A Challenge For A Top Chef: Make Sardines Tasty Carla Hall can't stand sardines. In fact, she hasn't eaten them since childhood. But sardines are nutritious, safe and sustainable, so we gave her a challenge: Make them tasty, too.
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A Challenge For A Top Chef: Make Sardines Tasty

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A Challenge For A Top Chef: Make Sardines Tasty

A Challenge For A Top Chef: Make Sardines Tasty

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GUY RAZ, host:

If you heard Carla Hall's cooking segments on this program, you'll know that the former "Top Chef" finalist would have been delighted to make a meal out of oysters. But when we met up with Carla a few days ago, we had another seafood delicacy in mind for her to cook, something easily available at our local Safeway, where our story begins.

Carla, where are we standing?

Ms. CARLA HALL (Chef): We are standing in the canned meat aisle. There are some sardines here.

RAZ: And we asked you, actually - we actually asked you to make something with sardines.

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: Do you know why we asked you to do that?

Ms. HALL: I actually don't know why you asked me to do it.

RAZ: Well, here's the thing. Every time I go to the supermarket now, it seems like the kind of fish that is sustainable and so on changes every week.

Ms. HALL: Right.

RAZ: You know, one week you can have tuna, one week you can have cod, one week you can't. It's confusing.

Ms. HALL: Uh-huh. Right.

RAZ: So we're not eating a lot of fish at all.

Ms. HALL: Right, because people are confused about it.

RAZ: But sardines are plentiful.

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: They're cheap.

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: They're available everywhere.

Ms. HALL: Right.

RAZ: And they're really healthy.

Ms. HALL: Well, yeah. They are available everywhere in a can.

RAZ: In a can.

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: But they can still be pretty delicious out of a can.

Ms. HALL: Okay. Well, that's why I chose to do this because I want you to prove it to me, and I need to prove it to myself. Oftentimes, I'm making things for other people, they will say they don't like something, and I will say, well, no, why don't you try it like this? So this is me, you know, doing what I say to other people.

RAZ: Got you. All right. So we've turned the tables on you.

Ms. HALL: Yes, you have.

RAZ: Now, Carla not only dislikes sardines, she doesn't eat them. And so she decided that to make them palatable, she had to make a ratatouille to pair with the sardines.

Ms. HALL: Ratatouille is a vegetable dish. I mean, it's tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, garlic. You can throw anything else in that. I'm going to throw in some fennel and pump it up with lemon because I think it'll be really good with the sardines, and also, we're going to throw some chilies in there.

RAZ: All right. So what am I doing first?

Ms. HALL: All right. So you - what you're going to do is just to cut these tomatoes in half crosswise.

RAZ: Okay. So let me just go ahead and start chopping.

Ms. HALL: So you're going to do all of that. I'm going to start dicing my zucchini.

RAZ: A ratatouille is about fresh, seasonal tastes but also about beautiful, colorful vegetables and herbs. And Carla likes it crunchy, so she carefully slices the green outer part of the zucchini, about a half-inch thickness. What's left is a white, rectangular zucchini core. She doesn't use that part because it makes ratatouille mushy. Instead, she suggests you chop it for zucchini soup.

Now, a ratatouille isn't just about the payoff at the end. It's also about the process, the chopping and dicing; in this case, a quarter-inch dice. So when you make it, turn on the radio, crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine because it'll take some time.

This is - I've got tell you, Carla, this is a beautiful dice, really beautiful.

Ms. HALL: Well, I'm going to have you do some. I'm going to...

RAZ: Now I'm intimidated because this is such a beautiful dice.

Ms. HALL: But you know what? I'm going to stand right here with you and I'm going to show you how to...

RAZ: Don't judge me, please.

Ms. HALL: I'm not going to judge you.

RAZ: Don't judge me.

Ms. Hall: But I'm going to judge myself if you don't do it right because I didn't teach you well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: Oh, look at that, beautiful. Yours is more gorgeous than mine. Your knife must be better.

RAZ: I've been taught by a master chef five minutes ago.

Once everything's chopped, it's time to start cooking.

Ms. HALL: So one of the things that I do when I cook zucchini and yellow squash, I toss the zucchini and yellow squash in oil. I don't put the oil in my pan because when it's turned, all the sides of the cubes are coated in oil.

And these are all the little things that honestly, I may not say in a recipe because it gets a little long-winded, and if you see the recipe, you're like, well, dang, look at all those steps, and you know. So you just have to listen to NPR to get that tip.

RAZ: Now, this recipe is really about sardines, and in this case, canned brisling sardines, not filleted sardines, again because they're cheap, plentiful, sustainable and good for you. The challenge for Carla was to make them taste good.

Are you all set?

Ms. HALL: I'm all set.

RAZ: Okay. We are now ready to open up the cans of sardines.

Ms. HALL: We're ready to do it.

RAZ: We're ready - are you ready?

Ms. HALL: Yeah, we have two cans. Wow. Oh, oh, this is good.

RAZ: Very mild, isn't it?

Ms. HALL: Yeah.

RAZ: It's a really mild fish.

Ms. HALL: Oh my God.

RAZ: It's not like...

Ms. HALL: Like, why haven't I had it?

RAZ: Really, really simple, mild fish.

Ms. HALL: Okay, this is me saying that I'm going to open up another can.

RAZ: Awesome.

Ms. HALL: I know. Okay.

RAZ: All right.

After a little experimentation, we decide to sprinkle some fresh chopped rosemary and chili onto the sardines and then dredge them in flour for a quick pan-fry.

Ms. HALL: Mmm, the rosemary and the - oh my God. They're great. The rosemary and the chilies are so subtle but they come - oh my gosh. I've been missing out. Oh my God. All right. So we'll finish these and then we'll just plate up, yeah?

RAZ: Yup. All right, we have finished everything now.

Ms. HALL: Yeah.

RAZ: Everything's been chopped.

Ms. HALL: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: You've plated these. They look beautiful. Each plate has three or four sardines piled on this ratatouille.

Ms. HALL: Yeah.

RAZ: I have a fork.

Ms. HALL: You have a fork, I have a fork, and we're going in.

RAZ: We're going in.

Ms. HALL: Mmm. It's as if we've stepped...

RAZ: Onto a veranda...

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: ... on a Greek island...

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: ...having lunch.

Ms. HALL: Yup. And to all of you out there who don't like sardines, you have to try this before you say you don't like it.

RAZ: And if you want to try Carla Hall's recipe for pan-fried sardines with ratatouille, you can find it at our website, npr.org. You can also learn more about Carla at her website, alchemycaterers.com.

(Soundbite of music)

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