The first thought that ran through my head as I looked into my ingredient bag was WTF (what the food)! Sardines! what am I going to do with these? A little bit of panic set in. Digging through the bag, finding the canned chick peas and the note stating "Healthy Food Challenge" which listed fresh fennel and golden raisins as the additional ingredients, I knew I was up for a challenge. Being that no one in my family likes sardines, my first thought was to disguise them and use them as a flavor enhancement with a primary protein. I jotted down a few combinations and asked for some opinions. A friend told me that in general with sardines "you either like them or you don't." With this I decided that I would make something for the "likers" and not my family. I would not hide them but use them as the main focus of the dish, utilizing the balance of the ingredients as the supporting cast.
After taking a second look at the ingredient list I focused on the 'Healthy Food Challenge" statement and set off to make a healthy dish (something that normally does not enter my mind when I cook).
My recipe requires knife work and some prep but the end result is worth it. The fennel and chick peas work great with the ratatouille as well as the raisins with the cornmeal-based polenta. Utilizing an instant polenta mix is in my opinion a welcomed time saver with this meal and pan frying the sardines for a few minutes gives them a little crunch that completes the dish.
Making healthy food choices is a priority for me and my family but I've got to tell you, canned sardines, garbanzo beans, fennel and raisins were at first a mind bending extreme on healthy eating. The sardines provide a healthy dose of omega-3s while the golden raisins pack an iron-filled punch. Add the fresh fennel with its antioxidants and vitamin C to the protein packed, fiber-rich garbanzo beans, and you've got the makings of an extremely nutritious, heart-healthy meal. But how do you pull them all together into a cohesive, "boy that sounds good" kind of dish?
I started doing some research and learned that these are very traditional ingredients in Sicilian and Moroccan cuisine. After much note taking and list making, I narrowed it down to two ideas: a Sicilian flatbread pizza or a Moroccan-inspired tangine. Flatbread pizza won out since the tangine I was considering seemed too close in style to the Mediterranean Caponata I made in the first round.
The biggest challenge was how to best feature the sardines. We actually keep sardines in our pantry because my youngest daughter eats them right out of the tin, but I have never cooked with them. They have a great briny taste but could be a turnoff to some people if they were highly visible in a dish. I decided to blend them with the garbanzo beans for a twist on a traditional hummus which added a subtle unami flavor to the recipe. I love anything anise related so was excited about the fennel. It would provide a more textural and fresh alternative to onions and the golden raisins were the sweet foil to the salt of the sardines. I was careful not to add too many other ingredients in order to let the flavor-packed, nutritious key elements shine through.
It all came together as Sicilian Flatbread Pizza, my new guilty pleasure that is actually good for me.