Earlier this week, in a screed about the absurdity of grinding up sardines and dumping them as feed into fetid factory salmon farms, I promised a "simple, tasty, and economical sardine dish."
This turned out to be a bit more challenging than I thought—not because sardines aren't delicious, but rather because one the people I live with, Maverick Farms director Hillary Wilson, hates sardines. Or at least she thought she did. So the task wasn't just to make a delicious sardine dish—it was to make a sardine dish delicious enough to convert a card-carrying non-sardinista.
Added to that of course, was the usual challenge of Tom's Kitchen: to make a quick dish with only ingredients on hand—nothing fancy, no special trips to the grocery store. The idea is to show that that good cooking needn't be fussy or rely on rarefied ingredients. Happily, a stack of sardine cans sat in the pantry, unused only because of Hillary's objections.
To construct the dish, I started by conceding the non-sardinistas' main complaint about the delicacy: that they have a strong flavor. No doubt, they offer a briny blast of the sea in each bite. I refuse to allow their flavor to be labeled "fishy," but I acknowledge that they savor of fish, in the deepest way imaginable.
I remembered my fundamental rule of pungent ingredients: they mix well with other pungent ingredients. For some reason, a single pungent flavor in a dish can come off as shrill; while several mixed together can make beautiful, chaotic music—sort of llke the "free jazz" experiments of the '60s.
So I knew that garlic and chile peppers would have to play a strong role in the dish. In the fridge, I found a few gorgeous heads of just-harvested broccoli, and some Russian Red kale. As I wrote recently, these vegetables, both of which belong to the nobel brassica family, are at their very sweet and peppery best at this time of year. They had the flavor chops to stand up to sardines.
From these ingredients I threw together a simple pasta. How did I do? Hillary took her first bite and with a frown pronounced her verdict: "fishy." My heart sank. She added: "But not gross. I think I can eat this." Within a few bites, she had dropped her "fishy" claim and was won over, and now claims to be a sardine enthusiast. I'm not making this up.
Spaghettini with Sardines and Two Brassicas
4 heads broccoli. Cut off the florets on top; then slice the stalks thinly—they're too good to be wasted
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small bunch kale, sliced thinly cross-wise
4 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced; and 1-2 fresh or dried red hot chile pepper, chopped; combined and divided into two piles
1 3.75-oz tin of sardines packed in olive oil
½ pound pasta (I used whole wheat spaghettini, a cut that's thinner than spaghetti and thicker than angel hair),
A block of Parmeson cheese for grating
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 bunch of parsely, chopped, if you have it (I didn't)
Place a large cast-iron or other oven-safe, heavy-bottomed skillet in the oven, and turn heat to 400. When the oven comes to temperature, remove the hot pan and add the broccoli florets and stems, along with a good dash of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Stir the broccoli to coat with oil, and put it in the oven. Let it cook, stirring once or twice, until broccoli is lightly brown and tender. Turn off oven. Stir in half of the chile/garlic mix and a dash of vinegar, let it sizzle in the hot pan for a minute or two, then remove broccoli from pan and set aside. Meanwhile, begin cooking the pasta based on the radical, low-water method popularized by Harold McGee (discussion here). Now put the same hot pan over low flame on the stovetop and add the rest of the chile/garlic mix. Let it sizzle for a minute or so, until the garlic releases its aroma, and add the kale and a pinch of salt, turning heat to medium and stirring to coat in the garlicy oil. Add a dash of water, stir, and after the water begins to evaporate, return heat to low and cover the pan. Cooking, stirring occasionally, until the kale is just tender. Now open the sardine can and add the sardines to the pan, breaking them up into chunks with a wooden spoon. By now, the pasta should be about ready. Before draining it, use a ladle to grab a cup or so of the pasta water and add it to the pan with the fish and kale. Drain pasta, and add to the pan along with the broccoli. Give it a lashing of olive oil, a dash of vinegar, and lots of black pepper, and gently toss. Taste and correct for salt and serve, with a block of Parmesan for grating at table and a sturdy red wine.