I’ve recently discovered Calabrian cooking. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a glorious one, revealing very quickly that although it’s essential and simple, there is nothing simplistic about its flavours, the ancient traditions or the heart and soul that goes into it.
Brought together by a mutual love of food and a series of coincidences, my Calabrian friend Anna, whose bucatini alla reggina had me at hello, has done it again with this incredibly clever little recipe from her hometown of Tropea known as la pittea.
A quick and cheap dish that was most likely the humble staple dish of local fishermen, fresh sardines are combined with chunks of bread, breadcrumbs and flavoured with chilli and parsley to make a sort of flat ‘bread’ (its name does indeed come from the Greek and Arabic influence of centuries past – ‘pitta’ or ‘pita’, not only describes the famous Middle Eastern flat bread, but also comes from the ancient Greek word for a flat pie).
Sardines are probably one of my favourite fish. They’re found in abundance all over Italy’s lengthy coastline and make appearances in the traditional fishermen’s dishes all the way from the northern coast of Liguria to the southern island of Sicily.
Versatile little things that they are, fresh sardines add amazing flavour to pasta, are beautiful when deep-fried and are heavenly when simply grilled. And if you’re feeling a little low on energy, they really pack a punch in terms of nutrients and vitamins. They’re the perfect meal. And we haven’t even gotten to the most important part yet: they’re sustainable.
Their association as being a ‘poor’ fish means they’re not as glamorous as salmon, fresh tuna or most other fish favourites, but they’re no less delicious and are certainly a better choice if you’re mindful about supporting something that’s not currently damaging the planet or contributing to the endangered species list.
If this is the first time this thought has even crossed your mind, as I have to admit it did mine not so long ago, take a look at some of these excellent articles on the issue such as this one by The Food Sage who asks whether food writers should be more responsible in informing consumers about sustainable food choices, Good Fish Bad Fish, and Italy’s wonderful Slow Fish website.
Afterwards you may, like me, ask yourself why is it that restaurants, chefs, cookbooks and supermarkets don’t make more of an effort to spread the word of the scary damage that is being done by overfishing, aggressive forms of fish farming or fishing methods. That said, there are important exceptions, such as chef Ben Shewry from Attica restaurant in Melbourne, whose mesmerising video “Kobe and the Sea” on the sustainability of abalone and passing on traditions to his son may bring you close to tears, and the US supermarket Whole Foods, which has just last week made the leap to selling sustainable fish only.
Luckily it’s easier than you may think to figure out the best seafood choices in your area, thanks to numerous resources that bring choosing sustainable seafood to your fingertips.
If you’re in Australia, the Marine Conservation Society has a very handy sustainable seafood guide app that you can download for free that makes deciding your next meal, whether in the markets or a restaurant, a very easy one – your favourite fish are simply labelled “say no”, “think twice” or “better choice”. You may be surprised by the results.
The Marine Conservation Society’s UK version is the Good Fish Guide, with an easy 1-5 numbering system and a very thorough description of the way these fish are caught locally, any sustainability issues and any good alternatives.
And for the US, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has created a very handy map of the US with downloadable sustainable seafood guides according to the area where you live, including a special sushi guide! Similar to the Australian one, seafood is labelled accordingly: “best choices”, “good alternatives” and “avoid”. Simply download the pages, print them out and fold them up to keep handy in your wallet.
Italians need look no further than Slow Food’s above-mentioned Slow Fish website (available in English, French, German and Spanish too). It’s worth a look at every single page they have on offer, from the traditional recipes according to region to the “which fish?” guide. From their website comes this little piece of food for thought:
Caught between the temptation to ignore information that makes us uncomfortable and confused and the instinct never to eat fish again, we can only ask “But what difference can I make?” The Slow Fish campaign gives us the opportunity to become more aware and curious, to discover new culinary adventures and to actively participate in our own small way in protecting the resources of the sea. Everyone, whether consumer, restaurateur or fishmonger, can make a difference.
Sardines are a good choice of sustainable seafood worldwide (being relatively unpopular is perhaps a mixed blessing) and they also have the advantage of being a short-lived and robust species, meaning the population is quickly replenished. So wherever you are you can cook this with your conscience intact. Served with a simple salad of fresh greens and a lovely bright glass of white wine, this makes a beautiful, quick lunch.
La Pittea Tropeana
- 600 gr of fresh sardines (if you don’t want to fillet them yourself, ask your fishmonger if they have sardine fillets already prepared or if they will do them for you. But it’s easy – just see the image below)
- About 300 gr of day old crusty bread
- 2-3 handfuls of breadcrumbs
- A teaspoon of capers
- 2 garlic cloves
- Plenty of parsley
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 hot chilli (this is meant to lend a little warmth but not too much heat so take out the seeds)
Clean the sardines by first removing the heads and the intestines – if you can, Anna advises to do this the day before; the next day it will be much easier to remove the backbone without ruining the fillet. Simply open up the fish from the belly, flattening it out and pull the backbone out, towards the tail. Then give the fin that runs along the top of the backbone a little snip with scissors. It’s all done by hand, easy to do over a sink where you can also rinse the fish before setting aside the opened and flattened sardine fillets.
When the sardine fillets are set aside and ready, in another bowl, break up the crusty bread into inch-sized chunks, avoiding the crust. Chop the parsley, garlic, capers and chilli and add to the bread with a few glugs of olive oil to help bring it together. Then add the sardines and toss everything together with your hands until combined. An approximate half a handful of breadcrumbs and perhaps a drizzle or more of olive oil as appropriate could be added at this point too. The mixture should be somewhat ‘humid’ and hold together, as in the picture below.
Prepare a skillet (a 26cm diameter pan is perfect) by greasing it with olive oil and sprinkling over a handful of breadcrumbs, tipping the pan to create an even layer.
Fish out (excuse the pun!) half of the sardine fillets from the bread mixture and begin laying these side by side, skin side down, in an even, compact layer with no spaces. Press down with your hands to flatten them out evenly.
Now take the pieces of bread out of the mixture and cover the sardines evenly with all of the bread pieces, flattening with your hands regularly to create an even and, most importantly, compact layer.
Finish with a layer of the rest of the sardine fillets, skin side up, again, flattening and pushing down with your hands as you go. Essentially think of this as a sardine sandwich, only with the bread on the inside.
Cover the top with a similar layer of breadcrumbs as in the preparation of the skillet and finish with a generous glug of olive oil.
Heat the pan over a medium-high heat or until you begin to hear sizzling. It cooks quite quickly but just be careful not to burn the breadcrumbs, which can happen easily. After a couple of minutes of a good sizzle, place a dinner plate on top of the pittea and with one hand under the plate, flip the entire pan with the other. Place the pan back on the stove top (check for any breadcrumbs that may be stuck and will burn – remove with a paper towel and perhaps add a little extra olive oil into the pan) and slide the pittea, raw side down back into the pan. If you can do this like Anna did, without breaking the pittea or letting even a crumb escape, you are a star!
Let cook another couple of minutes (there’s that sizzle again), remove from the heat and serve immediately with a lovely green salad.
I told you it’s quick.
Want to make a difference and take on the Slow Fish Challenge? Read on for more info on the Slow Fish website.