Credit: Photography: Earl Carter

Pickled sardines on toast

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co, Cumulus Inc, Marion, Gimlet and Supernormal. He is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Preserved fish – tinned, pickled, salted or smoked – hold a special appeal to me. I am not exactly sure why. I love the umami flavour of anchovies when used in a pasta sauce with chilli and garlic. And I love smoked salmon in a bagel for a special-occasion breakfast. But pickled fish in winter trumps them all. Perhaps because it is so foreign to me – I never ate pickled fish growing up. Ever.

This recipe is considered a quick pickle, leaving the initial flavour of the fish intact before the vinegar has taken over. Mackerel is a great substitute for sardines but requires a little more time in the pickling liquid. The recipe has evolved over the years and is a variation of English chef Fergus Henderson’s punchy recipe for pickled herrings.

Fresh sardines are usually available in the market. There are a number of fishmongers selling fillets of sardines, which speeds up the preparation time.

When I crave sardines, and fresh are not available, I like to fix sardines on toast as a snack. I take half an onion and a clove of garlic and cook them in plenty of olive oil. I then add a can or two of tinned sardines and a skinned and diced tomato. I cook this slowly to a paste before seasoning it with salt and plenty of black pepper. Set aside to cool to room temperature before adding plenty of chopped parsley. This paste spread on to buttered sourdough toast is perfect for a breakfast or anytime snack.

Tinned fish products are taken seriously in many parts of the world but none more so than in Spain, where almost all types of seafood are tinned with various flavours and oil of varying quality.

Fascinatingly, there is also a small but dedicated group of connoisseurs around the world sourcing backdated tins of sardines. The longer the tin has been aged, the more desirable and “improved” the texture and flavour of the fish. I have yet to try this, but it’s now on my food bucket list. I have recently cellared a case of sardines and will be happy to report back in 10 years.

1 . Pickled sardines on toast

Serves 6

Pickled sardines

– 150ml water

– 100g sugar

– 225ml white wine vinegar

– 2 bay leaves

– 1cm piece horseradish, sliced

– 1 tsp black peppercorns

– 2 tsp salt

– 2 pickling onions

– 6 fresh sardines, filleted and trimmed

– baking paper

To finish

– 1 small baguette

– 6 tbsp crème fraîche

– 6-8 caper berries, sliced

– fresh horseradish

– 12 sprigs dill

To make your pickling liquid, bring the water to the boil and pour it onto the sugar in a wide shallow dish, stirring to dissolve. Add the white wine vinegar, bay leaves, sliced horseradish, peppercorns and salt.

Peel the onions, slice them into thin rings and put them into the pickling liquid.

Season the skin side of the sardines with a little salt.

Cut a couple of squares of baking paper, each big enough to sit easily in your frying pan.

Wipe a little olive oil over each piece of paper and put three to six sardines, skin side down, on top.

Heat the frying pan and place one piece of paper with the sardines directly into the pan. Gently fry the fillets, skin side down, for about one minute, until barely cooked through. Slide the sardines into the pickling liquid and cook the remaining ones the same way. Leave the sardines to pickle for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut 12 thin slices of baguette just a little longer than the sardine fillets. Drizzle them with olive oil and bake in the oven until they are crisp on the outside.

Spread each piece of toast with some crème fraîche and top with a sardine and a few rings of pickled onion. Finish with some slices of caper berry, freshly grated horseradish and a sprig of dill. Eat immediately.

Wine pairing:

2014 Costadila Bianco frizzante, Veneto, Italy ($30)

– Campbell Burton, sommelier, Builders Arms Hotel

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Pickle your fancy".

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