Tinned sardines are like the last kid picked in gym class, just idling on the grocery shelves as shoppers snatch up the more popular tuna.

Much has been made of canned sardines finally getting their moment during the recent frenzy of panic-buying dystopia. But that’s only because the canned tuna was sold out. I visited three grocery stores in late February to check shelves right after Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the spread of the coronavirus. Shoppers went for the tuna; sardines, as always, were the tin of last resort.

Even in the newsroom, in our Seattle Times staff “Chopped” cooking challenge last week, I picked tinned fish as one of four ingredients my co-workers had to incorporate in their recipes.

Five of my six colleagues chose to make salads or entrees with … canned tuna.

The lone wolf who chose to use sardines was our food writer Jackie Varriano — but that was only out of pity for the sardines. Sigh.

They don’t get any love no matter how much JarrBar in Pike Place Market and James Beard Award-winning chef Renee Erickson rhapsodize about them on their menus.

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You have to hit convenience stores and banh mi shops in Rainier Valley to see anyone buying sardines with any regularity. They’re often overlooked in most places, but these cheap tins are a staple for those who grew up in refugee camps.

If sardines had a moment, it came 10 years ago. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, who was riding the confluence of her bestselling memoir, “Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef” and her critically acclaimed restaurant, Prune, in New York City, served sardines with Triscuits, Dijon mustard and cornichons on her bar menu.

In May 2011, Hamilton strolled up to the stage to accept her James Beard Award and dropped, “All you have to do is open a can of sardines and a box of Triscuit crackers, call it a signature dish, and you get Best Chef New York City.” Hamilton, who subsisted on cheap sardines during her salad days, has turned into the biggest champion of this most underappreciated of fish. 

If sardines get any love now, they get lumped with other seafood in marketing data that highlights how sales of canned fish are rising. Those studies are skewed by this little fact: Canned tuna makes up a bulk of the sales.

That’s too bad. Sardines come with health benefits from omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-12, protein and calcium; they can ward off heart disease. But this “superfood” often gets maligned for smelling fishy. That’s true with any canned seafood of low quality. And our supermarket shelves are littered with the low-grade stuff, still sold as cheap as 97 cents a can.

Here’s how to fix that problem: Eat the tinned sardines that the Europeans eat. Their sardines, caught in spots such as the eastern Atlantic Ocean, burst with salty flavors and are packed in high-quality olive oil and sea salt. Imported “gourmet” European tins such as the Matiz brand get prime real estate on shelves of gourmet shops and supermarkets around Seattle now. You don’t have to shop on Amazon.

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When it comes to cooking, though, we still don’t know what to do with them. If you Google “canned tuna recipe,” you get more than 11 million hits. Sardine recipes don’t even reach seven digits.

Canned sardines, if eaten at all, are often served with spaghetti, sandwiches and saltines in the United States.

But they can be more fun and interesting than that. They are as versatile as salmon. Check out these easy recipes that riff on bar food from Japan and Spain.

Recipes

Chickpea sardine pancakes

Sardines on a chickpea flour pancake with dill and scallions, April 22, 2020, in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Sardines on a chickpea flour pancake with dill and scallions, April 22, 2020, in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

You know you can fry the tinned sardines, right? That oily fish crisps up nicely in a pan to complement the soft fillet. This recipe takes advantage of that crispy skin. I can live just on tinned fish and chickpea pancakes in Spain. The two favorites are paired together in this quick, easy dish. Serve these pancakes immediately or they turn soggy. The oversimplified version below can be cobbled together in a pinch. If you don’t have turmeric powder, you can sub curry powder. But the recipe also works well with just salt and pepper.

Ingredients

1 cup chickpea flour

1 cup water

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon turmeric powder (optional)

1 can of sardines packed in oil, cut lengthwise or chopped into smaller pieces

1/3 cup of scallions

½ cup of  chopped dill

Olive oil

Steps:

1. In a bowl, combine flour, a pinch of salt and pepper and water. (Add 1 tablespoon of turmeric powder if you have it.) Whisk to a thin, pancake-batter consistency. Let the batter settle for at least 20 minutes in the fridge.

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2. Turn heat to medium-high. Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in pan. Drop in a ladle of the batter. Top with a ½ tablespoon of scallions, herbs and pinches of sardines to flavor the pancake. Don’t overcrowd the batter. After the edges crisp up, flip the pancake over to finish. Serve immediately. Takes about 5 minutes.

(The dill and turmeric really go well with seafood. This recipe riffs on the popular Northern Vietnamese dish, Cha Ca Thanh Long and the popular Vietnamese crepe banh xeo.)

 

Tinned sardine casserole

Sardines right from the tin offer flavorful cooking options. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Sardines right from the tin offer flavorful cooking options. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

If you have any sardines in your pantry, it’s usually the cheap, funky smelling stuff, likely not packed in olive oil. Here’s a good recipe for lower-quality sardines.

In Japan, those tiny bars along Tokyo’s famed Golden Gai alleyway barely have room for five sets of elbows, let alone a kitchen. You know how they get by for snacks? With tinned seafood and a toaster oven.

I’ve seen bartenders sprinkle cheese or panko crumbs on top of a can of sardines in tomato sauce before broiling in it a toaster oven. Within minutes, you have a drunk snack full of umami. 

When I lived in a refugee camp, the luxurious meal to make if I could get my hands on an egg was to eat it with sardines and rice. The creamy yolk was like foie gras to me.

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This recipe is an homage to those memories.

Some worry the tin might emit toxins under heat. If you’re skittish about this campfire-style cooking, just transfer the tinned seafood into a ramekin or other small casserole dish. It will also cook more evenly. If you do use the tin, just make sure it’s not a plastic coating. I prefer to take one sardine out of the tin to better distribute the sauce and cheese. It’s just drunk food, gooey and tangy.

Ingredients:

1 can of sardines

½ cup of pizza cheese mix or any cheese medley

½ cup of tomato sauce

1 egg yolk

Steps:

1. Drain the oil or water out of the tin and take out 1 sardine.

2. Add tomato sauce to almost the rim of the tin or baking dish.

3. Sprinkle a mound of cheese over the top. Then put the tin or ramekin on a baking pan or iron skillet on the middle rack and broil until the cheese melts.

4. Once the cheese melts (it should take a couple of minutes) drop a yolk (leave out the egg white) over the cheese and put it back into the oven for 30 seconds to a minute, depending how you well you want your yolk done.

5. Let cool for 1 minute. Serve with toasted bread or pita.