During the Lenten season, Sicilian dining traditions arise here and there around New Orleans. They celebrate St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. People with Italian heritage bring forth many dishes seen only at this time of year. Among them are two that involve species of fish only seen this time of year.
The best of all the St. Joseph dishes is pasta cu li sarde. It’s made with sardines, but not the canned kind you’re thinking about. These are fresh fish four to six inches long, grilled, broiled or baked whole. The bones are so small that they present little danger. Most Italian people eat them head and all. Two or three fish makes a delightful lunch. The flavors are assertive without being oily. Unfortunately, not many restaurants serve these wonderful little fish, mainly because they’re hard to find in the markets. Chefs who are really into the sardines order them well in advance. And it’s not unusual for those chefs to feature the sardines before and after St. Joseph’s day.
Throughout Europe you will find salted, dried codfish, cooked by the best chefs on the continents, from Spain to Scandinavia. It’s an ancient way to preserve fish long-term. To cook them, you lock them into a vise, hacksaw off strips of the fish, soak it for hours in warm water, then hope people will be so accustomed to this hard fish that they don’t question its goodness. Some cooks make it into codfish cakes or balls, with equal dreariness. Given the freshness imperative of modern chefs, this is curious. Given that cod is in short supply now, it’s a good out for those who have met bacala the Italian name for the dish.
Broiled Fresh Sardines
Here is the Italian recipe for preparing fresh sardines. These are not the little fish in cans, but fresh, eight-inch long Mediterranean or Pacific sardines, four to six to the pound whole.Some people love them (I do), some people find them too strong in flavor. The problem is finding the fish themselves. Not even chefs can be assured of getting them regularly. They’re most popular around St. Joseph’s Day, but I order them whenever they turn up.
- 8-12 fresh fresh sardines, gutted
- 2 lemons
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 sprig fresh oregano
- 1/4 cup freshly-grated bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
1. On a cutting board, hold the fish by the tail and scrape off the scales (there will not be many) with a knife. Wash the fish with cold water. If you like, cut off the heads, but you may leave them on.
2. Juice half of one of the lemons. Cut the remaining lemons in slices about a quarter-inch thick.
3. Cover the bottom of a glass baking dish (about 8 by 12 inches) with olive oil. Lay down the lemon slices on the bottom, then the thyme sprigs. Place the sardines in one layer on top of the lemons. Drizzle the sardines with the lemon juice. Salt and pepper (go heavy on the black pepper). Sprinkle on the wine and the rest of the olive oil.
4. Chop the oregano and parsley, and mix with the bread crumbs. Sprinkle the bread crumbs atop the sardines.
5. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for about six minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the bread crumbs are toasted and the juices are bubbling. Serve immediately.