Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
I'd just bought a kilo (about 2 1/4 pounds) of sardines and I'd hoped that madame, the fishmonger, would filet them for me. And she would have -- if I'd only wait 30 minutes, please. Because it was a warm, sunny, perfect Paris day, and because I'd no more shopping to do to fill in the time, I said I'd filet them myself. Madame gave me a quizzical look -- read doubtful -- and, because she was too polite to say, "I bet you've never done this before and don't know what you're in for," she said, "You know, you've got a lot of sardines and it will take you a while to filet them."
"Well," I said, "I really do have to get back home, so I'll take them as is. But," I asked, "would you just show me how to do it?"
Madame pulled out a well-worn fileting knife -- very thin at the top and not so wide at the bottom -- laid the fish out parallel to her with the head to the left, made a diagonal slash below the gills, then pressing the flat of the knife against the backbone and rib bones (they're probably not called that, but the names make sense to me), she cut cleanly to the tail and lifted the filet away from the fish. She flipped the fish over, still keeping the head to the left, and repeated the motion. The skeleton that was left wasn't as neatly picked clean as the one Picasso made famous, but the remains looked clean and symetrical and she'd done it in 30 seconds.
Returning chez moi, I cleared the decks, sharpened a paring knife and put on some music. I had 12 sardines and figured that had madame cleaned them, it would only have taken her 6 minutes. I probably could have waited, but I'm glad I didn't because it only took me half an hour, I did a pretty decent job of it, and I learned something. Not bad for a Sunday morning.
I also got to turn the filets into escabeche, a dish in which the sardines are first quickly sauteed and only partially cooked, and then drowned in hot aromatic oil and vinegar, a mixture that completes the cooking and pickles them, too.
The downside of escabeche is the wait -- once the dish is assembled, it needs at least 6 hours in the fridge to cure. Had I remembered that I'd have to hang for so long before tasting the my work, I might have found the patience to wait 6 minutes for the fish to be fileted. Of course, what I would have made up in time, I'd have to forfait in bragging rights.
Here's a recipe for SARDINE ESCABECHE from The Cafe Boulud Cookbook (Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan, Scribner's)
Makes 6 servings
1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
Flour for dredging
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 1/4 pounds sardine filets, skin on (from about 2 1/2 pounds whole sardines)
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs cilantro
2 sprigs basil
1 tomato, peeled, trimmed and thinly sliced crosswise
6 pearl onions, peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced crosswise
3 cloves garlic, peeled, split, germ removed, and thinly sliced
2 small carrots, peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced
18 fennel seeds, toasted
18 coriander seeds, toasted
2 bay leaves
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
Juice of 2 lemons
Lemon wedges for serving
Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large nonstick saute pan or skillet and warm it over medium heat. Spread some flour out on a plate, season it with salt and pepper, and dredge only the skin sides of the sardines in the flour, shaking off the excess. Slip the fish into the pan, flour side down, and fry on the flour side for 1 1/2 minutes - the fish will be undercooked, but it will finish cooking in the marinade. Lift the fish out of the pan and pat off the excess oil; discard the frying oil, wipe out the pan and set it aside.
Arrange the sardine filets attractively in an overlapping pattern on a rimmed serving platter or in an oval gratin pan that holds them snugly. Strew the thyme, coriander, basil and diced tomato over the fish and set the platter aside for the moment.
Return the pan to medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the onions, garlic, carrots, celery, fennel and coriander seeds, and bay leaves to cook, stirring, until the vegetables are almost cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the remaining 1 cup olive oil and all the other remaining ingredients, except the lemon juice and wedges, to the pan, bring to the simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Pull the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.
Pour the hot sauce over the fish. Cover the platter with plastic wrap and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Chill the escabeche for at least 6 hours, or overnight, before serving.
To serve: Serve the escabeche with lemon wedges on the side. If you'd like, you can drain off some of the marinating liquid, emulsify it in the blender, and use it as the dressing for an accompanying green salad.