The sun is back in Seattle, and it makes me crave summery food. And there’s nothing that says summer, beach and vacation quite like… sardines. You might think that’s weird, and I will agree that it does not come as instinctively as, say, ice cream, but sardines are the real taste of summer — at least for me and for the rest of the French population. Just ask any of my folks.
Growing up I spent all of my summer vacations (les grandes vacances) on the French west coast, not far from Île d’Oléron, and you could be sure that every single day someone in my neighborhood would be grilling sardines on the barbecue. If you’ve never grilled sardines before, you should know that they have a very pungent and smoky smell — a smell that would permeate all the houses around (windows were left wide open during the summer). I may have been young, but I learned an important lesson — one that might still come in handy today: If you’re seeking revenge on your noisy neighbors, grill some sardines.
Once grilled, however, there is nothing more satisfying. Lay them on a slice of fresh bread (to soak up the oil and salt) and eat the whole thing with your fingers. And if you’re anything like my father, you might want that slice of bread to be buttered or drizzled with olive oil (as if the fish weren’t oily enough).
Anyway, no smelly grilled fish today — the weather has been nice but not nice enough to fire up the barbecue. Instead, let’s try a super easy appetizer: sardine rillettes. Rillettes, a spread like pâté, are commonly made with slowly-cooked meat, but fish rillettes, which generally require no cooking, are perfect for an impromptu apéritif or a picnic on the go. It will take barely 10 minutes to prepare. It is so easy that, even if you could find them in an American grocery store, you’d never think of buying them.
The ingredients are basic: soft cheese, canned sardines and whatever herbs and spices you happen to have — within reason. Did you notice there is no butter? It might sound surprising for a French recipe (but hey! there is cheese!). On this side of the Atlantic, many recipes seem to include butter — and some, in fact, call this dish “sardine butter”. While I don’t dislike the butter, I prefer the freshness that a good soft cheese such as Neufchâtel imparts. I also prefer using sardines packed in spring water instead of oil. If you really miss the olive oil, add a drizzle of it at the end of the recipe.
Why Neufchâtel and not cream cheese? Don’t tell anybody, but I have mixed feelings about cream cheese, which I find, well, too creamy. This doesn’t really make sense, because if you gave me some brie or triple cream, I’d take it and probably lick the spoon or knife. Cream cheese, on the other hand, lacks flavor to justify its creaminess. It has not been completely banned from my fridge yet as nothing can really replace it in cheesecake. But when was the last time I made a cheesecake? You get the point… And maybe I’m biased, but Neufchâtel is French, at least originally; and even though the one I bought was from Vermont, I feel naturally more inclined to buy a French-named product. Neufchâtel is also easier to spread and whip, and contains less fat than cream cheese while giving a lighter and fluffier texture. But if you ask me, the best would be to use a creamy goat cheese with a very subtle flavor.
I like to add shallots and fennel for texture. Plus, fennel imparts a slight anise taste that cuts through the fattiness of the sardines. I wonder how it would be to add few drops of Pernod. Let me know if you give it a try.
Do you have 5 minutes, a bowl and a fork? It’s as easy as that, so let’s get started.
yields about 2 cups of rillettes
- 2 cans sardines packed in spring water
- 3 tablespoons minced chives
- 1.5 oz. fennel bulb (white part), finely diced
- 1/2 shallot, finely diced
- juice of 1 lemon, to taste
- salt and pepper, to taste
- a pinch of piment d’Espelette (or cayenne pepper)
- between 2.5 and 3 oz. Neufchâtel (or any other mild soft cheese: goat cheese, ricotta, cream cheese)
Drain the sardines and put them in a bowl. If they haven’t been boned, separate them into two fillets and remove the central bone. Using a fork, coarsely mash the sardines. Then, add the chives, fennel and shallot. Add some lemon juice, salt, pepper and a pinch of piment d’Espelette (or cayenne pepper). Mix well.
In another bowl, whip your cheese until it’s smooth and stir it into the sardine mixture. Mix until you have the desired consistency — I like it coarsely mixed, but some may prefer a smoother texture. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more lemon juice, salt, pepper or some olive oil if you feel it’s missing. Transfer into a bowl or jar. It’s ready!
Alternative preparation: Add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard instead of piment d’Espelette or cayenne pepper. This recipe also works with canned tuna, mackerel and salmon.
It can be kept in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days .
The morning after I made these, I was literally craving them… for breakfast. Yes, that’s how good these rillettes are!