Recipe: Sarde in Saor Venetian Style
I love fresh sardines. I know many people in this country don’t, but I can’t imagine why. Too strong? Too bony? Too puny? So silly. I think everyone needs to get over this. Possibly you’ve had them none too fresh. Freshness is key with high-oil fish. And it’s the wonderful oils, the essential fatty acids, so good for us, that give off their enticing aroma when you grill sardines on an open fire, for instance. That creates one of the most comforting but also riveting sea smells, riveting in its pure, glorious intensity. And when you take a bite, the flesh under the crisp skin is all sweetness.
I can buy local, Long Island sardines—Atlantic herring, actually—from my Greenmarket fish man, but only at the coldest times of the year. In the summer I rely on wild-caught Portuguese sardines, true Western European sardines, which I find at the fancier grocery stores in Manhattan. I ask when they’ll arrive, and I pick them up that day, so they’re rigidly fresh. And since sardines are at the bottom of the food chain, they’re better for the seas and for you than big over-fished creatures like tuna and swordfish, which are full of mercury and toxins, things I used to try to avoid thinking about but now I just try to avoid.
Sarde in Saor is a classic Venetian dish offered at many of Venice’s wine bars. Served at room temperature, It’s richly flavored, gently marinated, sweet and sour, with abundant sweet sautéed onions for much of its depth of flavor. It gets a bath in wine, vinegar, and a little sugar and is accented with the classic Moorish pine nut and raisin combination that I can never resist. Think you don’t like fresh sardines? Try this.
Sarde in Saor Venetian Style
(Serves 4 as a first course)
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup dry white wine
Extra-virgin olive oil
A dozen sardines, gutted and scaled
½ cup all-purpose flour
A generous pinch of Aleppo pepper (or another spicy paprika)
2 large Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
4 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the white wine.
In a high-sided skillet, heat about 2 inches of olive oil over medium heat.
Pat the sardines dry. Pour the flour out onto a plate, and season it well with salt and Aleppo pepper. Dredge the sardines in the flour.
When the olive oil is hot but not smoking, add the sardines (you’ll probably want to do them in two batches). Fry until crisp and browned on one side, about 2 minutes, and then give them a flip, and brown the other side, about 2 minutes longer. Drain the sardines on paper towels, and lay them out, slightly overlapping, in a rectangular serving dish (one with low sides).
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, seasoning them with salt and black pepper. Sauté until the onions are soft and lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Add the sugar and the thyme, and sauté a minute longer. Add the raisins in their soaking wine, and let the wine boil until almost evaporated (you want a little liquid in the pan, though, so don’t boil it dry). Add the white wine vinegar, and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the pine nuts.
Pour the onion mixture over the sardines, making sure they’re well covered. Give it a little drizzle of fresh olive oil, cover tightly, and refrigerate for a day, so the flavor can develop. Bring back to room temperature before serving. It will last about four days refrigerated.