Spicy Sardines

As if small, oily fish weren’t enough of a joy to eat already, they make an excellent vehicle for spices. Their robust flavour means that they stand up well to a pinch of something punchy. Whether sardines, mackerel or trout – start thinking beyond standard vegetables or a salad, and let your mind wander into the realms of punchy aiolis, sharp-pickled beets and thick harissa.

Sardines got a bad reputation as ‘pilchards’ – but when bought fresh and cooked quickly (pan-fried or grilled over hot coals) there’s nothing better. They’re at their best in late-summer when sardines are plentiful off the Cornish coast, but they are available frozen year-round and thaw-out very quickly.

Instead of using cracked black pepper, I recommend turning to a Hot Smoked Paprika or Cayenne Pepper to season oily fish like sardines. This recipe also uses spicy breadcrumbs and a cayenne-spiked mayonnaise to introduce a bit more heat and texture into a quick and absolutely delicious mid-week meal.


Smoky Spanish breadcrumbs
200g fresh white breadcrumbs
1.5tsp hot smoked paprika
1tbsp rosemary, chopped
4tbsp olive oil

For the mayonnaise
2 egg yolks
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1tbsp Dijon mustard
250ml sunflower oil
2tsp lemon juice

For the sardines
8 sardine fillets
2tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
½ lemon


Preheat the oven to 180C. Tip the breadcrumbs into a tray. Sprinkle over the Hot Smoked Paprika and chopped rosemary, and then stir through the olive oil. Cook for 15-20 minutes until crispy – shaking the pan every 5 minutes, so they cook evenly. Alternatively, you can cook the breadcrumbs by stirring them in a large frying pan.

Next, make the mayonnaise. Season the egg yolks with a pinch of salt and cayenne pepper, and stir in the mustard. Next add the sunflower oil – one drop at a time, whisking constantly. As it starts to thicken and come together then pour in a slow but steady stream. Refrigerate while you cook the spicy sardines and breadcrumbs. (NOTE, as the photo implies, a ‘loose mayonnaise’ isn’t the worst thing in the world. Still delicious and delightfully homemade!)

Lay the sardine fillets on a board. Drizzle over the olive oil and then season with salt and a generous pinch of cayenne pepper (NOTE, this is such a hot spice you’re best to administer the ‘pinch’ with the handle end of a teaspoon rather than getting your fingers involved!) Put the sardines in a hot frying pan – skin side down – and cook for 1.5minutes, or until you can see an opaqueness travel up the side of the fish and start to cook all the flesh, but a strip on the top. Flip the sardine fillets and after 15 seconds squeeze over the lemon juice – which will both season the fish and slow the cooking, while you take them out of the pan.

Top the sardines with the smoky Spanish breadcrumbs, and serve with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise.
(Served here with a hot, griddled courgette and pinenut salad).

spices used

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