I’ve been teaching cooking classes for the last few years, discovering how much I like it. It’s an extension of writing recipes, really – wanting to put something new, inspiring and delicious under people’s noses. But you are really in the driver’s seat and can push the boundaries a little more … You see, a recipe book can be full of exciting things, but you can’t make people cook them. With a class, you have a captive audience! You choose something to cook, guessing people may not have cooked it before, hoping for positive results. If there are ooohs and aaahs, you get to witness them, and with a bit of luck, you hear people say they are going to make this at home. The kitchen is always filled with lovely chit chat as we cook together, and I also learn many things.
The theme of my latest class was Mediterranean. I didn’t choose this, but do relish something random being thrown my way, then hunting through my recipes to see what menu I can come up with. I took the definition to be the reach of the Mediterranean Sea, which actually takes in an enormous spread of countries – not just Europe but over to Israel and the Middle East, and the north coast of Africa. We went country hopping from France (cheese souffle and classic green salad with a favourite dressing) to Greece (crumbed sardines, beetroot, skordalia) to Malta (vanilla and almond halva – halva was brought to the tiny country by way of Turkey, and the local name translates to ‘Turk’s sweet’ … More on halva and Malta another day!)
Crumbed sardines, skordalia and dressed beetroot are a gorgeous trio – an elegant and satisfying light meal that comes with the atmosphere of Greece, even on a gloomy Melbourne night. In Greece, skordalia is traditionally paired with beetroot, and also with fish (usually salt cod fritters).
On the topic of fresh sardines
I was so excited to cook fresh sardines in the class, because Australia has its own local sardines that are cheap, sustainable, and absolutely beautiful. I think people were expecting not to like them, but were very surprised by how mild and delicious they are. Admittedly we did crumb them, and doesn’t everything taste good with crumbs? But crumbing is perfect for filleted sardines, as the crust makes the small fish a bit more substantial. I also thought it’s a good way to introduce people to sardines if they haven’t had them before. By the way, kids love them!
Do look for these sardines when you are at a good market or fishmonger (you can also find them at fancy independent supermarkets). They are sold in trays with a navy-blue label and come from Port Lincoln in South Australia. You can get them either whole (without heads), or filleted and butterflied. I highly recommend the latter (you just have to look for the word ‘fillets’, as the two trays look very similar). The other amazing thing about these particular sardines is you don’t need to use them the day you buy them, as they are well sealed in the tray and generally have a long date on them. The absolute opposite of most fresh seafood.
Crumbed sardines, dressed beetroot
If you want to serve crumbed sardines and dressed beetroot as I did, then these elements are very simple. There is no secret to the crumbing – just the usual drenching in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs, and frying in a splash of oil until golden on each side.
As for the beetroot, it is just boiled whole, peeled, cut into wedges, and dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt to taste. This can be done in advance, as the beetroot can be served at room temperature. Just make sure you peel the beetroot while it is still quite hot to touch – this way the skins will slip off when you push at it with your fingers. The skin becomes harder to remove as the beetroot cools.
There are a few different versions of the Greek dip skordalia. The most common is made with mashed potato and generous raw garlic, and no egg yolk. But sometimes skordalia includes bread and/or almonds or walnuts (instead or as well as the potato). This version with an egg yolk is closer to mayonnaise (and while the recipe seems fairly uncommon, I originally found it in a little hardback called Cooking the Greek Way by Maro Duncan, 1964). If preferred – or if gluten free – you can swap the bread for potato. See the note below.
My skordalia recipe first appeared in The Hungry Girls’ Cookbook Volume 3 – tumbled through a deluxe side dish of brussels sprouts pan-fried with garlic, parsley and flaked almonds. Skordalia is beautiful with many different vegetables – obviously beetroot, grilled asparagus (just dip the spears in, or serve the skordalia and asparagus on toast), beans, and battered eggplant or zucchini. My family also loves skordalia in a steak sandwich with warm Turkish bread, grilled tomatoes and rocket.
Note on bread vs potato: Skordalia made with bread gives a chunkier, more rustic dip. The potato version is smoother – more like a decadent mash to be enjoyed in small quantities. Each version is different but delicious.
100 g almonds, blanched and roasted (see blanching directions below)
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 slice of good-quality bread (or 1 medium potato, peeled, cut into chunks, boiled and cooled)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2/3 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
200 ml oil (extra-virgin olive oil is traditional, but I prefer a neutral flavoured oil such as rice-bran oil, or a combination)
If you are blanching and roasting the almonds yourself, simply put them in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. When the water is not too hot to touch, squeeze them from their skins. Roast the almonds lightly until golden. Leave to cool.
Blitz the almonds and garlic to crumbs in a food processor. (If you don’t have one, you can grind the almonds 1 tablespoon at a time using a mortar and pestle.)
Moisten the bread in a bowl of water, then squeeze out the excess water and add to the almonds (or add the potato if using). Also add the lemon juice and salt. Blitz again.
Transfer the mixture to a sturdy bowl and whisk in the egg yolk for 30 seconds or so. Drizzle in about a quarter of the oil and whisk until well incorporated. Keep adding the oil in batches and whisking well until all the oil has been added and you have a thick dip. If the whisking is difficult and the mixture is clogging your whisk, you can swap to a wooden spoon. You can also choose to add the egg yolk and oil while the mixture is in the food processor – just do it gradually, being careful not to split the mixture.
Taste the skordalia for salt and lemon juice, adding extra if desired. Leftover skordalia can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator, where it should keep for several weeks.