I wanted to make something really special for this second installment of The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday’s 1 year Anniversary Party, so I chose to adapt a recipe from a cookbook written by one of my favorite restauranteurs, Charles Phan.
Which reminds me . . . I recently read a NY Times OpEd piece which made me sad and a little bit angry at the same time. May I digress? It was the story of how the author’s longtime friend died, technically from complications relating to obesity and heart disease and drug abuse, but for journalistic and I think political reasons the author embellished the cause of death to relate to the lack of jobs in the United States. He made a good point in directing us as human beings towards empathy rather than judgment, but it is a delicate matter to navigate the range of responses to a person who is suffering but who also may be self sabotaging. We need empathy and compassion, but sometimes we need a kick in the butt too. After reading the cookbook you may agree with me that how one responds to the loss of a job or bankruptcy or a debilitating injury has more to do with personality, genetic predisposition, cultural background or milieu and mental health than the fact of the loss of the job or the illness. I am certain the author of the article knows this and perhaps my own reaction to the article tells more of my own personality, etc., than the actual article (haha) but it just hit a chord in me that didn’t sit right, and if you read the story of how Charles’ Phan restaurant(s) came to be, you cannot deny he had a certain innate scrappiness and bulldogishness that caused him to make his own destiny, in spite of obstacles.
For this recipe you will need whole fresh sardines — head, guts, bones and all. Do not buy sardines in a can or package, they will make the dish taste bad. If you are lucky enough to have a fishmonger or fishmarket person who will de-gut and de-bone the fishes for you, spectacular. If not, and you happen to get them at your local community seafood drop, you’re out of luck and you’re gonna get real messy and smelly. As a result, your fishes will likely end up in pieces instead of nice and whole as in the cookbook photo. Just for fun, here’s a photo of the last time my hands touched a whole fish — it’s me and my Mom in Bemidji, Minnesota, with a couple of Walleye Pike. You can see where I got my mop of hair. Our friend Bob fried those brothers up and they were delicious!
I’m sparing you of the process photos but after 45 minutes wrestling with my fishes, here’s what I got:
Next time I make this recipe I will probably use something like halibut, cod or shrimp, cleaned and cut up by the fish market guy and not me.
On to the caramel. You need roughly a 1:1 ratio of fish sauce to sugar and you may use white sugar, brown sugar or palm sugar. For 3 sardines, I used 1/2 cup caramel sauce, using 1/4 cup each sugar and fish sauce, then thinning out the sauce with some bone broth. I couldn’t stomach the amount of sugar called for in the original recipe, so I just cut the sauce amount in half, but using the same proportions. Note: I burnt the first batch of caramel sauce and had to not only throw away the sauce but also my favorite petite (1.5 cup size) saucepan. Keep an eye on the caramel as it is cooking and do not try to multi-task during this time. It can and will burn in a hot second and you don’t want that to happen. The smell of cooked fish sauce is bad enough; add burnt sugar, the residue of sardine on your hands, and burnt fermented fish sauce, and you’ve got a real problem if you’re serving this at a dinner party.
While the caramel sits aside, next cook the aromatics and fruits. I used 2 shallots, about 1/2 cup cherry tomato, one large garlic clove, 3 thai chilis, a 1 inch piece of ginger, and a midget pineapple.
Plate up with some rice and some contrasting vegetables of your choosing. I chose mint and cucumber. Delicious!