not to say that I don't do my part to save the environment and support my local food producers -- I don't own a car, I receive a weekly farm share, I once found myself discussing the topic of men's a cappella music in an extended conversation with Ralph Nader -- but, when it comes down to it, I'll take delicious over eco-friendly any day of the week. Stone me if you must.

That being said, a great deal of both local and/or sustainable food is delicious; to suggest otherwise would be more than foolish. As far as I'm concerned, as long I can get great flavor along with the smug self-satisfaction that comes with paying seven dollars for a handful of asparagus, well then, by golly, I'm on board.

What many of the Fooderati may not realize, however, is that there are many excellent, delicious, sustainable food choices right under their noses -- indeed, even at their local super-jumbo-market-grocery-store.

A relic of 1950s cookbooks and backpackers' guides, the humble sardine is, in fact, an incredibly sustainable fish. Swimming around in ginormous schools, breeding like bunnies, sardines are an ocean pest, impossible to overfish. Need more reason to eat them? Not only are they delicious, they're good for you, supporting both heart and brain function.

So yeah, today's topic is the sardine -- much maligned, constantly overlooked, probably buried in a lonely can in the back of your pantry. What does this have to do with a condiment, you might ask?

If you asked me to name THE emblematic, traditional Provençal condiment, I'd probably settle on tapenade, the well-worn paste that starts with black olives, anchovies, and, depending where you are in the south of France, any number of other ingredients -- and folks are particular about their variations, believe me.

I decided to go one step further. Why couldn't I switch out the anchovies, deconstruct the elements of the traditional recipe and turn them into an appetizer? With the versatility that sardines offer in terms of convenience, I created a refreshing, clean, basic dish that, in my opinion, evokes the best flavors of le Midi.

Pan-Seared Sardines with Lemon-Macerated Olives
Serves two people

1 Can Sardines
1/2 Cup Flour
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1 Tablespoon Dried Dill or Dillweed
1 Teaspoon Celery Salt (or Kosher Salt)
Cracked Black Pepper (to taste)
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

6 Kalamata Olives
6 Oil-Cured Black Olives
Zest of one Lemon
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil

Fresh Basil (as garnish)

Salt and Pepper (to taste)
You'll want to start by making your coating. When pan-frying things, there are two rules to consider:

1.) Keep the use of frying fats (oil, butter) to a minimum; no more than two tablespoons at a time -- you're just looking to get a nice crust on things, not deep-fry them.

2.) Start your coating out with a combination of flour and baking powder, with a scalable 1 Cup to 1 Tablespoon ratio, respectively. Although I must confess that I don't exactly understand the science behind it, the baking powder helps with the crustiness of the coating. I've tried any number of different things, so you'll just have to trust me on this one -- the combination and the ratio both work.

Mix your coating up, combining the flour, baking powder, dill, celery salt, and pepper on a plate.

Drain the sardines from the can and roll them in the coating, covering them well. You'll notice that the fish is, in fact, cooked before it's canned. However, because of its naturally high oil content (not to mention the fact that the filets have been canned in oil for who knows how long), pan-frying sardines doesn't dry them out -- it simply warms them through. You really can't overcook a sardine -- just another reason to love them.

Heat up your butter and oil in a pan, and cook the coated filets until the coating turns a deep, full brown, about two to three minutes a side. Once cooked, transfer them to a paper towel.

It's time to make the olive paste. I like a combination of both kalamata and oil-cured black olives; a nice mixture of savory and salty. Using a mortar and pestle or a very, very sharp knife, smash, chop, and smush your olives down to a nice paste. Zest one lemon, macerate further, dress with the olive oil, and stir to mix.

It's time to plate the dish. Rest two filets against each other, top with the macerated olives, and garnish with a few strands of thinly chiffonaded basil. The final product:

This is a lovely little appetizer, perfect for the late spring. Frankly, tasting the final dish, you'd never know that the fish came from a can. The many bright flavors -- dill, celery seed, lemon, basil -- help highlight the naturally briny flesh of the sardines, while combination of olive and citrus quite literally will make your guests salivate; paired with a tall, cool pilsner or a Campari-based cocktail, you'll have them in the palm of your hand when it comes to the courses that follow.

It's worth pointing out that this recipe is a template for any number of varieties -- much like the best tapenades are. Feel free to doctor the olive paste with roasted garlic or red peppers, capers, tomato paste, chopped hazelnuts, diced prosciutto; your imagination is your only limit. That being said, there's something quite true and honest about the simple combination of olives and lemon peel that keeps me from wanting to add anything to my original recipe; you'll have to do some experimenting and decide for yourself.

Next weekend, we'll have a sweet and spicy update to a classic summertime dessert; it's elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and, best of all, way too easy to make. See you then.

Music: Phish -- "Simple"


  1. I know what you mean about the sustainability debate. I paid $8 for a pint of local blueberries. They were delicious after that first bitter pill.

    I put some of them in scones... then solidified my belief that scones are lame.

    I say all that... but what I mean is no amount of pretty pictures can make me eat a sardine. I'm not sure why. The idea is just too icky for me.

  2. Fair enough -- I made the sardine recipe knowing full well it would lie *just* beyond the limits of tolerance for most folks. I can't stand cottage cheese, so, hey, we've all got our things.

    As for sustainability, it's like I said; if you can get both sustainable and delicious, that's great. It's not that I don't care about it -- it's that I have larger food priorities.

    Anyway, I have a feeling next week's recipe is going to be a real crowdpleaser; we'll see what kind of reception it gets.


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