This is the most extraordinary summer I can remember. The day on which monsoon-style rains smashed my tomato plants to rags was followed by one so hot and dry I could barely find the energy to toss a salad. This is the future I guess, when those of us who like to cook not only seasonally but also for the weather will be kept on their toes. (Last week we went from eating tomato salad in the garden to wanting pie and mashed potatoes by the fire in the space of 24 hours.) I am getting used to planning no further ahead than my next meal. A certain spontaneity is required if we are to cook in tune with this crazy, unpredictable weather.
There was a tray of sardines at the fishmonger’s the other day – silver, black and gold with eyes as bright as jewels. An all too rare sighting of a seasonal fish I first met as a kid, tucked up in golden tins of tomato sauce that you opened with a little metal key. Then we ate them on toast for tea.
I have, a few summers ago, cooked sardines on an impromptu grill on the banks of the Douro – rack after rack of fish, eaten with thick bread and tumblers of white port. At home, I have baked them, rolled around a stuffing of crumbs and herbs, their pointed tails aloft like sails on a toy boat, and I have wolfed them straight from the tin.
This time, I asked the fishmonger to butterfly them – open the fishes flat and remove their backbone – so I could bake them, covered with a layer of crumbs, herbs and lemon zest. We ate them with a tomato salad, the fruit sliced and dressed with olive oil and chopped oregano.
The other short-season find this week were tiny figs the size of golf balls. Ripe but not quite ready to eat, they came at a bargain price and were just the size to pack tightly into a storage jar. Up close they were beautiful, their cut sides pressed against the glass, leaves of bay and sprigs of thyme jostling among the fruits, all the while steeping in the white wine vinegar, fennel seeds and allspice.
The first batch of figs took just a couple of days to pickle – we took them from their rose-pink liquor to eat with cheese, then found they added sparkle to a salad of air-dried ham and watercress. I also like to hide a jagged piece of blue cheese – Picos, Stichelton or Roquefort – in the seedy hollow of each halved fruit: a dazzling hit of salty sour against the crunch of the fig’s seeds.
There is more, too. Once the figs had been eaten we were left with the most gorgeous of vinegars. Fruity and gently aromatic, we used it for dressing a salad of butterhead lettuce and cress leaves. The rest is stoppered and stored for later.
Useful to have to hand, these pickled figs are especially fine with creamy cheeses, the sort with golden curds that ooze as you slice into them. I also like them sliced thinly in cheese sandwiches in place of fruit chutney. They will keep for several weeks, should you need to. Choose fruit that are small and only just ripe (too soft and they will go squashy in the hot brine). Makes 1 x 500g storage jar
white wine vinegar 500ml
white sugar 300g
fennel seeds 1 tsp
allspice berries 8
white peppercorns 6
bay leaves 3
figs 400g, small
thyme 8 small sprigs
You will also need a stoppered storage jar to hold 500ml.
Pour the white wine vinegar into a medium-sized nonreactive saucepan (stainless steel or enamelled cast iron) and place over a moderate heat. Add the sugar, the fennel seeds, allspice berries, peppercorns and bay leaves and bring to the boil.
Slice the figs in half, removing any tight stalk ends as you go, then pack them into the storage jar. Tuck the bay leaves and thyme sprigs among the figs, then carefully pour the hot pickling liquid over the figs (a funnel is useful here). Seal tightly and leave to cool. Store the figs for a day or two before eating.
Ask the fishmonger to butterfly the sardines, but do give them decent warning. Should you wish to prepare them yourself, lay the gutted fish flat on a work surface, skin side down. Hold the tail with your fingers, use scissors to snip through the backbone at the head end then pull gently – the bone will come away from the flesh. Snip through the bone near the tail and remove the backbone. Check carefully for stray bones then proceed. The breadcrumbs can be made with sourdough or white bread. I use two-day-old bread, which crumbs more easily than newly baked. Serves 4
sardines 12, butterflied
For the crumb crust:
soft white bread (without crust) 120g
parsley 20g (including stems)
rosemary leaves 1 tbsp
anchovy fillets 6
olive oil 2 tbsp, plus a little extra
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Make the crumb crust. Reduce the bread to coarse crumbs in food processor or with a coarse-toothed grater. Pull the parsley leaves from their stems and roughly chop, then stir them into the crumbs. Finely chop the rosemary leaves. Pat any salt crystals or oil from the surface of the anchovies with kitchen paper and finely chop them. Stir them into the crumbs together with the rosemary and a little salt and black pepper. Finely grate the lemon zest, then toss together with the oil and crumbs.
Use a little oil to moisten the baking dish. I use a 28cm metal baking tin, but any shallow ovenproof dish will do.
Lay the butterflied sardines on the baking dish in a single layer, slightly overlapping each fish, tails pointing outwards. Scatter the seasoned crumbs lightly over the fish. Trickle a little olive over the crumbs and fish, then bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven until the crumbs are golden. Serve immediately, while the little fishes are still hot.
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