Fish is one of the most polarizing foods in our diet. Many people have awful memories of growing up in a home where fish night was nightmarish. Prior to the explosion of sushi restaurants in the U.S., many home cooks were under the impression that fish are full of bacteria and harmful viruses and therefore must be cooked beyond recognition. In my opinion, this mentality is the main reason why so many Americans have awful memories of fish at home as a kid. When poor quality fish, often times frozen, is left in the broiler for extended periods of time, the end result is a stinky piece of sawdust. The truth is that fresh fish, cooked properly, is sublime. Everyone should be able to enjoy delectable marine delicacies at home with loved ones.
Often times, the “fishiness” of a fish is used to gauge whether or not it is desirable. Tilapia has become a popular fish because it is low on the “fishiness” scale. However, tilapia is a garbage fish. It is typically farm raised in small ponds where the fish are so cramped that the majority of their diet consists of fish feces and mud. The end result is a fish that has a slightly muddy background flavor and mushy texture. I understand that tilapia is not “fishy,” but this fish is not good quality. The fear of “fishiness” actually prevents people from approaching more aromatic and high quality fish, such as sardines. Many people get a gag reflex just from seeing the word sardine, but the fact is a properly prepared sardine is quiet delicious. Yes, sardines do have a bold aroma. They also have beautifully firm flesh that flakes and delicate skin that melts on the palette. While the aroma is bold, it does not signify that the fish has gone bad. The full bodied aroma of sardines should smell of a beach bonfire, a combination of smoke and briny ocean air. It is a very savory aroma that has gained regal reputation throughout the Mediterranean. I know it is tempting to call sardines “fishy,” but fresh sardines prepared with respect and technique do not smell or taste “fishy,” they taste like sardines.
This week’s entry from Encyclopedia of Jewish Food is Ahilado “a tomato sauce with onions, parsley, and olive oil in which fish is cooked” (EJF pg 6). There is no recipe listed in the book for this entry, only suggestions as to what was classically found in Ahilado. According to the book, this sauce was used as a way to keep fish moist during the cooking process. Also mentioned is that this sauce was great for standing up to strong flavored fish. Carp, mackerel and tuna are recommended pairings with this sauce. I decided to use sardines because they were the freshest aromatic fish at the market. Rather than cooking the fish in the sauce as the entry in EJF suggests, I decided to slow poach the fillets in olive oil. Slow poaching in oil is a great way to prevent overcooking delicate ingredients and results in an incredibly moist and tender piece of fish. Included in the entry is that sometimes fennel was added to the sauce. I chose to add fennel to my recipe because the anise flavor of fennel pairs nicely with sardines. I also decided to puree the sauce to allow for a more elegant plate presentation. In my recipe, the same oil used to cook the fish is used to cook the vegetables for the pureed sauce. By doing this, the smoky briny flavor of the fish is carried throughout the entire dish.
It is time to put an end to the fear of “fishy” fish. Rather than masking the bold flavor of the sardines, I chose to embrace their aroma and use it as a seasoning agent for the sauce. The finished sauce is smoky and bright from the sardine-scented oil, and also very rich as much of the oil is emulsified in the sauce during the pureeing. The final dish consists of sardine fillets that are tender and aromatized with parsley, garlic and olive oil. I recommend serving this dish as an appetizer or tapa paired with a Spanish white wine or dry sherry. The key to truly enjoying this recreated Turkish Jewish classic is by casting away your fear of “fishiness” and celebrating the delicious gastronomical qualities of bold flavored fish.
Olive Oil Poached Sardine with Ahilado
6ea sardines, fresh/whole
3ea roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
6ea garlic cloves, peeled, whole
2ea onion, diced
1ea fennel bulb, diced
1ea juice of a lemon
½ bunch Italian parsley
as needed olive oil
to taste kosher salt
to taste black pepper
Procedure to Clean Sardines:
1. Cut off the head of the sardine by cutting behind the gills.
2. Run your knife down the belly of the fish, careful not to cut into the meat.
3. Using your thumb or forefinger, run your finger down the belly in order to clean out the innards.
4. Gently butterfly the fish with your fingers to expose both fillets.
5. With your finger follow the spine of the fish to the tail. Gently bend the tail backward in order to break the spine bone at the tail. A small piece of the bone should pop through the fillet. Grab this piece of bone, and pull towards the front of the fish. The spine and bones should come out in one clean piece.
6. Rinse the fillets under cold running water to remove any remaining innards. Pat dry and keep in a cold place.
1. In a small sauce pot add about 1 inch of olive oil.
2. Place the sardine fillets, garlic and parsley stems in the cold oil in the sauce pot.
3. Bring the oil to a simmer. As soon as the flesh of the fish turns opaque, remove the sardines, garlic and parsley stems from the oil and let drain on a paper towel.
4. While the oil is still hot, lightly fry individual leaves from the bunch of parsley. Fry enough leaves to have at least two per portion. Remove the leaves when they are bright green and crispy and let drain on a paper towel.
5. In the same oil that was used for the fish, add the tomatoes, onions and fennel. Allow this mixture to simmer for at least 25 minutes until the vegetables are very soft.
6. When soft, puree the vegetable mixture with an emersion blender, traditional blender or food processor. Careful, the mixture will be hot. Season the puree with salt, cracked black pepper and lemon juice to taste.
7. For plating, place a small amount of the pureed sauce on the plate. Stack two fillets on the sauce along with fried parsley leaves and garlic for garnish.