Up until a few years ago, I would never have shared a recipe for sardines. Perhaps the wags and jokers amongst you may be silently thinking to yourselves; "...Yeah, because sardines make great tucker for cats..." and if so, I have a little surprise for you. You are absolutely right on the money. Until recently, I simply hated sardines. Today it's a very different matter. I love their punchy, forthright, salt-tang sea flavour, and cook them up any chance I get. So what was it that changed over the last few years? Surprisingly, it wasn't me - it was the fishies themselves.

You see, back in the day, there were two types of sardines available in Australia. Sardines in the can and fresh, whole sardines that were unceremoniously piled atop one another at the local fish shop. The latter were generally labelled 'pilchards', sold for a dollar or two a kilo, and were invariably destined to finish up on the end of an amatuer angler's fishing line. These days, with the exception of one ridiculously pricey Spanish brand, I still give tinned sardines a wide berth, and finding cheap and nasty sardines at the fishmonger is a rare occurrence indeed. In fact, they now command ever-increasing prices that are fast closing in on the supposed 'premium fish'.

All of this will come as no surprise to anyone who has lived near the coasts of the Mediterranean. People there have long known that properly handled sardines are a genuine culinary delight - especially the Italians, who have done more than any other nationality to raise the esteem of this sensational in fish in Australia. And one Italian family in particular deserve applause - the Mendolias of Western Australia.

Those odiferous, odious pilchards of years ago that I refer to above were more or less the same fish that we clamour for today. The big difference was back then, they were simply a by-catch. Fish accidently pulled up in the net by fishermen chasing after more esteemed (and expensive) species. And they were treated as a by-catch - left whole, ungutted and piled into boxes at the back of the boat. This would be their fate all the way through to the fish shop window, where they would unappetizingly await the beach-casting anglers, or thrifty Europeans to come in and snap them up for a song. The problem here was not only freshness, but how the fish were handled while they were still fresh. Let me elaborate.

All fish need to be eaten fresh. This is an indisputable fact. However, with some fish it is even more crucial that freshness is treated as the most paramount factor. These are the oily fish - the mullets, herrings, anchovies and yes - sardines. All these fish have a few things in common. They are all delicious when absolutely fresh, and they all must be eaten, or prepared properly within a few hours of being pulled from the sea. Left whole and ungutted, they all deteriorate rapidly. They discolour, stink-up and become utterly unappetizing. However, the Italians, and in particular for my part of the world, the Mendolia family, know that freshly caught sardines are King Neptune's ambrosia when cleaned, gutted, filleted and chilled without delay. It can't be easy work, and I'm guessing for the first few years it wasn't even close to profitable for them, but thankfully they persisted in something they passionately believed in. It pleases me no end that these days they are considered minor celebrities in the Australian seafood and catering industries. In fact, it was their very sardines, caught in Western Australia, then air freighted across the continent that I used last week for this dish.

If you have trouble finding filleted and butterflied sardines required for this recipe, have a look around your local fish shop window for another tasty small fish, such as garfish or whiting. If they are whole, you can ask your fishmonger to fillet them for you.

Sardines are a richly flavoured fish, so care needs to be taken when frying them as in the following recipe. The batter needs to be light and crisp - which beer batters generally are, and if you carefully heed my instructions below to lightly coat the fish before frying, then you are well on the way to achieving a crisp, filigree coating. Helping to cut the richness even further is the salsa, which is a take-no-prisoners, Charles Bronsonesque affair. Each ingredient solo has loads of flavour - some more than others. In the end the fight comes down to two combatants. The straight-up saltiness of the capers versus the citrussy, salt-edged tang of the preserved lemons. Fortunately, without fail this dish is wolfed down before you discover the victor.




Ingredients

Serves 4 as a starter or light meal

Salsa

Method

Start with the batter. Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the salt. Gently pour the beer onto the flour while whisking. You definitely will not need all the beer - more likely close to half. The rest of the bottle is for you to enjoy while you finish the recipe. Pour and whisk until the batter resembles pouring cream in consistency. Don't whisk too much here, in fact it is far preferable that you only whisk a dozen or so times, and leave a few lumps in the batter. This will ensure you end up with a crisp coating for the fish. Cover the batter and place in the fridge for around half an hour while you make the salsa.

