Remember that post I did last week? About throwing a dinner party? I wrote about how I do like to cook all , but don’t want to spend any time whatsoever in the kitchen once my guests get here.
This has to do with making guests feel welcome. And preparing something special is certainly part of that approach. But. (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, right?) But... even though I want to go all out, I don’t necessarily want to spend oodles of money.
In other words, I want it to seem as if I went all out, but at the same time I know that if I am going to be cooking for 8 people (and me being me I’ll make enough for 12, just in case) I can’t start out with expensive basic ingredients.
To me, fish is ‘special’ enough to serve to guests. It’s also, sadly, one of the most expensive things you can buy in Rome these days. At least most fish. Some fish, like skate, are pretty affordable. Which is one of the reasons I chose to make Minestra di Broccoli e Arzilla last week. Although that fish looked all big and impressive, it actually didn’t cost that much.
When it came to deciding on a second course (staying with the fishy theme) I chose my all time favorite low cost fish: sardines. We eat sardines pretty often. And every time I go to buy them, when it comes time to pay, I’m sure the fish monger has made a mistake. Only 6 euros for enough sardines to feed four people? For real?
While I usually lay them flat on a roasting pan and grill them, with a bit of breadcrumbs and seasonings, this wasn’t going to work for dinner party fare. First of all, that would be more roasting pans than could fit in my oven. And besides, last minute roasting (as per the Minchilli rules of entertaining) was out of the question.
So I dug up another old fashioned Roman recipe, Sarde e Indvia. Like the arzilla soup, it’s a traditional recipe, made with poor ingredients. And it too had fallen out of favor until recently. I always order it when I see it on the menu ( and they often have it at Sora Margherita) but had never made it at home.
Luckily my fish monger is very chatty and always willing to share recipes. (I think she’s also fascinated with the blogging thing, because as other customers come in, she brags that I put her on ‘il computer’) And she certainly had time to chat away while cleaning my two kilos of sardines.
Oh yeah. I forgot to mention the other reason that I buy sardines. It’s very easy to buy them cleaned and ready to go in Italy. (just like vegetables) If I had to clean all those fishies myself, there'd be a lot less sardine eating going on at our home. I know that sardines are hard to find in the States. But if you do find them, please force your fish monger to clean them so that they make their way to your kitchen in neat little ready-to-go filets.
The recipe turned out to be much easier than I had imagined. Layers of sardines, endive and breadcrumbs. With lots of olive oil, salt and pepper too. Not even any garlic (troppo forte says my monger).
By indvia, I knew she meant what we call curtly endive in English. It’s a winter salad, and the leaves are bright green and curly. But it’s the hearts that get used in this dish. They are white, crunchy and less bitter.
Since I had some puntarelle already at home I decided to use that as well, since it’s also a form of endive, but even crunchier.
And that wraps it up for my dinner party report and advice. Remember: no last minute cooking in the kitchen once the guests arrive. Focus on the cocktails, and enjoy them yourself. You've earned it after all that cooking, right?
And about those guests? If they do ask you what they can bring, have one of them make dessert. (rule #3 of the Minchilli no-fail-have-fun school of entertaining)
sardines and endive
1 kilo / 2 pounds Sardines
1 big head curly endive
breadcrumbs, about 3/4 cup
Preheat over to 350 F / 180C
The most challenging part of this recipe is cleaning the sardines. I admit, I would never ever think of making this dish (or any sardine dish) if I had to clean my own sardines. Luckily, in Italy, the nice fish monger lady (or man) will do that for you. The quantities refer to uncleaned sardines.
Endive: Trim off the dark green leaves. You can use them for something else.(They are too tough and too bitter for this dish.) Break up the inner heart into small pieces.
As I mentioned, I used puntarelle too. I made two casseroles, and both came out fantastic. They each had a different texture, but the flavor was about the same. If you can’t find either, then I’m thinking maybe escarole would work too. The trick is to find a leafy green that’s not too watery (I don't think spinach or swiss chard would work) and that has some body to it.
Pour some olive oil into a 10 x 10 inch (60 x 60 cm) oven proof dish and make sure the bottom and sides are well greased. Scatter some breadcrumbs over the bottom. then lay down a layer of endive leaves. Place a layer of sardine filets on top of that. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper, scatter with breadcrumbs and drizzle with olive oil.
Repeat this two more times, ending with a layer of greens, breadcrumbs then oil. Place in oven and bake for about 40 minutes. The top should be brown and crispy.
Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
To serve, cut into pieces, kind of like you would lasagna.