Simply sardines

Once upon a time, when he was a young boy, my dad did not want to eat his dinner. He didn’t like it. It was a casserole. His mother found this quite vexing, so the story goes, since, according to her estimation, he liked everything that was in the casserole. She went so far as to name everything – ingredient by ingredient – that had gone into the dish to prove to him that he did, in fact, like the casserole. He maintained that no, he did not. She asked him what he would prefer to eat. He said hot dogs. Legend has it that she then fed him hot dogs at every meal for a week.

We had a busy weekend around here. It started with Thursday and Friday off of school (Lunar New Year and a furlough day because the school district doesn’t actually have any money to pay the bill for one thing that they seem to still pay: teachers’ salaries, but please, let’s not get me started on Prop 13 or we’ll be here forever) without corresponding days off of work for me and my dashing husband, which is always a somewhat fraught situation. Then on to a Lunar New Year’s banquet organized by fabulous Cousin Katie and her friend, and then a truly lovely dinner party the next night, all against a backdrop of weather a description of which would torture those suffering from early-onset cabin fever due to all the winter storms this year (okay, I’ll say this much – I was trotting around town in a sundress, a sundress, people!  It’s February for goodness sake!).

All that is to say that Sunday night popped up out of nowhere and despite the fact that I hadn’t cooked for days I still wasn’t all that anxious to get back at the stove. I was even less interested in going to the store or drawing up a list for someone else to go to the store. To the cupboard I turned and the cupboard revealed unto me:

Sardine olive caper pasta

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. While that happens mince a few cloves of garlic and/or shallots, a chile if you have it (use some red pepper flakes if you don’t), a handful or two of olives (pit them first if need be), a spoonful or two of capers, and – these are nice to add if you have them and I always do because it’s so nice to add them to things when you have them – a few pickled green peppercorns. Put the pasta to boil and cook until tender to the bite with that bit of give in the middle – just a little more than you want at the end. Pull out a cup or so of the pasta water before you drain the pasta. Put the pot back on the stove and add a bunch of olive oil and all that stuff you chopped up. Stir until everything is sizzling and yummy smelling. Add about 1/2 cup white wine and cook until about half the wine is evaporated. Add a can or two of sardines (tuna works too), stir to break them up and add the pasta and reserved pasta water. Stir to combine everything and cook, stirring now and again, until the pasta is perfectly done. You can chop up some parsley and add that if you have it and you’re so inclined. If you have a bit of last-chance arugula sitting in the fridge that is going to be tossed the next day if you don’t use it now, pile some on top of each serving of pasta along with the freshly ground black pepper.

My dashing husband proclaimed it the “best pasta of 2010-2011.” I inhaled a bowlful and went back for more. My son sat and poked at his.

“But you like sardines,” said my dashing husband.

No response, just more poking at the pasta.

“And you like olives.”


“And we all know how much you like pasta.”


“So you must like this!”

Our son turned to me and asked: “Mama, can I just get an apple?”

I sometimes worry that I’ll become too much like my grandmother. My voice isn’t unlike hers and once in awhile I come out with a doozy of a “really!” that even I recognize sounds just like her. I loved her very much and she was an amazing woman. Inspirational in many, many ways. But she was hard on her sons and daughters-in-law and could be dismissive and cold (not to her eldest grandchild, but I saw her be that way to others – including other grandkids – plenty of times). As with so many people, her hard shell was a protective one, and she was a gooey mess on the inside full of endless love for and pride in all of us, but she never came to terms with some of life’s blows and it wore on her. I learned a lot of things from her. I learned to speak my mind. I learned to play a mean game of Scrabble. I learned you belong anywhere you decide you belong. I learned a delicious meal is worth seeking out and worth sharing with others. I also learned that no matter how hard you try, no matter how perfect the logic and well laid-out your argument, you simply cannot talk someone into liking food they don’t like.

It was comforting to learn that maybe I wasn’t turning into my grandmother; perhaps I’d just married her instead.

Last night our making-dinner snack was a bowl of plain olives and sardines straight from the can. We all happily ate our fair share.