In this age of fresh and local, canned foods are so far out of fashion that it sometimes seems as if they hide their heads when you walk past them in the grocery store. In some cases, this is valid: Who still buys canned peas or asparagus? But in others, it’s nothing but shortsighted snobbery on our part. What is more delicious than a really good canned sardine?
Well, certainly a fresh sardine is right up there, split and grilled over a hot fire. But canned sardines are not ersatz fresh sardines; they are a different product entirely, like cucumbers and pickles, or roast pork and prosciutto.
Canned sardines are worthy in their own right. They have earned their pungent dignity.
And pungent they can be. Rightly or wrongly, canned sardines have a reputation for masculine appeal. They’re the kinds of things hard-boiled detectives might eat, leaning over the sink, pulling on a strong craft beer, with Charlie Parker on the stereo.
They’re good with mustard and/or capers. Of course, a little sharp onion is never out of place. A little heat? Why not? A squirt of lemon or a few drops of red wine vinegar bring balance. Maybe mash them up with butter or mayonnaise into a spread or a soft pâte.
If you’ve got canned sardines in your pantry, dinner is never far away.
When his wife is out of town, Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Provisions & Wine in East Hollywood and former proprietor of the beloved Lou wine bar, makes what he calls his “bachelor special:” sardines spread on toasted crusty bread, moistened with a little of their oil and topped with pickled red onions.
Just recently, The Times’ Jonathan Gold reviewed Octavio Becerra’s new Acabar restaurant, where the chef makes a fetish of sardines — served on grilled bread thickly spread with butter and topped with a spicy herb mix. I simplified this a little, mashing sardines onto crackers and spooning a little of a chermoula made with mint and parsley and just a touch of garlic. Pungent meets pungent.
But, of course, sardines are not just a hard-boiled guy thing. I remember renowned cookbook writer Paula Wolfert serving an appetizer of toasts topped with wedges of ripe avocado, sardines and thinly sliced onions. She said she’d learned it from Ferran Adria, an amazingly rustic offering from the wizard of modernist cooking.
Saute olive oil, garlic and fennel seeds, and add canned sardines at the last minute, so they just barely break down. Stir this together with cooked pasta, parsley and fennel fronds chopped together and soaked golden raisins. And finally, scatter over fresh bread crumbs that have been toasted in sardine oil.
That’s my version of a dish that I learned from an old friend, the late actor Vincent Schiavelli. He called it pasta chi sardi a mari, or “pasta with sardines that are still in the sea.” It’s a pun on the great Sicilian fresh sardine dish pasta con le sarde, for those times when fresh sardines are scarce.
Granted, this is another case of me taking liberties with someone else’s recipe. Traditionally, it is made with anchovies — either salted or canned. However, I think with canned sardines, the pun seems even more pungent.
Fishing for the perfect canned sardines
Two fans sample sardines, mostly packed in oil, from a variety of sources. Here are their favorites.
There is an ocean full of canned sardines at local markets, but which ones are really worth buying? Tasting through more than a dozen samples, the range of quality was astonishing. There were sardines that were as bland as beige, and then there were fish that were absolutely magnificent.
To help make sense of the journey, I enlisted Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Provisions & Wine and a sardine lover from way back.
We sampled sardines from a variety of sources: regular supermarkets, high-end markets, Asian markets and specialty markets such as the Harbor City Spanish store La Espanola Meats.
Generally, we focused on nonsmoked sardines that had been packed in olive oil, partly so we could focus on the quality of the fish and partly because that’s what you want if you’re using sardines as an ingredient rather than a snack. Here were our favorite sardines in roughly ascending order:
Crown Prince Skinless Boneless Sardines (99 Ranch, 106 grams, $2.69): A good, usable sardine for cooking, with a fairly meaty texture and a clean flavor.
Cole’s Portuguese Sardines in Olive Oil (Bristol Farms, 125 grams, $4.59): Good meaty texture with a clean, pure fish flavor. A little more salty than some other sardines.
Matiz Gallego Sardines in Olive Oil (Spanish Table website, 120 grams, $3.69): Fairly meaty, strong, clear fish flavor.
Albo Sardines (La Espanola, 120 grams, $4.98): Large with dark blue skin. Very meaty with good flavor.
Connetable Sardines a l’Ancienne (Bristol Farms, 120 grams, $4.99): A very good, very French sardine, with firm, meaty texture and a subtle flavor. The quality of the olive oil was notable — very clean and delicate.
Les Mouettes D’Arvor “Ville Bleue” Vintage 2011 (Lou Provisions & Wine, 115 grams, $9.50). Yes, there are vintage-dated sardines. Don’t laugh — this fish was nothing short of amazing. The flesh was so firm that you could lift the fish by the tail without it falling apart. The flavor unfolds as you taste it — ultra-clean, pure fish flavor with a sweet, nearly fruity finish. Expensive, but unforgettable.
Sardines with chermoula
Serves 6 to 8
• ½ teaspoon minced garlic
• 3 teaspoons chopped mint
• ½ cup chopped parsley
• ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
• ¾ teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1 (120-gram) can sardines in olive oil
1. Combine the garlic, mint, parsley, red pepper flakes and salt in a mortar and pestle, and pound to a paste. Slowly add the olive oil, stirring constantly to make a creamy sauce. Stir in the red wine vinegar and adjust seasoning to taste. Alternatively, pulse the garlic, mint, parsley, pepper flakes, salt, olive oil and vinegar in a blender to make a chunky paste. This makes about one-third cup chermoula.
2. Drain the sardines and stir them with a fork to break into pieces. Spread approximately 1 teaspoon of sardines on a small cracker and top with approximately one-half teaspoon chermoula. Repeat until all sardines have been used. If you have sauce left over, it will store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Protein: 4 grams
Fat: 7 grams
Saturated fat: 1 gram
Cholesterol: 21 mg
Sodium: 297 mg
Pasta chi sardi a mari
30 minutes. Makes 4 to 6 servings
• ¼ cup golden raisins
• ½ cup fresh bread crumbs
• 1 (80-gram) can sardines in olive oil
• 1 pound spaghetti
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 whole clove garlic
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
• ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
• ¼ cup chopped fennel fronds
• 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Cover the raisins with hot water and set aside to soften. Place the bread crumbs in a small skillet, add just enough of the oil from the sardines to moisten and toast over medium heat until bread crumbs are golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Transfer to small bowl to stop the cooking.
2. Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of rapidly boiling, heavily salted water until it is al dente, about 12 minutes.
3. While the spaghetti is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet large enough to hold all the spaghetti. Add the garlic clove, fennel seeds and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally until the garlic has begun to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Discard the garlic.
4. Remove the sardines from the oil in which they’re packed, retaining the oil. Add the sardines to the skillet and cook, breaking the fish into bite-sized pieces with a spatula.
5. When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving one-half cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the skillet, along with the reserved cooking water. Drain the raisins and add them. Add the fennel fronds and parsley, increase the heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, until the water has evaporated. Taste and add some of the reserved sardine oil if a stronger flavor is desired.
6. Scatter the toasted bread crumbs over top and serve.
EACH OF 6 SERVINGS
Protein: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 64 grams
Fiber: 3 grams
Fat: 10 grams
Saturated fat: 1 gram
Cholesterol: 19 mg
Sodium: 94 mg
NOTE: Loosely based on a recipe from the late actor Vincent Schiavelli