Monday, June 7, 2010

Sar-dines (HEY! And pasta please!)

In the world of home cookery, you take inspiration whenever and wherever you can get some. As much as I love to pore over cookbooks, food blogs and the like, sometimes, in fact, quite often, I just don't have the time. I want a delicious, simple meal that I can throw together relatively simply. Don't get me wrong, I do love the process of cooking and creating a multi step recipe, but these days maybe I have the urge to do so 2-3 times a month. On a good month. So what, and who, inspires my cooking? Travelling, for sure. I try to really pay attention when I eat meals in foreign countries, enjoying every mouthful, but also paying close attention to how I think a dish is being prepared, be it a meal that is casual or fancy, sit-down or stand up. My parents, in particular my mother, continue to strongly influence my cooking. They were keeping it fresh and simple, ingredients based, from as long as I can remember. In Baltimore, MD - word to muvuh! This is the easiest way to cook, and often times the most rewarding as well. Finally, the single biggest influence on my cooking, as it relates to trying new ideas, playing around with ingredients usually outside of my comfort zone, and keeping things exciting in the kitchen, would be taking cues from my favorite local restaurants.

La Ciccia is undoubtedly one of my favorite local restaurants. They cook traditional Sardinian cuisine. One of the appetizers that must be ordered whenever you go to La Ciccia is the sardines. Here's what you do: request sardines, order a bottle of Vermentino (you can choose from upwards of a dozen, I believe), and prepare to be beside yourself with happiness. For some strange, inexplicable reason, I had yet to prepare sardines at home prior to last night. Some reasons to prepare sardines yourself might include the following:

- They are cheap, $4/lb or less.
- They are plentiful and lower on the fish food chain, making them healthy as well as an ecologically sound choice for regular eating.
- You can easily master the preparation and look like you worked in the kitchen at La Ciccia.

Here's how you do it. Buy some sardines. Last night I only bought six because that was all they had. For two people, this is a good number for an appetizer, though eight would probably be better. You will need to clean the fish. If you're used to fish that's already sold as fillets, do not worry; this is easy. Remove the fin at the top and at the bottom of the fish. Cut a small incision in the belly and down to the tail fin. Do it carefully. Then scrape out the blood and guts with your finger (it's really not as repulsive as it sounds). Take a pairing knife and scrape any scales - there should not be too many as these fish must have less scales and are generally smoother to begin with than other fishes. Rinse the fish with lots of cold water. You really want these to be clean. Dry them off, then add salt and olive oil. Meanwhile, heat up a cast iron skillet or grill plan. Add the fish and cook for a few minutes per side. When they are done, transfer them to a plate and add some lemon juice, a few cloves of garlic (minced), crushed red chili peppers, some more good quality olive oil, an herb of your choice (italian parsley is typical, though last night I used oregano thyme and it worked great) and quality sea salt.

Provided your sardines are fresh, this recipe should kill. Afterwards, you can do a simple pasta and salad and you've got a nourishing meal, in relatively short order. Last night I tried a new shape, cencioni, made by Rustichella d'Abruzzo. Literally translated as rags, they are a very large handmade shape from Basilicata in southern Italy. Large meaning almost as big as my ears (which themselves are large). They are very rough on the surface and retain sauces very well. I simply made a fresh tomato sauce from yellow tomatoes, olive oil and salt, adding some ground espelette peppers and topping with grated grana padano. A bit of a culinary mash-up but it worked quite well. Even better would have been the traditional preparation of this shape, as explained on the Market Hall Foods pasta section of the website. Damn! you check that out? That is definitely how I will prepare these next time. Here's what my wimpy, non braised lamb sauce version looked like.

To close, I'd like to present to you - making a rare second appearance on this site - the Junkyard Band with a classic go-go jam.