The first day of Fall snuck up on us, though the temperature would fool anyone into thinking we were still in midsummer.
Along North San Diego County’s portion of Highway 101 (the highway that hugs the Pacific Ocean from Canada to Mexico) pods of brown pelicans appear to enjoy the warm breeze as much as I do. What graceful birds they are despite their awkward appearance and huge beak. I love to watch them skim the waves, suddenly diving and using their throat pouch like a net. Beware wayward schools of sardines!
Pelicans and sardines are iconic residents of Morocco’s Atlantic coast as well. Indeed, those who have traveled along the road between Casablanca and the southern port of Safi invariably see fishermen by the side of the road, selling a fresh catch of silvery sardines kept cool beneath a glistening blanket of wet seaweed.
When I was growing up, we used to spend time at the cabanon (small beach house) of a family member. At the end of the day, we would wait for itinerant fishmongers to walk past and elaborate a dinner menu on the spot. Some days we feasted on steamed spider crab called araignée de mer. If the catch included sardines, we would immediately fire up the canoun and grill the fish over the coals. On other occasions, we might help our hostess fashion a sardine "sandwich" from two butterflied sardines spread with a cumin-scented marinade. We would press the two halves together, coat them with flour, fry them, and eat them just as soon as they came out of the pan. Tasty memories, indeed!
That is why I found myself one sunny morning, at Oceanside Harbor, vying with pelicans for a bucket of fresh sardines, or “bait” – bait for my own palate, that is. Needless to say, fresh sardines taste much different from their canned counterparts. These “sandwiches” are truly worth the time and trouble.
12 large, fresh sardines (see Note)
15 sprigs fresh cilantro, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 garlic cloves, minced
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons olive oil
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 cup flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons paprika
Wedges of lemon, for serving
Scale the fish under running water. Cut off the heads. With kitchen shears, slit open the belly of each sardine and discard the innards. Using your fingers, gently pull the spine away from the flesh, leaving the skin and tail intact. Trim the edges, and discard the bones. Rinse well under running water. Set in a colander to drain.
In a shallow dish large enough to accommodate the sardines in one layer, combine the cilantro, cumin, garlic, juice from 1 of the lemons, and the olive oil. Coat each sardine on both sides with the mixture. Cover and refrigerate, 2 to 24 hours.
To assemble: Fill a large skillet with 1-inch of vegetable oil and bring it to the smoking point over medium heat. Meanwhile, place the flour in a shallow dish, and the egg in another. Stick the skinless side of 2 sardines together to make a "sandwich". Coat first with flour, then dip in the beaten egg, and coat again with flour. Holding the "sandwich" by the tails, gently set each one in the hot oil. Fry until golden, 5 to 6 minutes on each side. With a spatula, transfer to a dish lined with paper towels to drain.
In a small bowl, combine the juice of the remaining lemon with the paprika. Layer the fried sardines in a shallow serving dish. Cover with the lemon/paprika sauce. Serve hot or at room temperature. Store for up to 4 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
from the Scent of Orange Blossoms: Sephardic Cuisine from Morocco by Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane (Ten Speed Press, 2001).