Sardine, niçoise olive, dried tomato, arugula
I suppose I could offer an analogy of how sick I still am by saying that any of the ingredients below resembles something that has come out of my sinuses in the past week, but I won't.
Except that I just did.
It's not entirely true, and my crankiness about still being sick should have no bearing on your enjoyment of this dish... because, quite honestly, it was pretty tasty. Unlike the stuff that's coming out of my.... okay, I really will stop now.
* * * * *
Any recipe that affords me a trip to the Asian market to buy ingredients I wouldn't ordinarily cook with is always welcome. So, knowing Whole Foods and Safeway wouldn't carry sheets of dried fish, I hopped in the car, tottled around the beltway, and headed on up Georgia Avenue to the H Mart in Wheaton, only to find that their stock of dried sardine sheets had been recalled earlier in the week and they didn't know when they'd be back in stock.
So, I perused my other options, discovered there was really only one other choice, and decided that I'd just go ahead and use sheets of dried ice fish instead. Not exactly the same flavor, but would offer the same functionality, right?
But before we get to that part of the dish, let's start off with what I knew I couldn't screw up -- tomatoes and arugula.
I squared the edges of and cut the sun-dried tomatoes into 1/8" strips and set them aside until it was time to plate:
Next, because I couldn't find baby arugula, I decided to to a chiffonade of regular arugula, and set that aside until it was time to plate:
It's at this point that I think I owe anyone who knew me in 1984 a huge apology. Why? Well, I had the good fortune (and trusting parents) to travel to England the summer in between 10th and 11th grade as part of one of those let's-do-10-countries-in-two-weeks-and-also-sing-songs-about-America-as-part-of-a-pseudo-Up-With-People-only-not-as-dorky-and-certainly-no-jazz-hands-chorus-and-band-tour-shut-up-I-can-hear-you-laughing-at-me.
Most of our meals were prearranged by the tour leaders and we ate in group settings, but when we had some free time, my new friends and I would spend as little as we had to on food so there was more money for clothing (which, sadly, in 1984 meant buying an oversized Frankie Say Relax t-shirt, green neon hoop earrings, and red jelly shoes). One afternoon in London, on one of our final days abroad, I remember going into a sandwich shop (after having spent hours in my new favorite store Miss Selfridge) and getting a really cheap egg salad sandwich with arugula... only in England, arugula is called "rocket." Armed with a desire to be British, I dropped "rocket" into more conversations than was probably necessary or appropriate, and when I got back to "the States" (see how fake British I still am?), I continued my annoying monologue about rocket, and how good it was, and how I wish I just had some rocket for this sandwich, and what do you mean you've never heard of rocket, oh maybe that's because here in the States it's called something else, so let me now tell you nine hundred other things that somehow involve me saying the word "rocket."
So, if you knew me in 1984, I apologize... not just for talking about rocket all the damn time, but also for my unfortunate hairstyle and gross misunderstanding of makeup technique. Thanks for not punching me in the neck. I probably deserved it.
Okay, moving on...
The next thing I did was prepare the niçoise olive cream. Really easy. First, I took my 300g of niçoise olive brine (which the lovely girls at the cheese counter at Whole Foods poured and weighed for me and REFUSED TO LET ME PAY FOR IT, I LOVE THEM) and added the Ultra-Tex 3 (which sort of sounds like a condom brand or a herpes medicine, but I assure you, it's neither, although I now have Barry White's voice in my head enouraging me to use the Ultra-Tex 3, GREAT).
I whirred it in the blender for about a minute, during which time I also whipped my whipping cream in my Kitchen Aid mixer, bringing it to medium-stiff peaks.
I folded the Ultra-Texed (ooohhhhhhh yeeeaaaaahhhhhh) olive brine into the whipped cream...
... and put it in a pastry bag until I was ready to pipe it into the little sardine, nay, ice fish crisp cups I was about to make.
Here's what I started with:
What's that little graphic on the bottom of the package? Does it mean only middle-aged, mustachioed post-grads with three diplomas can use this product?
