Recipe: Sarde in Agrodolce
I love whole fried fish, especially very little ones, like sardines. They’re excellent pan fried in breadcrumbs and served hot with fresh lemon, or dredged in flour and deep fried. But I also love some of the more elaborate takes on little fried fish. Sicily’s got a few great ones.
If you’ve been following my recipe posts, you’ll know I’ve been on a Sicilian raisin and pine nut roll. It has not abated. While gazing at lovely silver-skinned sardines fresh from Rhode Island at Citarella the other day, I recalled how much I love them made agrodolce, a Sicilian preparation that, wouldn’t you know it, includes raisins and pine nuts.
Agrodolce, sweet and sour, mostly means very old, pre-tomato dishes down there. Caponata, made with eggplant, is the one the most people are familiar with. When you make agrodolce with sardines, you sauté a copious amount of onion until sweet and melting. Then you mix it with raisins, pine nuts, wine, a splash of vinegar, fresh herbs, a little honey or sugar, and sometimes capers, too. You pour this rich sauce over the just-fried little fish and then, traditionally, leave it all to marinate for about a day before serving it at room temperature. Marinating makes the dish pungent, the vinegar and the sardines coming to the forefront. I like this intense version. It’s great for an antipasto offering along with maybe a glass of Falanghina, a nice, fresh white from Campania that I’m liking a lot lately. But I’ve come to prefer eating the fish hot, right after cooking, so there’s a more unified balance of sweet and sour, the fish gentle and the onion rather pronounced.
For an herb I’ve chosen spearmint, but basil would work well too. The cumin and allspice are my additions, adding a touch of Renaissance flavor to a dish that probably once had it anyway, since many sweet savory Sicilian foods were laced with spices back then.
You’ll notice that I use Japanese rice vinegar, which is obviously not an Italian product. The reason is that I don’t like a very sharp vinegar taste here. The sharper the vinegar, the more it brings out the strong oils in the sardines, making them fishier. This slightly sweet vinegar blends seamlessly with all the other ingredients, resulting, at least to my palate, in a perfect balance of flavors.
Sarde in Agrodolce
Extra virgin olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground allspice
2 tablespoons Japanese rice vinegar
¼ cup dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper
⅓ cup raisins
⅓ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
½ cup all-purpose flour
6 sardines, scaled and gutted but with the heads and tails left on
A handful of mint leaves, lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and sauté until it’s starting to soften, about 6 minutes. Add the sugar, cumin, and allspice, and sauté a minute to release their flavors. Add the vinegar, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the wine and the raisins, season with a little salt and black pepper, and let simmer until the onion is quite soft and the sauce has a pleasant agrodolce flavor, about another 5 minutes (it shouldn’t be too sweet, so adjust it with a few extra drops of vinegar if necessary; also make sure some liquid, just a few tablespoons, remains throughout the cooking, and if you see the skillet getting dry at any time, just add a little warm water). Turn off the heat, add the pine nuts, and let the sauce sit in the skillet.
Dry the sardines with paper towels. Pour the flour out on a plate, and season it with salt and black pepper.
In a large skillet, heat about 5 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat.
Dredge the sardines in the flour. When the oil is hot, add the sardines to the skillet, and brown well on one side. Flip them over, lower the heat a bit, and brown them on the other side. Depending on their thickness, the cooking should take about 4 minutes.
Reheat the agrodolce sauce, adding the chopped mint.
Lift the fish from the skillet with a slotted spatula, and place it neatly on a serving dish. Pour the hot sauce on top. Garnish with the mint sprigs, and serve right away.