No bones to pick with taste of sardines

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EVERYONE who enjoys fish will know what it's like to have a pleasant mouthful disturbed by the jarring discovery of a bone. Your reaction to this interruption will place you in one of two camps. You could extract the errant thing, place it on the side of your plate and continue to eat, or alternatively you might spit the whole mouthful into your napkin, push your plate away and eye the meal with suspicion and resentment.

Some people just can't abide the possibility of bones in their fish and whilst they may be persuaded to cautiously approach a nicely trimmed fillet of salmon or halibut, certain species will remain well and truly off their menu thanks to bony reputations. This is a shame as it means they will miss out on some fishy treats, none more so than fresh sardines which arrive with the spring and should be starting to appear in your local fishmonger's window this month.

Traditionally in this country sardines are regarded as a poor man's fish (possibly due to the bone factor), but they have always been a huge favourite in the Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain, thanks to their fantastic flavour and the pungent aroma they produce when cooking.

When buying sardines you shouldn't choose ones that are too small as they are usually quite soft-skinned and can tend to disintegrate quite easily. Though many restaurants prefer to grill and present them whole, bones and all, if you are prepared to approach the messy business of fish filleting you will be happy to discover that the sardine is actually one of the easier fish to deal with.

If your fish has already been gutted, cut off the head and tail then place it on a board spine up and gently press down until the cavity opens up. Flatten it out then tap your knife along the spine. Flip the fish over and you should be able to lift out the spine and the ribcage in one go, leaving the fillets still attached to each other. Any remaining small bones that don't disintegrate during the cooking process won't do you any harm.

Assuming the filleting goes according to plan, sardines are really quick to prepare and cook so they make an ideal starter, light main or tapas-style snack. Typical accompaniments would be toast spread with a garlicky tapenade or spiced couscous with lime flavoured crme fraiche. If you're looking for something slightly more adventurous they can be easily stuffed once filleted. Try whizzing up a paste of sunblushed tomato, basil, parmesan and garlic which can be spread inside the fish before grilling.

The best way to enjoy sardines would have to be outdoors on a warm afternoon with some crusty bread, olive oil and a glass of white wine. Put on the Gypsy Kings and you could almost imagine that you're in the Costa Brava.

Andy McGregor is chef/proprietor at Blonde Restaurant, 75 St Leonard's Street, 0131- 668 2917

Grilled sardines with spiced couscous and lime crme fraiche, serves 4


12 fresh sardines, either whole (gutted) or filleted

250g cous cous

200ml tomato juice

200ml vegetable stock

1 tbsp jalapenos, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

200ml crme fraiche

Juice from 2 limes

Salt and ground black pepper

Olive oil


Pour the tomato juice and stock into a pot and bring to the boil, adding the garlic and jalapenos. Take off the heat and stir in the cous cous. Leave to stand for 5-10 mins, stirring occasionally. Add some olive oil if too dry, and season if necessary.

Mix the crme fraiche with the lime juice and season.

Brush the sardines with olive oil, season lightly and grill for 3-4 mins on each side then serve.

Stuffed and baked sardines on toasted ciabatta with fresh rocket, serves 4


12 fresh sardines, spines removed

100g fresh parmesan, grated

30g fresh basil

200g sunblushed tomatoes, drained

2 cloves garlic, crushed


Salt and ground black pepper

Olive oil

4 slices ciabatta

200g fresh rocket, washed

1 lemon, quartered, for garnish


Pre-heat the oven to 220C.

Place the sunblushed tomato, parmesan, garlic and basil and seasoning in a food processor and blend into a paste, adding breadcrumbs if the mix is too moist.

Spread the mix inside the fish cavities. Brush the fish with olive oil, season lightly and bake for 10 mins until browned.

Brush the ciabatta with olive oil and toast under the grill until lightly browned.

Place the rocket on the ciabatta and the sardines on the rocket, serve with the quartered lemon.