Preserved sardines and squid (conservas)
I’m not sure if it’s a seasonal thing, but last week I ate five meals of tinned sardines. Ten years ago I would not have viewed this as decadent, but the quality of some of the seafood conservas coming out of Spain and Portugal in particular is staggering. Sardines, clams, mussels and oysters have progressed far beyond the tinned smoked mussels I recall coming out for the dinner parties of the ’80s.
The key to any good preserve is to capture the product in its prime. Be on the front foot and treat with care when the products are at their best, as opposed to it being a knee-jerk reaction trying to save items from perishing. Once a food product starts to break down some salt, vinegar and oil will only highlight the blemishes more.
Fresh sardines in particular have a very short shelf life. Once the gut starts to break down it affects the flavour of the flesh very quickly. I try to process them in this way within three to four days of them being caught. The first day would bring about the best results but that involves some very committed work with your local fishmonger.
The photographs show a method using a vacuum-sealed food-grade bag. This method has its benefits and drawbacks. The main drawback is the plastic waste. The main benefit is that it makes a simple one-step method as once the product is cooked it can be stored straight away in the same vessel. Using preserving jars is also very effective and provides the flexibility to remove one sardine at a time without having to repackage. You will definitely need proper preserving jars with a rubber seal to try these preserves, cooking them either in an oven with a steam function or a bamboo stovetop steamer, or even in a pressure cooker.
The beauty of the products coming out of Spain and Portugal is the value placed on these items. Canned foods are held at a premium, not seen as an afterthought or secondary product. We too have beautiful products that can be viewed more deeply than simply grilling and squeezing lemon over, as delicious as that is. To process them ourselves and keep for future use in salads or on toast brings a huge addition to our cooking portfolio.
- 1kg very fresh whole sardines
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 brown onion, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic
- 400ml grapeseed oil
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 200g tomato paste
- 20ml sherry vinegar
- zest of 1 lemon
- Scale, remove the head and the tail then gut the sardines. Wash in iced water to remove any bloodline and residual. Pat the sardines dry with paper towel then sprinkle with the salt.
- Slice the onion and the garlic and cook in the oil over a medium heat until they start to go light brown. Add the peppercorns and then the tomato paste. Cook for a further two minutes then add the vinegar and lemon.
- Let the mix cool then blend in a food processor.
- Brush the salt off the sardines and pack them into your preserving jar. Pour the marinade over and seal the container.
- Cook in the oven at full steam (110 degrees) or in a stovetop steamer for 30 minutes, then rapid cool in the fridge. Store refrigerated for up to 10 days.
- 1kg very fresh squid
- 1 brown onion, finely sliced
- 2 cloves garlic
- 5g fresh ginger (minced)
- 300ml grapeseed oil
- 3 tablespoons Szechuan chilli flakes
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds
- Remove the head and guts in one piece from the hood of the squid. Cut the tentacles from the head and discard the guts.
- Remove the quill that runs as the spine of the hood then peel the skin from the outer of the hood. Pat the hood and the tentacles clean with paper towel.
- Slice the onion and garlic and combine with the oil, adding ginger at the same time. Cook over a medium heat until the oil reaches 120 degrees.
- Once the oil has reached temperature, add the chilli and sesame seeds and remove from the heat.
- Place the mixture into a mortar and pestle and grind until the chunky parts are mostly integrated.
- Place the squid hoods and tentacles into your preserving jar then pour the marinade over.
- Seal the preserving jar and cook at full steam (110 degrees), or in a stovetop steamer at a rolling boil, for 20 minutes then rapid cool in the fridge. Store refrigerated for up to 10 days.
- grilled bread
- shredded parsley
- raw diced onion
Chargrill a piece of sourdough then smash the sardines or squid onto the grilled bread. Top with the shredded parsley and diced onion then finish with a bit of the cooking juice. Serve with lemon if desired.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "Prime time".
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