A Challenge For A Top Chef: Make Sardines Tasty

Pan-fried sardines with micro ratatouille. i i

Pan-fried sardines with micro ratatouille make a delicious summer lunch. Guy Raz/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Guy Raz/NPR
Pan-fried sardines with micro ratatouille.

Pan-fried sardines with micro ratatouille make a delicious summer lunch.

Guy Raz/NPR
Small Dice i i

Hall says she doesn't like ratatouille that's too watery and mushy. Dicing the vegetables finely gives the dish a surprising crunch. Guy Raz/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Guy Raz/NPR
Small Dice

Hall says she doesn't like ratatouille that's too watery and mushy. Dicing the vegetables finely gives the dish a surprising crunch.

Guy Raz/NPR

Sometimes, shopping at the seafood counter can be a swim in uncharted waters. Recommendations seem to change on a daily basis; salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp are safe one day — and toxic the next.

But the humble canned sardine is always there, nutritious, safe and sustainable. So we challenged Top Chef Carla Hall to do the (almost) impossible and make sardines tasty, too.

It was a real challenge: Hall doesn't like sardines. At all. In fact, she tells NPR's Guy Raz she hasn't eaten them since childhood, and has never tried to cook them. "Oftentimes, I'm making things for other people, and they'll say they don't like something, and I will say, 'No, why don't you try it like this?' "

"So this is me," Hall says, "doing what I say to other people."

Hall decides to pair the sardines with a surefire favorite: ratatouille. It's a perfect summer dish, bringing together all the vegetables and herbs that are ripening now. Hall puts her own twist on it: She says she doesn't like her ratatouille mushy, so she dices the tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and yellow summer squash into tiny, quarter-inch cubes and sautes them separately to keep them crisp. Spiked with fennel and a dash of lemon, the dish has a tantalizing crunch.

But all that careful chopping and sauteing can't delay the moment of truth indefinitely. It's time for Hall to confront the sardines. She takes a deep breath, cracks open a can and takes a tentative bite. "Oh! Oh, this is good," she says. "This is me saying I'm going to open up another can."

Having conquered her fear of sardines, Hall dredges them in flour spiked with chopped rosemary and chilies, and delicately pan-fries them. Arranged on a colorful mound of ratatouille and garnished with a round of grilled lemon, they make a perfect light summer lunch.

"And to all of you out there who say you don't like sardines," she says, "you have to try this before you say you don't like it."

Pan-Fried Sardines With Micro Ratatouille

Ingredients

  • 12 sardines, scaled and cleaned
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed

For the micro ratatouille:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half crosswise
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 2 twigs fresh thyme
  • 2 twigs fresh rosemary
  • 1 small eggplant, small dice
  • 1 fennel, small dice
  • 1 zucchini, small dice
  • 1 yellow squash, small dice
  • 1 large shallot or small onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Olive oil
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

Serves 6.

1. Prepare ratatouille: Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat large skillet to medium-high heat. Pour in 3 tablespoons olive oil, then carefully place tomatoes in skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Gently shake pan to keep tomatoes moving, but allow tomatoes to blister, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and herbs to pan, then place pan in oven for 5-7 minutes or until tomatoes are shriveled. Drain the excess oil, set aside and use to roast eggplant. This step may be done up to two days ahead.

2. Toss the diced eggplant in salt and set aside. Pat dry, then toss the eggplant in the reserved oil from the roasted tomatoes. Roast in a hot, 425-degree oven until brown and slightly dry.

3. Toss the diced fennel in olive oil and saute quickly in a hot pan. Set aside.

4. Toss the diced zucchini and yellow squash in more olive oil and saute quickly in a hot pan. (Note: Do not crowd the pan, because the pieces will sweat instead of searing.) Set aside.

5. Sweat the diced shallots, then add the garlic. Stir in the roasted tomatoes and the thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the other ingredients. Adjust seasoning. Set aside.

6. Prepare sardines: Pat fish dry, and season with salt and pepper. Heat skillet to medium high heat and add canola oil. Carefully place fish in pan with fresh thyme and garlic, flip after 2 minutes or when brown. Brown on opposite side for 2 additional minutes.

7. Putting it all together: Divide the ratatouille on six plates and arrange two fish fillets on top. Garnish with fennel fronds and grilled lemon rounds.

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