So, essentially, this is a sheet of dried ice fish. Wanna see the little guys up close?
I am equally fascinated and skeeved by this product. I've eaten it before, but never cooked with it. And, while I love the purpose it's going to serve, if I think too much about their crunchy little spines and beady little silvery eyeball heads, I twitch. So I don't think about it. (>twitch< DAMN IT)
I cut one of the sheets (they came two to a pack, which later turned out to be a VERY good thing) into 1x3" strips, which I then sprayed with a little water before getting ready to cook them:
I wrapped one of the strips around the end of a wooden spoon handle, pressed the edge a bit to seal it, then gently slid it into a pot of 375-degree canola oil (the seam side pressed against the inside of the pot so it would stay together):
It only took about 30 seconds for this to turn golden and stop bubbling. I was thrilled that this was so easy that I did a second one right away, which also was so easy, that when I got to the third one, I was stumped and annoyed. Same for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eight ones. Why? They stayed wrapped around the spoon handle in the pot, but when they were done cooking, I couldn't get them off no matter how gently or hard I tried. It was so strange. The first two were easy-peasy and slid off beautifully without any problem. The rest just cracked apart when I touched them or had to be scraped off with a paring knife. SO ANNOYING. And, after working with all eight of them, and all eight of them just having come out of 375-degree oil, my finger pads were toast. Seriously, I should've robbed a bank or something because I think my fingerprints disappeared for a good 48 hours.
So, I got the second sheet of fish out of the refrigerator and cut it into little cracker-like pieces, fried each one for a few seconds to crisp it up, and figured I'd just improvise in the presentation.
Man, those look worse in the photo than they did in real life. Kind of depressing to see them this way. Yipes...
I was able to fill the two ice fish crisp cylinders with the olive cream, then top them with arugula and the dried tomato strips, but they're not as pretty as the ones in the photo in the Alinea cookbook. Not even close:
Look at that olive cream trying to make a run for it. "Get me out of here! I'm mortified to be associated with this whackjob!! Aaauuuuggghhhh, there's rocket on top of us!!!!"
Completely defeated and simply wanting to get it overwith and see what the damn things tasted like, I blorped some olive cream, arugula, and tomato strips onto my ghetto fish triscuits (with all apologies to the fine Nabisco corporation) and said Ta-DAAA!!!!!!
You already know how I feel about the look of these, so let's move on and talk about how they tasted. I will say that they weren't sardine-y or salty enough for me, but I was expecting that. Eaten as one bite, they were really pretty good, and we all liked them. The adults enjoyed them more than the kids did, but there was no gagging or spitting or fake vomiting on their part, so I count that as a plus. I didn't like olives until about ten years ago, and while I still don't really always love them on their own, I do love the way the olive flavor integrates with other flavors in a dish. And, the textures in this bite worked well together, too.
I'd certainly do this dish again, only I'd probably do it differently because now that I have my fingertips back, I kinda wanna keep 'em. So, maybe some sort of toast or homemade flatbread spread with sun-dried tomato compound butter topped with a sardine-and-olive tapenade. Or, I'd somehow find a way to do an olive-tomato-arugula-sardine relish over a piece of pan-seared fish.
So, while maybe not Miss America on a plate, it definitely earned the Miss Congeniality title, because at the core of it, it's good. Really good.
Up Next: Cranberry, frozen and chewy
Resources: Dried ice fish sheet, sun-dried tomatoes, and canola oil from H Mart; arugula and olive brine from Whole Foods; Organic Valley heavy cream; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice/Alinea.
Music to Cook By: The Pilmsouls; Assorted. I'm not sure how or why the song "Million Miles Away" got stuck in my head last week, but it did, which led me to not only download some of their music, but also to watch Valley Girl. I really love these guys for nostalgic reasons, and they don't sound all that dated when you listen to them now. Or maybe I'm just in denial about this not being the 80s anymore. I dunno. I've been spending waaayyy too much time catching up with old high school friends on Facebook, I've probably forgotten what year it is.
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