Small, Good Things: The Tin Man

Fisherman’s Eggs, Sicilian Style

Fisherman’s Eggs, Sicilian Style

When I worried to a friend that I had concerns about doing a recipe focused on canned sardines so soon after having sung the praises of tinned tuna last month, she assured me it was in the zeitgeist. Sure enough, that week a headline appeared in The Guardian: “Sardinecore: Welcome To Summer’s Sexiest, Fishiest New Fashion Trend.”

Truth is, I am decidedly not jumping on any bandwagon. I just happen to be on a program of trying to use what’s in my pantry, and with food prices doing what they’re doing, I happen to have a stockpile of both tuna and sardines after a recent sale at Need I reinforce that both are shelf-stable powerhouse sources of natural protein, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids?

The sardines first had me thinking about pasta con le sarde, a quick, simple-but-unexpected Sicilian sauce made from sardines, onions, fennel, golden raisins, pignolis, anchovies and saffron; finished with toasted, seasoned bread crumbs; and usually served over spaghetti. 

It’s perfect when you need an aspirational ray of sunshine in the bleak midwinter, but is also uncommonly tasty, a historical culinary fusion combining the Mediterranean palette of flavors common to Sicily, particularly the Arabic notes of golden raisins and saffron. The bread crumbs are a welcome and traditional change of pace from cheese-topped red-sauce “eye-talian,” generally considered a cultural no-no with seafood.

But then, as a latecomer to the tinned-fish party, I stumbled on this no-brainer of a recipe (below) hiding in plain sight. The hundreds of recipes found online describe a sauté of onions, garlic, tomatoes, herbs and sardines baked for a bit, removed long enough to crack a couple of eggs on top and returned to the oven until the eggs are cooked.

Although the history of the recipe is cloudy, it makes a lot of sense, particularly in the fishing and culinary cultures circling the Mediterranean. A no-frills oeufs cocotte (baked eggs) with fish, it makes for a great breakfast with toast or light lunch or dinner over arugula. 

Never being one to leave well enough alone, I discovered that a further fusion of the dishes was an experiment that paid off. I substituted leeks for onions (because I had some to use) and plumped the raisins in white wine vinegar with a pinch of saffron and one smashed clove of garlic, a trick picked up from chef Joshua McFadden. It cuts the sweetness of the raisins a bit and the reserved vinegar (later used to moisten the vegetable mixture) adds acidic brightness.

If I had it to do all over again — and I will — I’d add a quarter cup of chopped olives (meaty Castelvetranos, suggested), but honestly, there’s already enough here to satisfy the hungry eater.

Fisherman’s Eggs, Sicilian Style

Serves 2 to 4

  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • Pinch saffron (optional)
  • 1 clove garlic smashed
  • ¼ cup golden raisins
  • ½ cup panko
  • ½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
  • ¼ teaspoon fennel pollen (optional)
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • ¼ cup minced parsley
  • 1 cup fennel (about ½ large bulb), chopped; fronds reserved
  • 1 cup leeks, white and light-green parts sliced thin (about 2 medium leeks), rinsed and drained 
  • 4 oil-packed anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 (3.75-ounce) cans sardines in olive oil, drained and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 4 eggs (at room temperature)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Toast or greens for serving

1. In a small bowl or measuring cup, warm vinegar in a microwave (30 seconds at full power) until barely steaming. Add saffron (if using) and stir to dissolve. Let sit for 10 minutes and add garlic clove and raisins. Soak for at least 30 minutes to plump raisins. Discard the garlic and drain, reserving the vinegar and raisins separately. Set aside.

2. In a small ovenproof skillet over medium high heat add about 1½ tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Add ground fennel, cook until fragrant (about 20 to 30 seconds) and add panko. Cook, tossing until lightly toasted and colored. Transfer to a bowl and add fennel pollen (if using), a pinch of the lemon zest and 1 tablespoon parsley. Stir to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

3. Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium ovenproof skillet, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add sliced leeks and diced fennel. Cook, stirring, until onion and fennel are tender (3 to 5 minutes). Place pan in preheated oven and roast for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and add anchovies, raisins, pine nuts, remaining lemon zest, parsley, 2 to 3 tablespoons of the seasoned bread crumb mixture and a splash (2 tablespoons) of the reserved vinegar to moisten. Stir briefly to loosen any crusty bits and roughly blend the ingredients.

4. Add sardines, tossing gently, to avoid breaking them up too much and cook until just heated through (about 2 minutes). Off heat, make four divots large enough to crack one egg into and do just that. Return pan to the oven and bake until eggs are just done (10 to 14 minutes, depending on how runny you like your yolks). Serve with or over crusty toast or greens. Top with a tablespoon of seasoned bread crumbs garnished with chopped fennel fronds. 

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