I know, I know. I said I would post a summary of my future restaurant's concept today. Mañana, amigos. The thump thump that was fun on the dance floor last night is now thump thumping my brain.
Since you were kind enough to drop by, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least offer you a snack: grilled sardines with escalivada on toast. Escalivada is a Catalan salad of grilled or roasted summer vegetables, usually including eggplant, peppers, onions, and sometimes tomatoes. I cooked every part of this appetizer for you in my newest favorite toy: my fireplace. I heart you, hearth.*
Warning. Cooking sardines in your fireplace is a risky undertaking. If done improperly, your house could be haunted by the smell of sardines for eternity. Contemplate that on Halloween. There are two keys to help you avoid this fate. First, you need an excellent fireplace. I can't overstate my enthusiasm for the one in my new home, which is about 80 years old. I love it so much I've cooked dinner in it the last three nights. By comparison, my attempts at hearth cooking in my last house, built in the early 1950's, failed. The aromas of firewood lingered for days afterwards. I never dared attempt sardines. I wish I knew what made one better than the other, but I don't. Apparently they don't build them like they used to.
The second key is maintaining a medium to large fire. In his book "The Magic of Fire: Hearth Cooking," William Rubel describes the ideal fire for grilling as "a mature fire with moderate to high flames and a substantial bed of embers." Don't actually grill the fish directly over the flames, however. Grill them over the radiant heat of the white hot embers that you spread in front of the flames. High flames are necessary because they pull the smoke and sardine-cooking odors up the chimney and out of your house. Again, I'm not sure why. Something to do with physics. Or perhaps magic. I'd look it up, but remember: thump thump.
Escalivada from the Fireplace (recipe)
By contrast, I roasted the eggplant, peppers, and onion (whole and unpeeled) for the escalivada in a bed of embers and ashes in front of the fireplace hearth. In fact, the root word for escalivada, escalivar, means to cook in ashes and this is the traditional method for cooking the dish. I also wrapped a few cloves of garlic in heavy duty aluminum foil and roasted them the same way. The smoke permeates the vegetables. (Now, if I had an editor, I'd be required to tell you that you can, of course, roast the vegetables in your oven or over a gas burner. The difference in the end results, however, is akin to the difference between soaking in the hot springs of Esalen overlooking the cliffs of Big Sur and taking a bath at home). To finish the escalivada, I allowed the veggies to cool, peeled off the blackened skin, and tore the eggplant and peppers into strips by hand. I sliced the roasted onion into eighths. Then I made a dressing by mashing the roasted garlic with a few splashes of aged sherry vinegar and a healthy dose of extra virgin olive oil. Finally, I tossed it all together, adjusted it for taste with sea salt and more vinegar, as needed, and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
Hey, check it out! That's the closest I've come to publishing a recipe on this site in many, many months.
I actually assembled the escalivada the day before when I served it with grilled lamb spread with romesco. For the sardine dish, I chopped up the leftover escalivada, transforming it into a marmalade-like relish. Then I spread that on grilled bread and topped with the sardine fillets. How did I grill the sardines? Now you're getting greedy. Do you want a sardine recipe too? Fine.
Gut the sardines. Season with sea salt. Place in grill basket or directly on the grill. Cook until done.
Heh. Are you satisfied now?
Well, one more thing. This is an open letter to all the restaurant cooks who have overcooked my sardines nearly every time that I have ordered them. The properly grilled sardine should maintain all the tenderness and juiciness that makes sardines such a delight to eat. Like all fish, sardines should be cooked delicately, just to the point where the flesh firms up. I implore you. Please, please, please do not overcook my sardines ever again.
Thank you. I feel better now.
Why did I title this post "Home sweet home?" Could I really consider my new place home before I cooked sardines in it?
* Hearth. About 10 years ago I thought of calling my restaurant Hearth. I liked that it had the word heart in it, because my personal cooking goal and motto is to "cook from my heart." I referred to my restaurant as Hearth in all my old "restaurant ideas" journals (note to aspiring restaurant owners: start a journal). I was sad when, several years ago, some big name restaurateurs opened Hearth in New York City. What really galls me is that, as far as I know, their restaurant lacks a wood-burning oven or grill or anything that remotely resembles a hearth. To add insult to injury, I discovered that I couldn't use that name in San Francisco even if I had wanted to, because there's already a bar that goes by that name. Harumph!