One thing I can say with certainty about the last couple of intense years: Tinned fish has legs. Of all the pandemic pantry pretties, these are the only boxes still stacked high and deep up front on an eye-level shelf.
There was always tuna of course, now alongside sardines, several kinds of salmon, kippers, mackerel, and smoked oysters and mussels. All have found a home on top of something.
The first idea is so simple — and variable — you don't need a recipe. I was inspired by coming home hungry from the farmers market with a bundle of sharp-smelling mustard greens and grabbing one of the cans of sardines my sister had just sent from a recent trip to Brittany. (Precious, I realize, so just grab the Wild Planet canned fish Kate used in the recipes here.)
Rinse, trim, and tear the mustard (or any sturdy) greens.
Microwave a pile of leaves and ribs in a covered bowl on high, just long enough to soften them; drain off any excess water.
Open a can of olive oil-packed sardines. (My sis also included tomato- mustard- and lemon-flavored options in her care package.)
Carefully lift the fish out of the can with a fork and put the pieces on top of the greens.
Drizzle the can juices over all and sprinkle with flaked sea salt.
Consider a squeeze of lemon.
Yet another: For cocktail hour last Friday I made Mark's Socca, cut it into saltine-size squares, and plopped a smoked mussel on a few.
And then there was the time I warmed sugar and rice vinegar and folded it into cold leftover short-grain rice for a not-exactly-nigiri spread that included gnarly-looking canned smoked oysters, nestled among broccolini trees, pickled roasted parsnips, crisp tofu sticks, and shaved bresaola. (Hey, maybe sushi nights at home will become my next episode of Yay Leftovers!)
Other ideas I'm trying next: anchovies mashed into mashed potatoes, canned smoked salmon (I hope this isn't just a Pacific Northwest thing!) flaked into homemade mayo with coarse mustard and dill, and cannellini cakes draped with kippers.
More traditional recipes that feature canned fish follow: An all-purpose anchovy sauce. The open-face Sassy Sardine Sandwich from the upcoming heavily photographed new edition of How to Cook Everything Fast. And two totally different spins on pasta with sardines. All would work with any smoked or non-smoked tinned fish. And as an added bonus, the concentrated flavor makes these dishes an economical way to enjoy more precious seafood. And there’s always Mark Bittman’s Pasta with Sardines, Bread Crumbs, and Capers.
Makes about 1⁄2 cup
Time: 30 minutes
Obviously not a sauce for everyone. But in Liguria, where it seems people eat anchovies daily, it’s popular. An incredibly easy sauce to spice up grilled chicken or fish—swordfish, for example—whether hot or cold.
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, or more if you’re using salt-cured anchovies
6 or 8 anchovy fillets, minced, oil reserved
1⁄4 cup mild vinegar, such as white wine or rice
1 tomato (drained canned is fine), chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Put the garlic in a small saucepan with the oil and/or anchovy oil; turn the heat to medium-low and cook just until the garlic begins to color. Add the anchovies and stir; cook for a minute over low heat.
2. Add the vinegar, raise the heat to medium, and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the tomato and cook until the sauce separates, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, transfer to a bowl, and whisk with a fork for a minute or so. Serve hot or at room temperature or cover and refrigerate for up to a couple of days; rewarm before serving.
— Recipe from The Best Recipes in the World
Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese”
Makes: 4 servings
Time: About 1 hour, largely unattended M
It’s hard to argue that there’s anything Milanese about this crazy but delicious recipe from Kerri's maternal grandmother. Her family were Sicilians who immigrated to New Orleans via Tunisia around the turn of the century. Whether they brought this pasta with them is unknown, but the thick sauce (which is not unlike other Sicilian pasta dishes I (Mark) know) is still popular among the Italian community in Louisiana. The name, however, just doesn’t match the ingredients—especially the cauliflower, sardines, and pecans—which are a better reflection of “Ma-Ma’s” journey than anything you’ll find in Milan.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Two 3.75-ounce cans sardines, preferably packed in olive oil
1⁄4 cup tomato paste
1 cup red wine or water, or more as needed
One 28- or 35-ounce can chopped or whole tomatoes; include their juice
1 small cauliflower, cored and roughly chopped
1⁄2 cup raisins or currants
1⁄2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
8 ounces any pasta, preferably whole wheat (Ma-Ma used regular spaghetti
1. Put the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and the onion becomes translucent, about 5 minutes. (If you’re using whole tomatoes, now is a good time to core them and break them up a bit.) Stir in the garlic, sardines with their oil, and tomato paste and cook until the mixture is fragrant and starting to stick to the bottom of the pan.
2. Stir in the wine and scrape up any bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes and cauliflower. Sprinkle again with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so that the mixture bubbles steadily, then partially cover and cook, stirring once in a while, until the cauliflower is extremely soft and disintegrating, 20 to 30 minutes; add more wine or water if the mixture gets too thick. Stir in the raisins and nuts. (The sauce can be made ahead to this point. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to a few days or freeze for longer; gently reheat before proceeding.)
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Cook the pasta until it’s tender but not mushy (start tasting after 5 minutes), then drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Toss with the sauce, adding enough reserved liquid to keep it moist. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve.
— Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook
Sassy Sardine (or Mackerel) Sandwich
Time: Less than 30 minutes
You could do canned tuna or salmon this same way, only mix it into the dressing for a more traditional sandwich filling.
1 small shallot
2 large or 3 medium dill pickles
1 bunch fresh parsley
8 slices thinly sliced whole grain rye bread
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
Olive oil as needed
Two 6-ounce jars or 5-ounce cans sardines or mackerel (whole or filets, packed in olive oil)
Cook + Prep
1. Turn the broiler to high; put the rack 6 inches from the heat.
Peel and chop the shallot; put it in a medium bowl.
Chop 2 or 3 pickles; add them to the bowl.
Chop 1/4 cup parsley and add it to the bowl.
Put 8 slices bread on a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Broil the bread, turning once until lightly browned on both sides, 2 to 5 minutes total.
Trim and thinly slice the lemon for garnish.
Pluck some parsley sprigs from the remaining bunch for garnish. (Save the rest for another use.)
3. Add 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard to the bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir with a fork to incorporate the shallots, pickles, and parsley. Add olive oil a teaspoon at a time until the dressing is glossy but still spreadable, then add 1 teaspoon brine from the pickle jar. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more brine or if you like.
4. When the bread is as light or dark as you like, remove it from the broiler. While it's still warm, spread some dressing on each slice. Top with a sardine (or mackerel) and serve, garnished with thinly sliced lemon and parsley sprigs.
—Recipe adapted from How to Cook Everything Fast Completely Revised Second Edition (coming Fall 2022)
Good canned crabmeat is wonderful. I'm not sure it's any less cost effective then buying fresh crabs. But it is certainly more convenient. I use it when making crab cakes, and also for a pasta dish I like to make.
I swear this post has me giddy. I want to make all of it! Microwaving mustard greens? Genius.