Lemon and Mint Sardines with Steamed Asparagus
When I first moved to Dorset last year, I was lucky to quickly met Heather Whitehead, a beautiful, talented, smart woman with a wicked sense of humour.
She´s a beauty therapist turned cake goddess, with a penchant for gardening and making great food and drink from scratch.
So when she invited me down to her pretty little allotment, I was thrilled.
It’s always such a pleasure to have a peek at someone’s garden.
Audrey Hepburn once said:
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
And I couldn't agree more.
The slow and seasonal process of working on your garden, from planning to planting, weeding and harvesting, is such an optimistic and hopeful process that it is indeed believing in tomorrow.
Heather laughs from the belly with a heartfelt sound that is greatly contagious. And as we made our way to her allotment in our wellies one morning last week, with little baskets filled with breakfast treats in tow, I felt so lucky to be in her company.
Fun and wise women who can sport dungarees with such a coolness factor are a dying breed, and I fell ever so slightly in love with her wild curly hair and ability to spit cherry pits over the asparagus rows and almost all the way to the beetroot area.
But I think perhaps it was her colour combination that day that spurred my food creativity in the whole lemon and sardine direction.
Exhibit A below:)
As the morning began to have nibbles at the afternoon and our breakfast picnic turned into brunch, she talked to me about life, about gardening, and about how much patience really goes into planting and nurturing an asparagus plant before you get to pick it.
Planting a garden with plans, hopes and dreams for what it can become and yield is one thing, but that hope will not keep the weeds away, nor will it nourish the plants into delicious parts of your lunch and dinner.
However, steady consistency in weeding, a dash of knowledge about the plants you choose to grow and a healthy dose of patience is just as important as enough rain and sun.
I watched her wander in front of me with her old bucket, which I secretly wanted to nick, tend to her plants, and walk me throughout the process of planting asparagus.
This is the thing: sometimes when you simply go to the store to buy what you need to make that dish you want, regardless of season or knowing where the products or produce come from, you really don't know how much goes into growing that salad, potato, or asparagus.
Listening to her guide me verbally through the process of growing asparagus, which takes about 3 years before you can harvest, truly made me appreciate it more when I went home with a freshly picked basketful from her allotment. And it made the above quote from Audrey Hepburn even more true: planting a garden is indeed believing in tomorrow...
With a basket full of her delicious and fresh asparagus, I went to the local market for some sardines and lemons to create a little summer dish that incorporates my food philosophy of using seasonal produce with few ingredients and very little fuss.
I have had a wee bit of a love affair with Mediterranean cuisine since I lived in Italy in my early twenties – it’s simple, fresh and easy to make – so this recipe is an ode to Italian summers served in my English cottage garden.
Lemon and Mint Marinated Sardines on a Bed of Steamed Asparagus
(Adapted from a Donna Hay recipe)
(for two people)
4 freshly caught sardines
A big fistful of asparagus
A fistful of fresh mint
2 dl olive oil
A pinch of chili
Ocean salt and crushed pepper
2-4 cloves of fresh garlic
1 dl all-purpose flour
Gut the sardines, cut the heads off, and wash under running cold water. Pat dry.
If you are a bit squeamish about fish bones, sardine bones are very soft, but I tend to take out the backbone with all the bones that are attached to it.
There’ll still be plenty bones left, but they are so soft that unless you really have an aversion, you should be fine.
Keep the sardines whole, or split them open to cut down on frying time.
TIPS: To save the fish heads for making fish stock, simply freeze them till you’re ready to make the stock.
Crush the garlic with the fresh mint in a mortar.
Zest 2 lemons.
In a large bowl, add the olive oil, crushed garlic, mint, salt and pepper, lemon zest, and a couple tablespoons of lemon juice.
Add the fish, thoroughly coat them in the mixture, and let them marinate for a minimum of 30 min. Leave them overnight if you wish.
When ready, dust the sardines with flour, and using a sprinkle of the olive oil left in the marinade, fry them for about one minute on each side, skin side down first to crisp up nicely..
Steam the asparagus for a couple of minutes, and serve warm.
TIPS: Save the asparagus water for the next time you bake bread or make vegetable stock.
Serve the crisp sardines immediately on a bed of steamed asparagus with a drizzle of the marinade, a pinch of salt and a dash of lemon juice.
Serve with ice cold Limoncello in the garden for a real Mediterranean feel.
Happy summer cooking!
(PS: Thank you to Heather for letting me photograph you for this story in your beautiful allotment and to my trusted four-legged assistant Whiskey, who patrolled the area proudly as I styled and shot in my little cottage garden.)