Growing up, I thought sardines were weird. Something old guys ate with raw onions, washed down by that then-vile substance, beer. Old guys from the old country. I never imagined sardines as a modern miracle food, a fountain of youth. I never imagined them as beautiful.
I certainly never imagined them as objects of mass affection. If anyone had dared to bring sardines for lunch I would have felt compelled to move away from the sandwich, relocating myself to some less pungent corner of the school cafeteria. Sardines smelled too strong, and they had those icky little bones, which at the time I didn’t recognize as a great source of calcium. I’d never heard of Omega-3.
I didn’t like canned food, anyway. And I’d never seen a fresh sardine, although I grew up on the Pacific coast where once they teemed. I didn’t think about whose hands might have carefully placed those tiny fish so neatly in their can, packed them in tight, serré comme des sardines, as you say in French to mean something that’s super-crowded.
And I only started to think about sardine fishing when I lived on the Monterey Bay, where Cannery Row, now an infamous tourist trap, was once the heart of a thriving sardine fishery. The sardines were all gone when I lived there, but now they’ve come back, as sardines are wont to do, about every 30 years. Sardine time is here again.
When we came to France I discovered abundant and cheap fresh sardines, and promptly fell in love with them. Recently, a reader asked plaintively, replying to my rhapsodic post Hooked On Sardines, if there weren’t something good to do with canned sardines. And that’s when I realized that now I eat tons of canned sardines, because they’re absolutely delicious here. In fact, sardines take up a considerable amount of my limited canned food space, sometimes edging out other more obvious staples like chocolate.
Here’s my currently Most Favored Sardine Concoction. It’s a concoction as opposed to a proper recipe, because it’s different every time I make it, and each time I think it’s the best ever.
Usually I make this as a sauce for pasta, although I’ve also been known to toss it with roasted cauliflower instead, or to put in over polenta. You’ll have to decide that for yourself, or try all three. So to get started, here’s what you do.
Buy a can of really good sardines, packed in olive oil. Drain the olive oil into a frying pan and add a diced onion and 3-4 cloves of chopped garlic. Let this sizzle lightly until barely golden, then add some diced piquillo peppers, if you can get them, or dice up half a red bell pepper if you can’t. Toss in a big handful of capers, then add a can of good tomatoes. I like to use canned cherry tomatoes, but any high quality canned tomato will do. Stir well and add a tablespoon of double-concentrated tomato paste. When that’s blended in, add your sardines and crush with a fork until they begin to disappear in to the sauce. If you’re using cherry tomatoes, try to crush those as little as possible. Add a nice splash of red wine, enough that the sauce takes on the consistency you prefer. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes or so, add salt and pepper to taste, and if you like spicy stuff, add a dash or two of your favorite hot sauce. And there you have it.
I’ve added Niçoise olives. I’ve added chard. I’ve made it without peppers, and I’ve even made it without tomatoes, although that was a desperation move in a moment of sardine craving that coincided with a brief and bleak interlude when chocolate had won the pantry space wars.
Any way you make it, if you like sardines, you’re going to love this. And if you love sardines, you owe it to us all to share your favorite recipe here, because after all, you can’t eat sardine pasta every single day.
Well, I definitely could, but you probably wouldn’t, and arguably one no one should. But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if you did.