Saturday, June 7, 2008

Carpe diem or strike while the sardines are fresh

For ego and a shallow need for glory -- or at the very least a polite pat on the head -- I enjoy cooking for friends and family. Fortunately, I can cook fairly well, so the arrangement tends to work out for all involved. However, the missus is no slouch in the kitchen either. So on the odd occasion her rock beats my scissors, she takes over the cooking duties and I get to entertain the guests.
This was to be the arrangement today. A friend of ours was coming over to share photos of her recent trip to Croatia and hear about the missus' recent trip to Zambia (aside from the occasional trip to the throne room with the comics, yours truly hasn't gone anywhere lately). Come Friday afternoon, though, plans changed and the missus needed to cede the cooking to me -- an unexpected chore I was happy to accept (I've seen all the aforementioned pictures, some many, many times).
Being caught a bit flat-footed by the news that I'd be handing lunch, I decided to head over to a nearby Whole Foods to see what I could see.
I saw fresh sardines.
A sardine is a beautiful little fish that is easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. However, because they typically come canned, they get lumped into the same indelicate category as anchovies and other canned meats.
The merits of canned seafood aside (admittedly, I do love anchovies), fresh sardines are a great treat, especially if you can do them on the grill. And with a beautifully hot day on tap today, grilling isn't just an option, it's an obligation.
While at Whole Foods, I also picked up a 2 pound bag of mussels to steam in some beer, as well as some leeks, green onions and plum tomatoes to go on the grill. I would tell you that I planned to wash all this down with the Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse (a collaboration beer between Brooklyn Brewery and Schneider Brewery) that I discovered. However, the beer didn't make it past Friday night. For what it's worth, it's a hopped weisse, or wheat, beer. Fantastic.
For lunch, we ended up having a wonderfully crisp 2007 Coteaux du Languedoc. Like the sardines and the Brooklyn beer, it was a surprise -- and economical -- find at Whole Foods.
Like I said, this menu -- or most of it -- was designed for the grill. It was also designed to be incredibly easy. So here's how it went:

Grilled sardines with mixed vegetables and beer steamed mussels (gotta come up with a shorter title)
12 sardines (just over a pound, cleaned and scaled)
1 2 lb. bag of mussels (clean thoroughly, removing any beards, and toss out any that are already open -- they're dead)
2 leeks (clean and split in half)
1 bunch of green onions (trim the ends off)
2 plum tomatoes (cut in half for grilling, cut in quarters for serving)
1 yellow onion (chopped finely)
5 cloves of garlic (minced)
1 24 oz. can of beer (I bought Kirin Ichiban. Buy whatever you like.)
4 tbs. of olive oil
2 tbs. of butter
salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon
1 baguette

The key to this dish is to prep everything beforehand. Everything. The fish and mussels cook so fast that if you don't have everything ready to go, something is going to get screwed up. (A quick tip on cleaning leeks, which tend to carry the sand they're grown in. Leaving the root end in tact, split the leeks from the base of the bulb down through the dark green shoots. Wash the leeks in the same direction. When you're ready to put them on the grill, divide the leeks in two, but keep the root ends attached so the leeks don't fray. Before you serve, chop the roots off and dice up leeks.)

Pull the fish out of the fridge and coat in 2 tbs. of olive oil, and then salt and pepper to taste. Do the same with the leeks, green onions and tomatoes (olive oil, salt, pepper; you know, the same).

Once the grill is ready to go, start with vegetables because they will take the longest to cook (about 10 minutes) and then pull them off to a cooler side of the grill and throw on the sardines. They should take only about 10 minutes to cook over direct heat (5 minutes per side). Remember, they are delicate fish, so watch them. If they are cooking a bit fast, turn them at 4 minutes. Or, if you're coals have cooled, it might take 6 minutes per side. Keep in mind that cooking is an art, not a science. When the fish are done, pull everything off the grill.

For the mussels, pour the beer into a stock pot and set to boil. When the beer is roiling, throw in the butter, garlic and yellow onion and let it boil for a couple minutes. Toss in the mussels, cover and sit still. Mussels cook very fast (2 to 5 minutes max). After about a minute, peek in on them. Some should be opening up. When they're all opened, you're done. Using a big slotted spoon, scoop the mussels into a large bowl so they stop cooking. When you portion out the mussels, pour some of the cooking liquid into each bowl. Discard any that have not opened during cooking: they, too, are dead.

Plate the sardines and vegetables, making sure to drizzle some olive oil and squirt with fresh lemon juice, hand out the bowls of mussels and break out the baguette.


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