"What do I do with a tin of sardines?"
Having them on good crusty bread with something piquant and some aromatics is great, but there's other stuff you can do that doesn't take too much work.
A surprising number of people have been emailing me about tinned seafood lately—sorry to everyone I haven’t gotten back to!—and one question that’s been coming up a lot is what you can do with a tin of sardines that doesn’t just involve having it on toast or crackers. Now, to be clear, I think that’s a great thing to do, and I personally don’t get much more bored of it than I do of melting some good cheddar on nice rye bread under the broiler in the toaster oven (roughly 80% of the calories I consume are accounted for by one of these two methods of toast improvement), but asking what else you can do is certainly a fair question, and there are some good answers.
(Another question that’s come up is where you get the good stuff if you don’t happen to have a specialty grocer around; I point you to Rainbow Tomatoes Garden, which carries a bunch of great tins.)
As noted in the first installment of this newsletter, I’m philosophically somewhat opposed to doing any cooking with tinned seafood that involves any real work. This isn’t so much because it isn’t worth or can’t justify the effort—nice tinned seafood is by far the most expensive foodstuff I buy with any regularity, and much nicer than ingredients I put lots of time into—as because I think it misses the point. Tinned seafood is, first off, ready to eat as is. It’s steamed or grilled or fried right after it’s been caught and then packed into the tin with oil or whatever else, and usually doesn’t need anything done to it any more than seafood you just plucked off your grill would. (Some tins, in fact, are legitimate gourmet products meant to be eaten exactly as they are and would be ruined by you doing anything much to them.) It’s also, importantly, a food of convenience; if you cook a fair amount, you spend a lot of time doing various things to various proteins, and one of the nice things about incorporating tinned seafood into your diet is that you don’t have to do things to it. This Mark Bittman recipe is great and doesn’t involve a ton of labor, but, generally, if I’m up to put in the work it takes to prep ingredients and then stand hawking over a pan sautéing bread crumbs and aromatics and lemon zest and capers and sardines and getting the timing right for everything, I’d probably prefer to work with something that isn’t ready to eat and great as is.
All that said, sure, of course, there are all sorts of wonderful actual cooking things to do with tinned and tinning-adjacent seafood. Many of these will be gotten into in future installments of this newsletter. You can make a fucking fantastic sauce with a cheap tin of clams from the corner store; the grossest-looking bag of frozen mussel meats, while salty in ways you will need to account for while seasoning it, can make you a killer sauce in 10 minutes with a handful of garlic; and the fact that the salmon in the tin was almost certainly caught and tinned at the same time that the salmon you pay a lot for at the fish counter was caught and frozen presents a lot of interesting possibilities. That said, we’re going to get into here what you do with a tin of sardines if you’re lazy but want to cook with, and make something good with, them.
The best cooking I do with sardines, and the cooking I most usually do with them, is, hands down, this dish I learned how to cook via Googling “cooking with sardines” and coming across paleo blogs that offered up images of elaborately bearded men. The basics are that you mash up sardines in a pan, heat them in the oven, crack eggs over them, keep heating them, and then eat them. These are not useful instructions, so here’s what I’ve learned via trial and error.
What you need first here, aside from some sardines and eggs and vegetables and an oven, is a cast-iron pan. I’ve gotten good results making enough of this dish for two with a 6.25” pan and an 8” pan and I’m pretty sure it’d scale up fine using a big pan, but you do need one of these pans. Heat your toaster oven or actual oven to 350 with the pan in there, give it a while, and then pull the pan out, put it on the stove over medium heat, drop some oil in, and sauté onions and peppers in there. (Roughly a fistful if you’re using a small pan that will end up with a tin of sardines and two eggs in it; scale up as needed, and by all means feel free to use the oil from the tin to do this sautéing.) Once they’re looking translucent, add in a minced clove of garlic and whatever spices you like; once the garlic and spices are smelling great—about a minute—fish out the sardines from the tin quickly mash them into the pan with the flat side of a fork, adding some of the oil if you want or if it seems like the pan needs it. Do you have some leftover tomato-based pasta sauce in your fridge? Add a few tablespoons in. Do you not? You’re fine. Stick the whole mess in the preheated oven for 10 minutes; once the timer goes off, pull it out, crack a couple eggs on top, and stick the whole thing back in for, I don’t know, eight to 13 minutes.
This right here is the tricky part, because it depends on the heat of your oven. You just have to keep checking the eggs. What you want are nice yolks that smoothly leak out over everything when poked. If you take them out too early you’ll just have runny, nasty eggs that have the texture of snot; if you take them out too late you’ll have dry, chalky yolks. The way to avoid either calamity is to just check in on what’s going on and take the pan out of the oven when the whites right around the center of the yolk are just about to go from being opaque to fully cooked; once you pull it out the eggs will keep cooking in the residual heat. You’ll know what this looks like when you see it; you might have to try it a couple of times, and I’d encourage making it for yourself to get the gist of it before serving it to others to get the hang of it, but once you have a good feel for when the eggs are done, it’s easy. Pull it out once ready, sprinkle some parsley and squirt some sriracha on, and then serve it on … well, we’re avoiding toast here, so can I suggest a bed of very lightly steamed kale, or (better) some nice, fresh, warm flatbread lightly brushed with oil and whatever chopped herbs you have growing in your windowsill? Crack some pepper on and then just scoop it out of the pan and on top of whatever you’re serving it on top of; it’s fantastic.
