Monday, April 7, 2014

Gratin di sardine con pomodori e capperi (or sardine gratin with tomatoes and capers)


The other night  our youngest had a meltdown little moment right before dinner, the kind only a four year old can regale you with. The kind that makes you wonder if you are plain dumb or if you missed something crucial because it takes you totally by surprise and you have no idea why it is happening.

The scene: the children's room. Toys strewn all over the floor. Dinner is about to be served.

The rule: whoever makes a mess, cleans up. When the job is too daunting for a four year old and a little overwhelming for him to tackle on his own for organizational reasons, we help and also give him some general guidelines (put all the animals into the green box, all the lego pieces go into the blue box).

Action: my husband gives him a hand; they seemingly work together in harmony and the job is soon done. Dinner is on the table.

Next thing we know, our son turns into a raving, screaming, three-headed monster. He starts throwing all his neatly stowed away boxes and toys all over the floor again, putting them the way they were before the clean-up.

Aha, you are thinking, he wanted to do it himself, he wants to assess his independence, Daddy shouldn't have rushed him.

Uh, no.

Spittle is flying, he is possessed. Toys are flying everywhere.

He didn't want them to do it together, Daddy was supposed to do it. All of it. Alone.

Say whaaaaaat?

Daddy has to do it! Daddy has to do it! Daddy has to do it!

No more talking. No more reasoning. No more trying to understand.
Young man, you will stay in your room, clean up this mess, calm down and apologize. Then you may have your dinner.

And so he sits in his room screaming, crying and saying that same sentence over and over again. We sit at the table and try to enjoy our dinner.

Ten minutes in, he is still going strong.

And then, finally, the eagerly awaited wind-down phase. A pause, then two, then three amidst the bouts of crying. The oh-so-slow inching towards the kitchen, the mumbled half apology. There are still runny noses, red tear-stained cheeks and lots of little sobs and hiccups. But he nonetheless manages to wolf down every last one of those little fishies in between sniffles.

So, even in the face of drama, this is a meal that will be enjoyed. Although it won't give you any extra clues as to why your normally sweet child sometimes turns into a little monster.

Out of the oven

It is also an ideal week night dinner:

1) It is nutritious: as I already told you here, sardines are good for you because they are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Plus, this one dish covers most food groups: protein, carbs and vegetables.
2) It is environmentally friendly: if you read this post you already know that sardines are extremely abundant in the Mediterranean, thus not overfished.
3) It is cheap: they are so abundant that you can buy it extremely cheap. I paid under €4 for the sardines needed to make this dish.
4) It is easy: if you can buy the sardines cleaned and butterflied, you are set!
5) It is quick: once again, if the sardines are already cleaned, it takes less than 10 minutes to prepare this dish and no more that 25 minutes from beginning to end, cooking included.

If I still haven't convinced you, what is there not to like about a combination of olive oil, ripe tomatoes, capers and the crunch of bread crumbs flavored with garlic, mint and parsley?
Once again, more than a recipe, this is an idea to make something a little different than your usual week night fare, so I am not giving you exact quantities. You just need to eyeball it and adjust according to your liking and the amounts you are making.
The first thing I did was prepare the bread crumbs. I didn't have any stale bread lying around so I used some zwieback (or rusks). I put them into the food processor with a small clove of garlic, a pinch of salt, a handful of parsley and a small bunch of mint. For the amount of sardines I made, I used a little under a cup of the mixture.
Next. I greased an oven-proof dish and arranged a layer of the cleaned sardine filets on the bottom.

I sprinkled the first layer with the breadcrumb mixture.

Then I scattered over some little chunks of roughly chopped tomatoes and drizzled over some olive oil and added a little freshly ground pepper.

After that, I arranged the remaining sardines in a new layer and scattered over most of the remaining breadcrumbs. I cut the perini tomatoes in slices this time and arranged them over the sardines, dusted them with what I had left of the breadcrumbs, added a little more olive oil and pepper and this time a little salt for the tomatoes.  

The final touch was a tablespoon of capers, to add some acidity  (to cut the through the fishiness) and add some color and flavor. Small black olives or sultanas would work very well here too and I'm thinking of trying some almond meal in the bread mixture next time.

Stick into a preheated oven for about 15 minutes (or as long as it takes for the fish to cook through, you don't want it to dry out) at 180°C/375°F and dinner is ready. Serve with a green salad and some crusty bread.


  1. So sorry about the melt down. Mine had done that at 4 ... And 10 ... And 16 ... And recently at 23 ... sometimes I think it's the fear of growing up!

    Your gratin looks fabulous!

    1. Oh no, you mean it doesn't stop? ;o)))

  2. This dish is right up my alley! All the flavors I love. Too bad it's so darn hard to find fresh sardines around here...

    PS: Sorry about the meltdown. But I guess if he didn't lose his appetite it couldn't have been that serious after all.

    1. It is never serious, no matter how dramatic! Since he is the second child, and his sister was worse at his age (he is usually pretty laid back), I tend not to worry, but it is incredibly annoying when it happens.
      Regarding the sardines, I remember writing in one of the posts that I linked to that Maine used to be full of sardine canneries (which I never knew) so there must have been sardines aplenty... I wonder what happened to all the sardines??

  3. so glad my kids are grown-up. It is so challenging to be a parent. Patience is key, that's what one needs to remember.
    This sardine dish is so tempting. thanks! I will fix this instead of gobbling my Omega-3 pills every day!

    1. Patience, patience, patience... yes, sometimes hard to remember

  4. I saw some sardines at the markets on the weekend. I want to make something just like this. Definitely bookmarking this! :D

  5. I'll make this whilst I remember :) ! T'was the two year old asserting herself - well she was placed in her bedroom and told she could come out until she had quietened down! Instead Madam lay down on the carpet just so she could hit her bedroom door again and again and again with her feet !! Oh, good exercise and I think we managed to 'pretend' this was not happening until the sobs of 'unfair, Mom!!] stood next to us :) ! 'Unfair what?' led to a fourth body at the dinner table wolfing down everything left!!!!

    1. I know it happens to parents everywhere all the time, but it is good to hear the stories once in a while ;o)

  6. Un pesce da rivalutare! Amo il pesce azzurro e quest'idea la segno! Estiva anche!

  7. I would so love to make this dish tonight for supper but, like Frank, cannot get fresh sardines. Yes, Maine is home to many sardine factories but you cannot find raw, filleted sardines anywhere. When I was recently in Venice, I marveled at how plentiful and inexpensive they were... so next time I am in Italy, you can be sure that I will be gratefully gratinning (is that even a word?) some sardines! ~ David

  8. I second Frank: no sardines in sight here. It might be that they taste too fishy for the average palate stateside?


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