The best sardines I have ever eaten were at Al Gatto Nero on Burano. I’ve only been there twice. On both occasions I had sardines. They were that good. A great big plate piled with charred and crispy fish. They are one of those things that go on my list of “things I could just go on eating even if I don’t feel like eating anything at all”.
So it’s Saturday, and I’m buying fish. It’s early in the morning, but nearly all the sardines have gone. There might be eight or nine left, but that is not going to hit the spot. I want that plate piled high with crispy small fish. There is, however, a huge pile of anchovies. Now, these are not the same fish at all (they are not even the same genus). But they’re small, and I’m pretty sure they’ll crisp up nicely, and so I leave with half a kilo.
So here’s my recipe for anchovies with roasted tomatoes (serves 2).
500g fresh anchovies (try and make sure they’re a good size, 4 – 6 inches. It makes both cleaning and eating easier)
15 – 20 small-ish tomatoes (I used the Italian “Piccadilly” variety). Not too big, but neither do you want cherry size.
3 cloves of garlic ; Because I had three cloves of garlic
2 sprigs of thyme
Some good olive oil, a few slices of bread, and a lemon.
Make a brace of spritzes (as always)
Halve the tomatoes, and put in a roasting dish. Scatter with the finely chopped garlic and the thyme leaves. Drizzle with olive oil and give them a good mix together. Add salt if you think it’s needed (I didn’t). Put in the oven at 160 centigrade / Gas Mark 3 for about an hour. This isn’t a recipe where we necessarily want blackened and charred tomatoes, but we do want the flavours to be sufficiently concentrated.
Gut and wash the anchovies. This is not a lovely job, but – obviously – it has to be done. Run your thumb along the belly of the fish, scoop out the unpleasant bits and discard. It’s not a great job, but it’s something to do whilst the tomatoes are roasting.
Wash your hands. Drink the spritz. Congratulate yourself on a job well done. You perhaps deserve a prosecco at this point.
Line a baking tray with foil and smear a little olive oil on it. There’s plenty of natural oil in the fish, but why take chances? You don’t want them sticking.
Pat the anchovies dry with kitchen towel as best you can before lining them up on the baking tray. Now, patting oily fish dry is, perhaps, an unrewarding task at best, but you want the fish to char not steam. Which means getting them as dry as possible before they go under the grill.
Your tomatoes should be just ever so slightly blackened after an hour. I thought about adding a slug of balsamic vinegar but decided against it. The thyme leaves and the caramelised garlic will add plenty of flavour as it is.
Whack the grill up to maximum. When it’s fully heated, give the anchovies two minutes; then turn them over and give them the same again. You want that skin to be slightly charred and as crisp as possible. Or, at least, I do.
I served them piled up on a single plate, alongside the tomatoes, with copious amounts of chilled red wine (hey, it’s July) and some bread to take the edge off any bones that remain. How you eat them is entirely up to you. Squeeze over some lemon and add some good olive oil if you wish. A sprinkling of sea salt will add flavour and a little crunch as well. Whatever. I am pretty sure I could have eaten the same amount again.
I cooked this to the opening scenes of Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten”. Minimalist music is good for the rather laborious process of gutting and cleaning small fish. RAI 3 treated us to the Tchaikovsky piano concerto for the actual business of eating them.
Happy cooking and eating!