Cut the stem end off the tomato and discard. Place cut side down and cut straight down into halves. Turn the tomato 90 degrees and cut these halves into quarters. Take one quarter and place skin side down. Cut away the seeds and the pulpy flesh and discard. This should leave you with a flat tomato 'petal'. Slice this piece of tomato into 5 mm wide strips. Line these strips up together, turn them 90 degrees, then cut into 5 mm dice. Cut the rest of the tomato into similar sized pieces. Don't stress if the tomato dice aren't uniform - this isn't easy to do, and besides, rough-cut salsas have loads more character. As long as there are no huge pieces, it will all turn out fine. Place the tomato into a medium-sized mixing bowl along with all the remaining salsa ingredients. Stir well to combine and cover. Set aside at room temperature for at least half an hour - but no more than 6 hours. The chardonnay vinegar I suggest in the ingredients is a unique product from the Spanish company Forum. It is hard to find, expensive, and very damn fancy. The reason I put up with these drawbacks is the vinegar is just so damn good. It is lightly acidic and slightly chardonnay-grape sweet, so if you can't find the stuff, then don't simply substitute the whole amount with regular white wine vinegar. Instead, use 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of white wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar mixed together as a replacement.

Pour the oil into a wide, shallow saucepan - or a high-sided saute pan (ideally with a sturdy base) and set over medium heat. Bring the oil to 180° C (360° F). This isn't easy to gauge precisely without a special high temperature thermometer, but fortunately there is a simple trick to get you within 10 or so degrees. The oil will take around 7 or 8 minutes to get up to temperature (but this may vary depending on your stove). Firstly, be wary of smoking oil - this is definitely too hot. If this is the case, carefully remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool. Turn the heat down and start over. When you feel like the temperature may be right, take a spoon and dip it lightly into the batter. Shake off the excess and gently lower the spoon into the oil. The batter should gently start to bubble, and begin to set within 15 - 20 seconds. If the oil spits and splatters, it is too hot. If nothing much at all has happens after 20 seconds, wait a little longer for the oil to come up to temperature. Above all - remember that hot oil burns are no day in the sun. I've seen them happen and they are nothing less than horrific. Work slowly, and ask voyeuristic or hungry diners to clear out of the kitchen for a while. Especially the kids.

While you wait for the oil to heat up, get ready to coat the sardines. Put the 3 extra tablespoons of flour onto a small plate, and place the bowl of batter alongside - both as close as you can manage to the hot oil. Also have ready a large plate lined with absorbent kitchen towels. Dip 4 sardines lightly into the flour to coat, then shake away any excess. Place them directly into the batter. Stir the sardines lightly with one hand to coat each well with the batter. Pick up one sardine by the tail. Shake it a little over the bowl, then tap gently against the side to drip away any excess batter, then gently lower into the hot oil. Hold onto the tail, a few centimeters above the oil, for 7 or 8 seconds. This will let the outside of the batter set slightly before you slide the fish into the pan, and should ensure that it doesn't stick to the bottom. Repeat with the remaining 3 battered sardines. Using tongs, turn the fish over in the oil, and cook for about 90 seconds, or until the are crisp and golden all over. Gently lift each fish out and drain on the paper-lined plate. Set aside to keep warm while you cook the remaining sardines.

Cooking the fish in batches like this not only ensures that the oil will not cool down too much by adding all the fish at once, but also helps you to avoid crowding the pan and risking the fish sticking together as they cook. When all the sardines are cooked, set out 4 plates and place a pile of rocket on each. Arrange 3 sardines on each plate (I like to make a little cairn - piled high on top of one another), then drizzle a generous amount of salsa over the sardines, splashing a little around the sides as well, so the rocket can soak some up. Rush the plates out to your waiting guests, and serve up with a steely, crisp, unwooded white wine such as a young dry Riesling or semillon.




Sorry to say, the photos for this recipe are still a few days away.

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