Sarde alla Beccafico, a very old dish in Sicilian cuisine, is still popular today. The dish is made with fresh sardines that are stuffed with toasted bread crumbs, currants, pignoli, cheese, and parsley. The fish roll-ups are then baked in a casserole snuggled between bay leaves, orange, and lemon slices.
The beccafico, a species of warbler, was a plump little game bird highly prized by the Sicilian nobility. They were considered a delicacy, much like pheasant is today. The beccafico, because of its scarcity, was unavailable to the poorer population who subsisted on whatever was plentiful and economical, such as sardines. This dish was named because of its resemblance to the cooked birds.
It is best to use either small or medium-size sardines. Larger sardines have a more pronounced “fishy” flavor. These stuffed sardine morsels can also be served warm or cold as an appetizer.
STUFFED SARDINES BECCAFICO
(Sarde a Beccaficu/ Sarde alla Beccafico)
2 to 2 1/2 pounds medium-size fresh sardines (about 12), scaled, gutted, and heads removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup minced onion
3/4 cup plain dry bread crumbs
3 tablespoons currants
2 tablespoons chopped pignoli nuts
2 tablespoons pecorino cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 orange, halved length-wise and cut in thin slices
1 lemon, halved length-wise and cut in thin slices
Juice of 1/2 lemon or orange
1 teaspoon honey
14 to 16 fresh or dried bay leaves
Olive oil for greasing
Salt and black pepper
Special Equipment: Metal or wood skewers
PREPARE THE SARDINES: Using a small knife, take each sardine and make a 1/4-inch deep incision from the belly to the tail.
Spread the fish open and carefully run your thumbs along each side of the backbone to loosen it. Remove the backbone (and lateral bones) in one piece starting at the larger end and snapping it off just below the tail. Remove any lateral bones that remain.
MAKE THE FILLING: Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the bread crumbs and reduce the heat to low. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon until the breadcrumbs are a lightly toasted, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and continue stirring for 1 minute longer. Residual heat from the pan will continue cooking the breadcrumbs. Transfer to a small bowl and allow to cool.
Stir in currants, pignoli nuts, cheese, parsley, and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
STUFF THE SARDINES: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lay the sardines on a flat surface, skin-side down. Spread a heaping tablespoon of the filling on top and roll the sardine up to the tail.
Thread onto a skewer tail-up with a bay leaf. Add another bay leaf on the other side of the beccafico so that is sandwiched between 2 bay leaves. Then thread a slice of orange and a slice of lemon. Repeat with remaining sardines, placing a bay leaf before and after each piece of fish and adding slices of orange and lemon in between.
BAKE THE SARDINES: Grease a casserole dish, large enough accommodate the skewers, with olive oil. Place the skewers in the casserole dish. Season lightly with salt and pepper and brush the top with olive oil. Sprinkle any remaining filling on top of the fish.
Combine the lemon juice with honey in a small bowl and drizzle over the sardines. Place in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes.