How to cook little fishes on little dishes

The wee ones - whitebait, sardines and anchovies - are just too good to let them get away. Mark Hix makes no bones about his love for small fry
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I've always loved a fish feast. But some years ago in Barcelona a plate of pescaditos fritos gave me a nasty shock. The tiny fried fish that arrived at the table for nibbling on before dinner were exceptionally good. Until I looked at them more closely and realised they weren't whitebait or the like but miniature hake, mullet and sole. Of these, stocks of hake are so low we shouldn't be eating them when they're fully grown, let alone landing the fish long before they've had a chance to breed. Some sorts of mullet and sole are also on the list of fish we should avoid eating. No wonder some of our favourite fish are under threat when fisherman haven't been giving them a chance to grow up and replenish stocks.

But there are small fish you don't need to feel guilty about eating. Sprats, which are members of the herring family, are among those we're actually encouraged to eat because stocks are in a healthy state; whitebait aren't a problem, nor are sardines. Even full-size smelts aren't very big, and we're allowed to eat them - probably because they're not very popular any more. You usually get them smaller than sprats and virtually transparent when really fresh with an extraordinary smell of cucumbers. Pilchards sound comic, but they're only more grown up sardines and we don't think twice about eating them grilled on a Mediterranean holiday.

Whitebait feasts were popular in Victorian times, as were fried sprats, but we're reluctant to cook these little fish at home now - which may be why they haven't been over-fished. Perhaps it's the bones and heads that put people off, but for me that's part of the appeal - anyway the bones are soft and the heads are so small you can't separate them. And since we should be thinking about cooking and eating alternative fish, it's time to rethink these ones. With anchovies you don't need to worry about the heads - it's only the fillets that are easy to come by in tins and jars. Anchovies are commonplace in Mediterranean cooking but have always seemed rather sophisticated here; you don't need many of them to make a real difference to a dish. Like all fish they should be treated as a luxury, though, and cooked with the utmost respect - bones and all.

In Japan I went to a robata grill restaurant in Tokyo and chose a small garfish from the iced display that was then cooked in front of me. Once I'd finished with the fleshy parts, the skeleton of bones and head were retrieved by the cook and returned to the grill to crisp up. It then came back as a new dish. That's what I call showing a bit of backbone.

Spaghetti with sardines and chilli

Serves 4

In Italy this is quite often made with red mullet, but small fillets from oily sardines, even mackerel, work just as well. The Sicilian version would contain pine nuts and currants in that traditional sweet and savoury style. Chilli would be used when currants weren't available and sometimes fried breadcrumbs are scattered on top. It's an ingenious way to make a tasty pasta sauce with a few fish fillets that wouldn't stretch to a full meal. You can even get away with using a can of sardines.

Try to make sure all your bones are removed from the fish beforehand - just cut along either side - although sardine bones are tiny and pretty harmless.

4 tinned anchovy fillets finely chopped
6 medium sized fresh sardine fillets, boned
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 medium chilli, seeded and finely chopped or a good pinch of dried chilli flakes
4 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped
100ml extra virgin olive oil
50g butter
1tbsp chopped fennel tops, or dill (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
400g or more of fresh or dried spaghetti

Put the anchovies and sardine fillets in a pan with the olive oil, garlic, chilli and tomatoes, season and cook on a very gentle heat for 8-10 minutes, stirring every so often until the sardines are beginning to break down into the oil. Add the fennel leaves or dill if using and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile cook the pasta according to the instructions and drain. To serve, add the butter to the sauce, re-season if necessary and toss the spaghetti in with the sauce.

Sardines baked in vine leaves

Serves 4

Vine leaves make a great natural wrapping for cooking fish in. What's more, unlike a traditional paper en papillotte dish, you can actually eat them. The best kind of vine leaves, if you can't find fresh or your outside vine, like mine, hasn't got going yet, are vacuum-packed in brine. They just need a good wash and drying with kitchen paper.

Sardines or fresh pilchards are good to cook like this or you could do the same with other small oily fish like mackerel.

8 sardines or pilchards
8 vine leaves, washed and dried
Olive oil for brushing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the dressing

6 tomatoes, halved and seeds squeezed out
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1tbsp chopped coriander leaves
2 spring onions, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7. Season the sardines and wrap a vine leaf around each one and place on a baking tray. Lightly brush the vine leaves with olive oil and bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile chop the tomatoes as finely as you can with a sharp knife then mix with the olive oil, spring onion and coriander and season to taste. Either serve the sardine parcels with the dressing in a bowl for people to spoon over, or put the fish and dressing on a large plate and offer as part of a summery mezze.

Fritto misto di mare

Serves 4

With a glass of rosé and the accompanying sound of breaking waves, a fritto misto di mare is a perfect lunch dish. That may not be possible if you live in London like me, but we can all dream, can't we? Small fish, such as whitebait, sprats, small sardines and smelts or fillets of these fish, can all be cooked like this. Crevettes gris, the small shrimps used for potting that also come in a pink version, or small whole prawns that become completely edible, shell and all once fried, are also ideal small fry. Even peeled tiger prawns and small squid can join the party too.

I've often used the tiny fish that they sell frozen in the Taj stores in London's Brick Lane. I don't know what they are or where they're from but suspect they're farmed.

A lovely sauce to serve with fritto misto at this time of the year is mayonnaise mixed with some pounded up wild garlic leaves and a squeeze of lemon. Or mix chopped spring herbs into mayonnaise.

400g small fish (whitebait, small sardines, sprats, prawns, smelts etc)
Milk for coating
Flour for dusting
Salt and cayenne pepper
Vegetable oil or oil for deep-frying

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fat fryer. Have three flat containers ready - one with the flour seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper, one with the milk and the third for the fish once coated.

Coat the fish in the flour, shaking off any excess, then put them in the milk, draining off any excess then put them back through the flour, again shaking off any excess.

Carefully drop into the hot fat in two or three batches and cook for 3-4 minutes, removing with a slotted spoon and draining on some kitchen paper when golden.

Serve with the suggested sauces or your own concoction, and quartered lemons to squeeze over.

Sprouting broccoli with capers and anchovies

Serves 4 as a starter or side dish

Sprouting broccoli is one of my favourite vegetables and certainly on a par with asparagus. It can be served hot, dipped in silky hollandaise, or at room temperature with vinaigrette or a dressing like this with chopped anchovies. Canned and bottled anchovies vary in quality, and, as is so often the case, the more you pay the better you'll get. How much you spend may depend on what you're using them for. As this is a thrifty dish you could splash out a bit on the fish.

400g sprouting broccoli, with any woody ends removed
4-5tbsp extra virgin olive oil
8-10 good quality anchovy fillets, finely chopped
2tbsp capers, washed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the sprouting broccoli in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes, depending on thickness then drain. Mix the anchovies and capers with the olive oil and season. Serve on warmed serving dishes and spoon the dressing over.