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Trying to make a lucky dip interesting

"Writer's block is having too much time on your hands." Jodi Picoult

"Read a lot. Write a lot. Have fun." Daniel Pinkwater

My lucky dip initiative to combat writer's block has been an interesting experiment and I have tried to adhere to my rules - pick a book completely blind and pick a page in a similar manner - write. After a while I realised I was not picking books completely blind, because I know where all my books are and even with eyes closed you can tell which shelf you are looking at. So now I get David to pick the book because he has no idea what is there.

Picking the page is still up to me - well I have no idea what is on every page, although I suppose if I know the book well enough I can guess at what type of recipe it will be - if the book is arranged in a reasonably sensible manner that is. Anyway, having just posted what was really yesterday's post but not quite finished then, and with nothing else to do, I decided to do the lucky dip thing. Well I got David to pick the book a few days ago and I had picked the page but I was so disheartened that I just couldn't face it then.

Now I should be outside or walking, because it's a lovely day, but I'm wary of walking because of the strained muscle, so I decided to confront my disappointing lucky dip and see what would come - serendipity like.

First the book. I think it was a Christmas present from someone. Made with Love is a collection of recipes from chefs, producers, foodie artisans from around the world. I show it here with its companion volume The Great Australian Cookbook which I used to own as well. Also a gift.

I show them together because Made with Love is fundamentally the same book as The Great Australian Cookbook, but with some omissions and some additions from others in the series - from South Africa, New Zealand and Great Britain. They are all charity books in that the royalties from the books go to a charity. This one goes to the Nelson Mandela Foundation - I'm not sure whether the Australian book sponsored the same charity. Either way, this is obviously a very good thing. However, I confess I'm not generally that inspired by the recipes, so I donated my Great Australian Cookbook to an op shop and Made with Love is going to the street library. After all, by buying the book, somebody in my family did the right thing in buying them, not just from the charity's point of view, but also because they both gave me at least some pleasure because the plainness of the covers, belies the beauty within. Each contribution is accompanied by a brief few words on the contributor, photographic portraits of quality and many double-page spreads encompassing food, landscapes, people, products and processes. As well as beautifully presented photographs of the dishes. Hopefully somebody will pick it up and derive pleasure from it.

So why was I so disappointed with my lucky dip choice? Here it is - Mum's fried sardines with herbed mayonnaise, from Jim Mendolia from the seafood company Fremantle Sardines. Nowadays he is credited as a Consultant on the company's website, but I suspect that he was a founder of the company. (No he's the son of the founders.) A gourmet producer of fish, which is how he comes to be one of the selected contributors. It's a 'nada' dish, isn't it? What could be simpler than breaded and fried sardines - or more delicious - even if the breadcrumbs are mixed with Parmesan and parsley, and I suppose mayonnaise is not that simple to make. Well it certainly has a difficulty mystique about it anyway. Really it's pretty simple. So a tiny bit boring. Been there, done that kind of thing.

Now my self-made rule is to persist with whatever I have chosen, however unpromising, but on that particular day I was so disappointed that I flicked to a couple more pages. And you know they were just as, dare I say, boring. Which is when I decided the book is for the street library when I have finished with my lucky dip. So at that point I gave up and left it on my desk to fester for a while. Today, maybe encouraged by the concept of 'nada' I decided to have another look. Which, of course, led me in a few different directions. It's never a straight road.

So here to begin are Jim Mendolia and his mum. the author of the recipe. His few words on the introductory page are:

"I was brought up in an Italian fishing family and just love it. Every morning we get up before dawn to chase sardines. The dolphins come out, we watch the sunrise, there's nothing really like it."

The family of fisherfolk came from Sicily and settled in Fremantle where lobster was king. Soon, however, they introduced sardines to the Australian public who had previously not known of the sardine's delicious possibilities. 'Mum' was an essential part of the family as she sustained them with brilliant Italian food whilst they worked the boats. And so Jim Mendolia offers us one of her recipes. And that was sort of it. Yet another successful poor immigrant tale - and Australia has benefited so much from all of this stories.

However, today I decided I should look to see if there were variations of this simple dish. However, what I first found was this even more beautiful looking dish of fried sardines from the other side of the world - in Cornwall - Fried Cornish sardines with herbed mayo: "Fantastic with a chilled glass of Picpoul". There is no recipe because this is a restaurant dish from Muddy Beach Restaurant in Penryn, Cornwall. But again, no recipe is needed really. The difference is that these sardines appear to be simply fried - I don't think they are even battered, although they may be. Lemons, herbed mayonnaise though. Interesting because I guess that all around the world people realise that the best way to deal with a fish like a sardine is to fry it and serve it with lemons and something creamy to dip it in.

Now aioli is pretty much mayonnaise - as somebody said if you call it aioli hesitant cooks might give it a go rather than calling it mayonnaise. Either way SBS in the person of Adrian Feher has a recipe too - for Fried sardines with aioli which looks pretty impressive

The Fremantle Sardines site has a few recipes on their blog, and the first one I found was Italian crusted sardines but click on the link and you come to Nagi Maehashi on her Recipe Tin Eats website. Now she is Japanese Australian but the recipe is based on a Sicilian one, and it does look pretty glorious. Cooks in 2 1/2 minutes she says. In her introduction she also refers to another Sicilian recipe - a 'nada' recipe really:

"In Sicily, Italians love to roll up sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs and a little tangy hard cheese, then bake them or throw them on a hot barbecue."

Then I came to a potential detour with Fried sardines with herbs al Omar on a website called Authentic World Food. It was a potential detour because it was one of those websites you come across that are not high profile but potentially interesting - and this one was. I was going to detour, but instead, decided that I would add it to my list and maybe give it a post all of its own.

Ditto for Annie and Alison, which is one of those websites in which the writer - Annie - is working her way through one cook's - Alison Roman - recipes. In this particular post Annie features two of Alison Roman's recipes for sardines, dismissing one as 'nothing to write home about'. The other dish Pan-fried sardines with fried lemon she describes as:

"When you put it all together, you have caramel notes from the brown butter, a salty-acidic pop from the sumac lemons, and crispiness from the fish skin. It could so be a lemon pastry."

She actually doesn't give you the recipe but I'm giving you the link anyway because she did make me seek out the actual recipe, which I found on the Taste website - Pan-fried sardines with fried and salted lemons. She had a picture of her effort - on the left however, and on the right is Alison Roman's. The other thing I noted from her post was that she had been unable to find any sardines - this is America - and had resorted to trout instead. Which would be different.

Thanks to Jim Mendolia and his family, over there in WA as well as other fishermen like him, we, here in Australia are more fortunate. I'm not entirely sure whether you can get them in the supermarket - maybe in the frozen section, or occasionally in the fresh section, but you should be able to find them in a real fishmonger's. But if they are fresh cook them the same day.

Last but not least is our own Donna Hay and Crispy sardines with lemon and mint. Always elegant and often on a blue background, her sardines are marinaded in the usual suspects - oil, lemon zest, garlic, mint, salt and pepper, dusted with flour and fried until crisp. Also a 'nada' recipe.

But that's really what you should do with sardines and I know I have talked about the ones we had barbecued in France once upon a time. Fresh from the sea, they were delicious.

And look I've actually written a post around something I thought was potentially boring. I hope the post wasn't boring. The pictures are pretty anyway.


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