Sometimes you come across a recipe or the story of a dish that strikes a chord. It could be something you tear out of a magazine or a screengrab on your phone that sets off a journey which concludes only when that dish is on your table.
For us, Rosie Sykes’ The Sunday Night Book has been the starting point for many such journeys. It’s a little book with lots of very tasty dishes — with intriguing names such as mortar and pestle eggs and cornbread Pissaladière. Low on effort, high on flavour and full of soul — just our kind of food.
In one recipe, Rosie writes about a kitchen porter she worked with who, at the end of dinner service, would put a tray of fresh sardines in sauce in the oven on a low heat overnight. The next morning, the whole brigade would have them on toast for breakfast. Rosie’s version using tinned sardines is very good but we’ve gone on a journey with it too.
In our south London neighbourhood, known as Little Lisbon, fresh sardines are easy to come by. The fishmonger removes the heads but we don’t worry about the bones as they add so much flavour and are softened by the long cooking time. We also like to add a north African slant with cumin, caraway, fresh coriander and a bite of cayenne.
The sardines look like the ones you get in a tin but taste infinitely better. The spice, tomatoes and fish infuse into something deeply complex and so alive with flavour that we’re happy to have them for any meal, any day of the week.
Rosie is now one of our most cherished friends. We’ve yet to share a Sunday night meal with her, but we know what we’re going to serve when we do.
Slow-cooked sardines in spicy tomato sauce
Serves four as a starter or light meal
Heat the oven to 150C.
Place a pan on a low heat, add the oil and onions and cook gently for six to eight minutes, stirring every so often until the onions are soft and sweet but not brown, then add the spices and bay leaves. Fry for another two minutes until very fragrant and take off the heat.
Pat the sardines dry and place them snugly head to tail so that they fit tightly in an oven tray. Sprinkle over the salt followed by the onion-spice mix and lemon peel strips, pour in the tomato juice and scatter the coriander on top. Place a sheet of greaseproof paper on the fish and seal with foil. Place in the oven for two hours.
You can serve the dish immediately or let it cool and serve it from the fridge. The sardines will taste better after a day, better still after two. They will keep for longer than that but the flavour will be dulled.
Serve with either very fresh or well-toasted slices of bread. Smash the sardines on the bread with a fork and add a sprinkle of salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil.
A kindly houseguest left us a very special bottle of Douro Superior, and we thought Portuguese wine would work well with sardines. We were right. It is worth learning about this special wine and about the importers, Xisto Wines, and not only for its eco credentials. Good things come in sailboats.
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