It can be difficult to do things like cooking or even just eating when life hands you something ugly, but I try to use cooking as a coping mechanism – a distraction of sorts, a way to busy myself with the process of creating something good and restorative for myself and those around me. Feeding yourself and those you love is a basic, nurturing thing, and spending a bit of time in the kitchen, even when I feel like I’m just going through the motions, is something I rely on to get through rough patches.
I am grateful at times like these that we tend to sketch out menus for the week in advance, and that we have an abundance of pantry staples to pull out when we need something nourishing but fuss-free. As much as I love being inspired by what is fresh and shiny at the market, sometimes I just need to cook up one of those meals that I have done countless times and don’t have to think too much about.
We’ve always got sardines in the pantry for snacking or light lunches, but I also love using them with pasta. We generally get the King Oscar brand, which I believe are readily available in most stores, but we recently picked up a box of these imported Portuguese sardines at Russ and Daughters, so I decided to use them.
I got a big pot of water boiling for the pasta while I trimmed and sliced a fennel bulb and chopped half of a large ripe tomato (I used fresh because we had a leftover fresh tomato on hand; you could certainly substitute chopped canned tomatoes – about a cup worth). I placed about 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat, and then added three fat cloves of garlic (peeled and chopped). I added two anchovy filets to the garlic and oil and mashed them with the back of my spoon until they melted into the oil. The fennel went in next with a pinch of salt, and I cooked it for about 5 minutes. I added a splash of white vermouth next and let that bubble down, then added the tomatoes and a splash of sherry vinegar. I stirred this all together, lidded it up, and let it simmer over low heat while the pasta cooked.
I cooked about half a pound of linguine in boiling salted water until it was short of al dente – roughly 6-7 minutes. Shortly before the pasta was ready, and after the sauce had reduced a bit, I added my sardines to the sauce – one can, with their oil. I broke the sardines up just a little with my spoon, added the linguine to the sauce along with a little bit of the pasta water and tossed everything through. I placed the pasta into bowls and topped it with a little fresh parsley and toasted breadcrumbs. (I had intended to top the pasta with fennel fronds and lemon zest, but frankly, I forgot.)
Mike poured a couple of glasses of Nero d’Avola, and as we sat in the dim light of our living room with our plates in our laps, quietly eating our meal, I felt a bit of calm come over me. Despite everything that was going on, I was eating good food with someone I love very much beside me, and I knew that things would be all right. Besides, as any cook knows, you sometimes need a little something bitter to bring out the sweet.