Photo Credit: C. Hall
So what do you do when you're asked to cook something you don't like? Decline with confidence—surely you can't make dish taste good if you dread the main ingredient, right? Or, agree without enthusiasm, knowing every taste to check seasoning will be torturous? It's times like these that I walk a fine line of loving what I do, versus only liking it. Chefs are expected to like most foods, if not, every food. After all, we have folks like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman who have built careers around eating oddities like bamboo rat and eggs. Thanks, guys. The only thing I shun is alcohol—I don't care for the taste of it. However, I do "eat" my alcohol, so I'll take that nice glass of wine in a sauce, please.
I once had a client who adamantly didn't like asparagus. While working with her to tweak her cooking skills, I grabbed a bunch of random vegetables to practice with—including asparagus. As I'm unpacking the groceries, she told me she didn't like asparagus due to its somewhat mushy texture and bland taste. Asparagus turns mushy when overcooked and can be bland when steamed. (I wouldn't like them either.) But roasting asparagus brings out its sweetness, so that's exactly what I did. I roasted the asparagus in a cast-iron skillet and finished the dish with flake salt and lemon zest—and much to her surprise, she loved them. I debunked the mushy myth by not overcooking the vegetable and adding a bit of smokiness and flavor that you don't get from steaming or blanching.
Explore why you don't like certain foods by asking yourself what characteristics of the ingredients you object to. It could be as simple as texture. I'm not crazy about sardines. The last time I actually ordered sardines was more than 15 years ago, by accident, at a restaurant in Milan. The last time I touched sardines was during a challenge on Top Chef. (Some of you may remember me waving Eric Ripert by as he judged our fish deboning skills on the itty-bitty sardines. There was no need for him to stop at my station; my sardines had died a second death on my cutting board.)
So, recently, when I was asked by the producers of NPR's "All Things Considered" to do a cooking segment with sardines, I was taken out of my element. "I'm sorry, did you say sardines?" Then I remembered to practice what I preach. How can I admonish a dislike for asparagus when I have the same hatred for the sardine? I accepted the assignment, approaching it methodically.
When I think sardines, I think Mediterranean. When I think Mediterranean, I think of a myriad of complementing tastes like herbs, garlic, tomatoes, and a hint of spice. Mediterranean cuisine is a favorite of mine, so at the very least, I should be able to pair the teeny fish with something I do love.
My go-to book, The Flavor Bible, recommended pairing sardines with anchovies, red peppers, capers, carrots, chiles, coriander, eggplant, fennel, most herbs (parsley, thyme, basil, sage), pine nuts, tomatoes, zucchini, and white wine. The makings for ratatouille jumped off the page at me, and a plan emerged for a micro-ratatouille with fennel and a bit of chiles. YUM!
I met Guy Raz, the host, at the grocery store. He explained that he wanted to work with sardines for this segment because the fish are sustainable, full of omega-3s and inexpensive. After picking our produce for the ratatouille, we headed down the canned meat aisle—home of several varieties of tuna, potted meat, Spam, Vienna sausages, canned chicken, and, of course sardines. I wasn't even aware that there were so many different varieties of sardines: smoked or not, packed in oil or water, brisling or fillets, plain or flavored. (I learned that brislings packed in olive oil are the ones to use due to their mild tuna-like flavor, whole small fish as opposed to fillets like anchovies, and processed very little.)
Back in the kitchen, there was a lot of prep to do. Guy, who is quite the cook at home, and I spent the bulk of the time chopping and dicing the ingredients for the ratatouille… and then it was time for the sardines. I popped the can open, drained the oil, and sprinkled the fragile fish with chopped rosemary and chile flakes. I knew the fillets were already cooked and typically eaten right out of the can, but I wanted to add more texture and interest. I lightly dusted them in flour and quickly sautéed them, forming a golden crust on the delicate fish. I plated the ratatouille, topping it with three crispy sardines.
Guess what? They were yummy! I was so surprised. They weren't fishy and mushy like I had anticipated; they were like eating mild tuna with crispy skin. The sardines were so satisfying, and I will definitely do a repeat of this one. I realized after eating the dish, that my food memories were stuck in the past—as a child, I hated how the fish looked in a can. Everything else I concocted in my head.
Remember, push the envelope and revisit those foods you thought you didn't like. You might surprise yourself.
And most of all, cook with love,
Carla Hall was a finalist on Top Chef: Season 5 and runs Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C.