The first course was something that we’ve actually never cooked before: sardines. Living deep inland, we tend to avoid those fish that depend most on freshness: the small, oily ones. Unfortunately, these are the same ones that have a magical confluence of culinary virtues – they’re super tasty, cheap, healthy, sustainable, and quick and easy to cook.
1. We’ve learned that Toronto gets most of its fresh fish delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so Friday is a good bet.
2. The weather was good enough to cook outside – a key concern, if you don’t want your house to smell for days, and if you do want your fish to have that grill-kissed flavour.
3. There was a big pile of sardines at the fishmonger (in this case, Domenic’s at the St. Lawrence Market), and they looked impeccably shiny and fresh.
The staff at Domenic’s took pains to gut and scale the six little fish – a fiddly job that took the better part of 10 minutes.
The dish came together thusly:
The coals were lit.
Some good, dense, day-old Italian bread was repurposed into croutes: brushed on both sides with olive oil, broiled in the toaster oven, and sprinkled with sea salt.
We improvised a salad of diced ripe tomatoes and roasted red peppers, chopped scallions, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
We beheaded the sardines, and used a cool trick to debone them: laying them spine-up on the cutting board, with their belly flaps splayed out, run an index finger down the length of the spine with medium pressure. You’ll feel a subtle, zipper-like effect. Turning the fish over, grab the spine at the “neck” end, and press down against the flesh with your other hand as you pull up on the spine. Once you reach the tail, lop it off with a flick of your knife. Flip the fish over, gently pull out the dorsal fin, and you’re done. Dress the fish with a little olive oil and some sea salt.
The fish were grilled for about 90 seconds a side, and plated with the salad, croutes, and some chopped parsley and basil. We haven’t tasted fish like this since our long-ago trip to Istanbul – electrically fresh, somehow both rich and light, and elevated by the scent of olive oil and charcoal.
Contented sighs and a couple of glasses of wine later – Segura Viudas cava with a drop of Orange Bitters – it was on to the main course: grilled skirt steak with a fricassee of fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms.
I can’t pretend this is an easy, weeknight-dinner option, but if you have time to marinate the steak and deal with the multi-step business of shelling fava beans, the payoff is huge.
The steak – you DO know about skirt steak being cheap, crazy-flavourful and tender, right? – was cut into rectangular serving sizes and marinated in dijon mustard, worcestershire sauce, minced onion and black pepper.
Meanwhile, the favas: take a few pounds of them (this will yield a cup and a half or so), string them by snapping off the stem-end and pulling, and pop out the beans. Blanch them for one minute in a big pot of boiling salted water (lots of water means the temperature won’t drop when you throw the beans into it), and shock them in an ice bath. Finally(!) remove their leathery skins by nicking the edge of the skin with your thumbnail and, pinching between your thumb and index finger, pop the beany goodness into a bowl.
When your grill is ready, take the steak out of the fridge (skirt steak is so thin that it’s best not to let it come up to room temp before grilling) and fire it for about 2 minutes a side over a very hot grill.
While the steak is resting, assemble the fricassee (a fancy word for a saute with a lot of fluid). Saute your sliced chanterelles, add the favas, gloss the pan with a half-cup of rich veal stock (or some demi-glace), and taste for seasoning.