Christiana Kaluscha unpacks the pilchards. She believes everyone should be eating the humble sardine, it’s cheap and bursting with healthy omega-3 fats. In season they are plentiful in the Pacific and when not available from the fishmonger the canned variety are almost as good.

Pacific, wild-caught sardines are one of the healthiest foods we can consume, according to health and environmental experts. These nutritional powerhouses are one of the best sources of omega-3 fats; with a whopping 1,950 mg/per 100 g (that’s more per serving than salmon, tuna or just about any other food) and they’re packed with vitamin D.

Sardines, or pilchards, are various small, oily fish within the herring family. The term sardine is said to come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, around which sardines were once abundant.
South Pacific sardines are smaller than there Atlantic brothers and in general less than 15 cm long. Sardines travel in enormous schools of up to 10 million fish, in the open ocean. They feed on plankton and reproduce rapidly. They 
are the second most popular canned fish and are available fresh January-August.

(H) Fresh is best but canned OK
They are best fresh, but if not available, the canned ones are great as well for some morish dishes.

Here are a few of my favourite recipes to stoke your sardine love and stimulate your tastebuds.

There are plenty of fresh ones around our waters when in season. I loved to accompany some of my friends to catch them in a throw net in Tukutuku Bay on the west coast of Efaté. Freshly caught, we rubbed them with sand to get the scales off, rinsed them in the seawater and then grilled them on a wood fire. What a feast, sprinkled with some fresh lime juice or my Salmoriglio sauce – it doesn’t get any better!

If you don’t have the fishing opportunity, check the fishmonger for fresh sardines.

Grilled Fresh Sardines: A simple pleasure

For me, grilled sardines bring up the best memories of sharing food with friends in Portugal, Morocco, the Med and Vanuatu. After cleaning and preparing the sardines together we would wait for a wood fire to be ready and grill them fresh from the sea. Once cooked we were happily munching sardine after sardine. They are the freshest, tastiest, crunchiest little fish, simply dressed with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, grilled and served with a bowl of lemons and salsa alongside. Prepared this way they are plump and juicy, tasting simply of the sea. We would linger for hours over our carafes of wine, happily munching our plates of sardines and chatting away until the sun left long shadows on the horizon. Life is beautiful!

Grilled Sardines with Salmoriglio Sauce

First stock up on plenty of fresh sardines.

Ingredients for sauce

• ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
• Juice of 2 lemons
• 4 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
• 1 Tsp oregano, dried
• 2 Tbs fresh parsley, finely chopped
• 2 Tbsp. fresh basil
• Fresh chilli to taste
• Sea salt and finely ground black pepper to taste
• Extra lemons, sliced thinly

Method

• In a small bowl, combine all the sauce ingredients whisk together until they are incorporated.
• Prepare a medium hot grill, or better a wood fire. Season the sardines with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. When grill is hot or the braise ready, grill until fish are cooked through and nicely charred, only about 2-3 minutes per side.
• Remove from grill and place on a platter. Drizzle the sauce over the sardines. Serve any extra sauce on the side along with extra lemons. Serve warm with a bowl of green salad and some fresh bread.

Marinated Sardines

One of my other favourites is to filet the fish (which is a bit of a job), and then marinate them in vinegar, garlic, parsley, chilli and olive oil. Eaten with a fresh baguette and accompanied by a glass of red wine, this is finger-licking good! Covered with olive oil, they will keep up to 2 weeks in the fridge, the only problem is that they are too delicious and vanish quickly.

Ingredients

• 500 g fresh sardines, scaled, heads off and filleted (butterflied)
• Clean sea water or if not available, fresh water with sea salt
• 1 cup white wine or lemon vinegar,
• 1 cup white vinegar
• 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 10 cloves garlic, crushed
• Fresh chilli to taste, cut into small pieces
• 1 cup parsley, finely cut
• ½ cup fresh basil or dill
• Freshly ground pepper
• Sea salt

Method

• Place filleted sardines in a bowl and cover with sea water. Let sit for about 1 hour
• Discard sea water, place sardines into a porcelain or glass dish (not metal or plastic) and cover with half white wine and half white vinegar and refrigerate over night (do not use lime or lemon as this will cook 
the fish)
• Discard the vinegar mix and place sardines in layers in a porcelain dish with a lid (works perfectly with a terrine dish). After each layer of sardines, add some garlic, chilli, parsley, basil, pepper and a little sea salt, sprinkle with olive oil and continue with the second layer. Repeat for as many layers as you can, depending on the size of your dish. When you’ve finished, cover with olive oil and return to fridge for at least 24 hours.
Enjoy with a fresh & crunchy baguette and a green salad as a meal or on a bruschetta as an appetizer with a glass of red wine.

Pasta Con Sarde (Pasta with Sardines) (serves 6)

If you still haven’t fallen in love with sardines, I am sure you will enjoy this pasta recipe with its distinctive fragrance and sweet and sour flavours, this is a Sicilian classic!

Ingredients

• 250 g fresh sardines, filleted
• 6 anchovy fillets
• 250 g fennel, shaved
• 2 onions, chopped
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• 4 cloves garlic, cut into fine slices
• 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted (see tip) optional
• A generous pinch of saffron strands (not powdered)
• A generous splash of dry white wine
• Freshly ground pepper
• Sea salt
• 75 g sultanas or raisins, soaked in warm water
• 50 g pine nuts, toasted
• 400g spaghetti or buccatini

Method

• Soften the onions in oil in a large frying pan,
• Add the sardines to soften and anchovies to melt,
• Add half the fennel, the saffron and the wine, season generously with salt and pepper, cover and cook very gently for 5 minutes. Add the sultanas and simmer for further 5 minutes.
• Meanwhile, fill a large pot with cold water, add the remaining fennel and bring to a boil.
• Add the pasta, cook until al dente, strain, and then tip into the sauce. Dry roast the pine kernels and add 
to the sauce, mix gently and serve.
• Toast the breadcrumbs in olive oil and sprinkle on top. It’s delicious.

Tip: To make fresh breadcrumbs, trim crusts from whole-wheat bread. Tear bread into pieces and process in a food processor until coarse crumbs form.

Crostini with Sardine Butter and Rocket

If you cannot get hold of fresh sardines, this is an easy appetizer prepared with canned sardines.

Ingredients

• 2 cans of sardines, bones and scales removed
• 75 g of soft butter
• Juice of ½ lime
• ½ red onion, cut into fine dices
• 1 fresh chilli, minced (optional)
• ¼ cup of small capers
• Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste
• 1 cup parsley, finely cut
• 1 bunch of fresh rocket
• 1 baguette cut into slices and grilled
• Cornichons (optional)

Method

• Place sardine fillets in a bowl and mash with a fork
• Add all other ingredients and mix
• Add salt, pepper, chilli and lime to taste
• Spread mix on toasted baguette slices, decorate with cornichons and serve with fresh rocket leaves