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February: sardines grilled with chilli, haloumi and mint

Australian Gourmet Traveller recipe for sardines grilled with chilli, haloumi and mint.

By Brigitte Hafner
  • Serves 4
  • 15 mins preparation
  • 10 mins cooking
February: sardines grilled with chilli, haloumi and mint
February: sardines grilled with chilli, haloumi and mint

When I see whole fresh sardines for sale looking as though they have just been hauled out of the ocean – shiny, silvery blue, slippery and firm-looking – I am always tempted to take them home for dinner. They take me to the south of Italy and Greece – sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, parsley and parmesan and quickly fried in a pan, or tossed through bucatini pasta with fried breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and pecorino. They’re wonderful wrapped in vine leaves, stuffed with pine nuts and sultanas, grilled over coals and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil – there is something completely delicious about the combination of their salty, rich, iodine flavour with the sweetness of sultanas and the tang of lemon. I also adore them simply grilled and finished with drops of the best aged balsamic vinegar. I even love them tinned in spicy tomato sauce on toast for lunch.

Rich in minerals, high in omega-3 fatty acids and a good source of vitamins D and B12, sardines are often sold already filleted. Personally, I prefer fish cooked on the bone – it has more depth of flavour, and I don’t mind eating the bones because they are so small. Sardine fillets are very easy to work with, however, especially if you plan to stuff them. Look for fillets with rosy flesh rather than a dull grey. Sardines have often been frozen, which is fine: oily fish freeze well and they perish especially quickly, which makes it all the more exciting to see fresh whole sardines at the market. Sardines are plentiful in Australia, fished mostly in the temperate waters of South Australia. They have traditionally been used as live bait in the tuna fishing industry – it’s hard to believe these delicacies can have such a fate. While they are fished pretty much year-round, they are especially good in summer before their spawning season, and again in winter.

We don’t see a great quantity of these lovely, delicate beans on the market. They have a brief season in the height of summer which I like to celebrate by making my favourite salad of yellow and baby green beans, just cooked and still a little crisp, with toasted almond flakes, tiny capers and finely chopped golden shallots (which have been cooked in a little red wine vinegar to soften the raw flavour), dressed with green olive oil and a few drops of hazelnut oil. Beautiful served alongside a platter of roast chicken for lunch.

Butter beans are the pale-yellow version of the green bean and usually have a milder, somewhat sweeter flavour. They tend to deteriorate quickly, which is probably why they are not as common as green beans. When you’re shopping, look for very firm, young, small beans that have no blemishes. They taste best when exceptionally fresh, plucked from the garden and cooked very briefly in boiling salted water, then refreshed in cold water to keep them crisp. I like them in a salad – plain with a little crème fraîche dressing and finely diced shallot and chervil, or finished with burnt butter and lemon juice to go with fish, or with witlof, butter lettuce and a light Dijon mustard vinaigrette. Beans will discolour if dressed with vinegar, and because they are so delicate I like to dress them simply with a young extra-virgin olive oil, or lather them in salted French butter.

Kylie Kwong taught me to hunt out tender young ginger when it makes its brief appearance in the Asian markets each year, because it is something to get very excited about. She would put it on her menu in a stir-fry with fresh bamboo shoots and Thai basil leaves served over steamed lobster, or in mussels cooked with ginger, batons of spring onion and oyster sauce.

Tender young ginger imparts a beautiful flavour without the pungency and stringiness of mature ginger. It has a wonderful, crisp texture and a delicate heat. I love to steam coral trout with lots of thin slices of young ginger and spring onions, and finish it with a little sesame oil and soy sauce. Ginger grows predominantly in south-east Queensland, and the immature first crop is usually harvested from around mid- to late February. From May through to August, the second, mature crop is harvested; this has a much more developed flavour and a heat that leaves you feeling clean and cool. Look for a pale, straw-yellow colour with pink tips and a very thin skin. Young ginger will snap very easily and keeps well in the fridge, but not in plastic because this makes it sweat and grow mould.

Of all the fruit that summer brings us, I especially look forward to plums in February because there are so many things to do with them. I love them poached in a light syrup with a little stick of cinnamon and some orange peel, then chilled and served with ice-cream, or with yoghurt and Bircher muesli. I’ll put them in a simple tea cake topped withcinnamon, brown sugar, ground almonds and egg yolks, or in my mother’s favourite sugary yeast cake base with streusel topping, to be served warm with whipped cream.

Plum season starts in late spring, but the best varieties for cooking and eating tend to arrive around late January to February. My favourite, the Angelina Burdett, is a small, dark-skinned plum with yellow flesh – it doesn’t yield too much juice when cooked and it has a fragrant, beautiful flavour. Then there’s the damson – this small, oval purple fruit is excellent to cook with. The other varieties to look out for are the Japanese blood plums, namely the satsuma and the mariposa. The Japanese varieties are very good eating plums that tend to be larger than the European varieties. There are some varieties of plums that are highly prized in Europe but sadly not grown here, such as the mirabelle, a small, intensely flavoured sweet plum, and the greengage group of plums, known to be the finest eating.

With plums, young ginger, sardines and butter beans in ample supply this month, Brigitte Hafner’s kitchen is filled with summer loving.


  • 8 fresh whole sardines
  • ½ tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 1-2 lemons, halved
  • 500 gm haloumi, thickly sliced


  • 1
    Preheat a grill over high heat. Remove bones from inside sardines, season with sea salt and chilli. Place on a lightly oiled oven tray, drizzle with olive oil and grill, turning once, until just cooked through (1-2 minutes each side). Squeeze over lemon juice to taste, keep warm.
  • 2
    Place haloumi in a single layer on a lightly oiled oven tray, drizzle with a little olive oil and grill, turning once, until golden (2-3 minutes each side). Squeeze over lemon juice to taste, arrange with sardines on serving plates, scatter with mint and coriander, drizzle with a little extra olive oil, season to taste and serve hot.


FRUIT Blackberries, boysenberries, figs, grapes, guavas, kiwifruit, loganberries, lychees, mangoes, honeydew melons, rockmelons, nectarines, passionfruit, peaches, rambutans, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, tamarillos.
VEGETABLES Avocados, borlotti beans, capsicum, chillies, cucumbers, eggplant, peas, radishes, squash, sweetcorn, tomatoes, zucchini, zucchini flowers.
Australian salmon, Balmain bugs, bigeye tuna, blue swimmer crabs, goldband snapper, Gould’s squid, mud crabs, Sydney rock oysters, tiger flathead, Western rock lobsters.This recipe is from the February 2010 issue of .

  • Author: Brigitte Hafner