A classic Venetian dish, ‘in-saor,’ or sousing with vinegar, dates from a time prior to modern methods of refrigeration, when it was necessary to find a way to preserve the daily fishing catch. To give the sardines time to marinate in the vinegar, and the polenta a chance to set, this dish needs to be started at least 24 hours in advance. After this time, it will keep well for a few days, even up to a week, and so can be served up any time with a slice of freshly grilled polenta.
(Serves 4 as a starter – up to 16 as single bite-sized cicchetto)
For the sarde:
- 16 medium-sized fresh sardines – scaled & gutted, head & backbone removed, butterflied.
- 2 large white onions – finely sliced
- 2 bay leaves
- Handful of pine nuts
- Handful of raisins
- Small amount of white wine
- 175mls white wine vinegar (or white balsamic vinegar)
- 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds – crushed
- 2 cloves – ground
- 1 teaspoon pink peppercorns - crushed
- Plain flour for dusting
- Light olive oil for frying
- Salt & black pepper to season
For the polenta:
- 240g coarse grain polenta
- 1.5 litres vegetable stock
- Salt and pepper to season
- Some olive oil
I’d strongly recommend trying to convince your friendly local fishmonger to help you clean and prepare the sardines as otherwise the first step in this recipe is a bit involved. In the event, however, that your persuasive powers fail, what you’ll need is, one pair of long kitchen gloves, an apron, some kitchen scissors, maybe even a shower cap (flying fish scales do have a tendency to get everywhere), and a short-ish, sharp knife.
Holding a sardine by the tail, remove the scales by running the knife at a perpendicular angle along the body of the fish, towards the head. Once all the scales are removed, snip off the head of the fish using kitchen scissors, and make an incision along the length of its undercarriage to the tail. Remove the innards, and then turn the sardine over and open out, cut side down, onto a cutting board. Gently apply pressure along the backbone of the fish using your thumb. This will loosen the spine and make it easier to remove. Flip the fish back over and, placing the tip of the small knife under the backbone of the fish, pull this forward from tail to head to remove. Rinse the butterflied fillets briefly underwater, and remove to a large plate.
Once you have a lovely pile of butterflied sardines, dust each of these lightly with some plain flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper.
In a large frying pan, heat approximately 1.5cm deep of light olive oil over medium heat ready to shallow-fry the fillets. Fry until lightly golden on both sides, then remove onto a plate lined with paper towel to drain.
Now, heat a small dry frying pan over low heat. Add the pine nuts and lightly toast until golden, taking care that these don’t burn. To prepare the raisins, cover these with a little white wine in a small bowl and allow to soak while you prepare the other ingredients.
Sautee the finely sliced onion in some light olive oil over a medium-low heat, allowing to soften slowly. Stir frequently over the next 20-30 minutes to ensure that the onion does not begin to stick or burn. Once the onion is looking transparent and lightly carmelised, add the crushed coriander, ground cloves, and crushed pink peppercorns, followed by the vinegar. Stir, and allow to cook together for a further 3 minutes before removing from the heat.
To assemble, place a layer of sardines along the bottom of a deep dish and top with a layer of onion mixture, then a sprinkle of pine nuts and raisins. Continue to layer, covering the sardines with the onions, pine nuts and raisins until the sardines are all used up. Finish up with a layer of onions on top, then pour over any additional vinegary sauce that may be left over in the onion pan. Cover with cling film and place in the refrigerator to marinate for 24-48 hours. (I like to top the dish with one of the bay leaves before covering it, but this is just a conceit that makes it pretty to look at while it rests in the fridge!).
To make the polenta, bring 1.5 litres of vegetable stock to a boil in a large pot.
Slowly pour in the polenta, beating vigorously with a wooden spoon as you do so to prevent lumps from forming. Once all the polenta has been poured in and begun to thicken, turn the heat down to a slow simmer, and cover. Continue to stir occasionally as the polenta cooks. Like porridge, polenta does have a tendency to sputter volcanically, so take care when lifting the lid from the pot. If the sputters are particularly violent, this is an indication that the heat is too high, so adjust this downwards.
The cooking time for polenta will vary depending on the coarseness of the particular polenta you are using. Follow instructions on the packet if unsure. Some polenta will be ready after 30 minutes, coarser polenta will need up to 90 minutes. You’ll know the polenta is ready when it has stiffened to the point where you could almost stand a wooden spoon up in it.
Do a quick seasoning test during cooking and add salt and pepper if necessary (usually a fair bit of seasoning is needed to properly flavour polenta, but the amount you need will vary depending on the seasoning of the cooking stock).
Prepare a shallow rectangular baking dish to receive the polenta by lining with greaseproof paper and brushing on a light coat of olive oil. Pour the polenta quickly into the dish, while it is still hot and fluid, to a depth of approximately 1cm. Shake gently to level, cover with cling film, and place in the refrigerator to set until needed.
Turn the polenta out of the tray once set and remove the greaseproof paper. Cut, using an oiled knife, into small squares, or rectangles approximately 5cm x 5cm (or slightly larger if serving as a starter). Now brush the squares with a light coating of olive oil before grilling over very high heat in a griddle pan.
For the polenta to form a nice crust, you must press it gently against the bars of the griddle with a spatula, and leave it to grill a good 5-6 minutes before turning over to cook the other side – don’t be tempted to turn it over prematurely, but have a quick peek under one corner to check progress if you must!
Take the sardines out of the fridge at least a few hours prior to serving so as to bring them back up to room temperature. To assemble the dish, arrange a slice of the grilled polenta on a plate and top with one or two of the sardine fillets. Make sure to pile a generous helping of the onions on top, along with a few pine-nuts and raisins as well.