Monday, January 09, 2012

The Family Meal: Meal 5 - Polenta & Parmesan Gratin, Sesame Sardines with Carrot Salad, Mango with White Chocolate Yogurt

Okay, I admit it. I picked what I thought was probably the easiest menu in the darn book. Why? Because I have a job. And it is routinely giving me a migraine. And riding home on mass transit with the psych ward patients from the county hospital doesn't alleviate said headache. So I picked a recipe with some polenta, some fried fish, and a little sliced mango. Quick and easy. Or so I thought.

Sardines are basically non-existent in Dallas. I know they eat them like they're going out of style in Europe, and I know they have all these supposed health benefits, but darn it, Americans don't like sardines. They're fishy and weird and stinky, right? Yeah, I thought so, too. The only sardines I had ever seen were in small cans. And I never saw anyone buying them. So it was obviously time for me to try some sardines. But where to buy them? I dropped by Whole Foods, but the kid working at the seafood counter shook his head. They only carry them around the holidays, but he could definitely order some. But I would have to purchase a certain base amount to do the order. Um, no. I need 10, read it, 10 sardines. I do not need 10 pounds. Thank you, next store.

I called Central Market, not actually expecting them to have any sardines. I asked the seafood guy if he had fresh sardines, being very specific about the fresh thing since I wanted to make sure he didn't direct me to the canned variety. I could hear the regret in his voice as he told me, "Sorry, I only have previously frozen ones". Uh, this is Texas. EVERYTHING remotely fishy is previously frozen. I was a very happy woman.

The rest of the ingredients were pretty basic until I got down my list to caramelized hazelnuts. Blanched hazelnuts? Sure. Raw hazelnuts? Sure. Caramelized hazelnuts? Sounds good, but I've never seen any. After much internet searching, it turns out that they're some kind of confection, but few places carry them. Luckily my internet searching also turned up some recipes for making them myself. An extra step, but hey, the recipe says caramelized hazelnuts, and I'm not going to question Chef Adria, but so much for "easy to find".

About the polenta... This was so incredibly quick and easy I almost feel bad. And yet it was so silky smooth and palette pleasing that I had to go back and check the ingredient list again. Yep, nothing abnormal. Polenta, water, cream, butter, Parmesan. Simple. And yet the broiler gave the top this amazing crunch, almost like those Parmesan crisps you see as decorations on fancy plates. The polenta underneath was creamy and warm and basically the definition of comfort food. I've got to say, this polenta blew the polenta in Plenty out of the water. Sorry, Yotam.

The sardines were a chore. Since I got fresh fish, they had scales and heads and backbones and guts. Lots of squishy guts. And I needed to remove the scales and heads and backbones and guts before they would be fit to eat. Since I'd never dealt with guts, I had to look up the technique on the internet (I should buy stock in Google). Unfortunately Chef Adria left most of that bit out of his little instructional sardine collage. Plus I was freaking out because the fish had about a million little bones, and I knew if I had to pick every single one out, it was going to be a very long night. Luckily, the little bones are edible. Thank you, internet bloggers. The sardines only take about 2 minutes to fry, but I was ripping away at their insides for a good hour first. The taste of the cooked sardines was indeed fishy, but a pleasant kind of seawater and omega fats. The lemon juice sprinkled on top definitely helped to cut some the richness and provide balance. I actually kinda liked the darn little fishies. They do get a little overwhelming when you have a whole plate of them, though.  The carrots for the salad were just so pretty and ribbon-like when cut with the mandoline. They fall off the blade in curly strips that can be piled in artistic bunches. And the vinaigrette isn't half bad. I never really considered putting mint in a Dijon mustard vinaigrette, but it works.

Ah, the mango. It's not mango season. I know that, and yet I managed to find a beautiful organic mango at Whole Foods. Probably from somewhere exotic like Chile or Peru. Somewhere where it's not 40 degrees out. And since I got it at Whole Foods, that makes up for my not buying local produce, right? Right? Thought so. The white chocolate yogurt sauce... Transcendent. Mango never tasted this good. And you know what? Chef Adria was right about the hazelnuts. They add the perfect sugary crunch that completes the dish.

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