The effort involved in all this is about equivalent to that involved in the Bittman dish I criticized above; the difference is that this is a breakfast dish. If it’s Wednesday at 6:30 in the evening I’m not all that personally inclined to put any work into eating; Sunday morning and the kids are sleeping in and I’m coming back from or about to go on a bike ride that demands protein? Sure, I have 20 minutes.
Sardines and sweet potatoes
I’m a serious tinned-sardines enthusiast, but will freely admit that one issue with tinned sardines, and one reason not to worry too much about cooking with them, is that they’re not the most attractive food in the world. They’re often a grey or brown or a grey-brown, and even the really nice and visually appealing ones ones are silvery in ways that are hard to preserve as you futz with them and the scales flake off. The way I’ve found to compensate for that is serving them with really bright, vividly-colored foods. Note my support above for lightly-steamed kale and sriracha; I plain like how both of those things (especially the latter) taste, but what’s at least as important is that they present deep, rich, vibrant primary colors to contrast with the muddiness of a tin of workaday sardines.
Sweet potatoes, one of the great reasons to think there is a loving God, fit right in here, with their vivid orange (and possibly purple) hues. I prefer to rub mine with olive oil, sprinkle them with salt, and bake them at 450 for an hour or so; sometimes I microwave them for five minutes; they’re great either way.
Where sardines come in is that you can serve them right alongside the sweet potato. I like to cut one in half and mash the sardines right into its flesh, then squirt bright, vibrant, sriracha on it while ringing it with steamed greens and something nice and red like halved cherry tomatoes or thin-sliced red peppers; if you wanted to make a more attractive presentation out of it, you could cut the sweet potato into thick slices and spread them across a plate, then mix in halved sardine bodies with them, then put the bright reds and greens in and among all that. Healthy, cheap, filling, and delicious either way, and there are ways to make it pretty, and if you do it all right you’ll get the sardines warmed up a bit through proximity to the hot sweet potato.
Philadelphia, where I live, is a very serious sandwich city; for my dollar, the best place to get a sandwich here might be Fu-Wah, on 47th and Baltimore, which isn’t really the sort of place that a globe-trotting camera crew would go to to get a bite of a world-destroyingly amazing chicken parm or roast pork, but just offers up really great Italian hoagies and really great tofu, grilled pork, and charred pork banh mis, which they call hoagies for reasons I’m not clear on, and which I enjoy way more than what they serve up at the places Guy Fieri would visit. (I very much enjoy the places he would turn up at, to be clear.) In deference to the way they do it, and not wanting to call something a banh mi that isn’t one, I’ll call this a hoagie.
Get or make a good long roll—do they sell Amoroso’s rolls by you? That’s great! If not, any kind of chewy sub roll you think someone from Jersey would like will do fine, as would any kind of “Portuguese roll”—and lightly toast it. Dress it with a very thin layer of full-fat Greek yogurt. (Mayonnaise is gross; in all applications, full-fat Greek yogurt is superior, carrying the same texture but also a nice tang and also not being horrifying. Make a tuna melt with a tuna salad based on tuna and yogurt and not tuna and mayo and you’ll be delighted.) Smash, depending on the length of the roll, a can or two of sardines onto the bread, and then lay on some daikon radish and cucumbers cut into matchsticks (or just some lazily sliced radish and cucumbers) and some pickled carrot-and-ginger salad (or just some carrot and a bit of ginger you shredded in the food processor and poured some vinegar on) and some jalapeño peppers and coarsely chopped cilantro or parsley. Congratulations, you have a fancy sandwich that has surpassed the “mushing sardines onto toast” level of things; serve it alongside a salad and something really crunchy (roasted kale? Utz chips?) if you want to make a thing of it, and don’t if you don’t want to.
Sardines in green tea
I can’t remember why I ended up reading this recipe years ago, but I did, and it was … life-changing would be strong, but I’ve made it a whole lot of times. Essentially what you do is take some leftover rice, or quickly make some, and then mix it up with green tea and seaweed and sardines and sesame seeds and hot sauce. It’s cured some hangovers for me; it’s been a quick breakfast or a satisfying lunch; I never have served it to company but happily would. It’s great.
Before getting into the simple preparation instructions here, I want to just briefly note that tea is an underused cooking liquid. For many, many years, I drank coffee all the time; a few years ago, in a self-improvement fit, I decided to not drink it and to drink tea instead; as it turned out, tea is just great and endlessly delicious and useful, and drinking it instead of coffee not only leaves you not constantly getting high and crashing throughout the day, but opens up cooking possibilities. If you don’t have any red wine around, can you substitute the strong tannic acids of a freshly brewed cup of whatever English breakfast you have on hand into the recipe rather than going to the store? You absolutely can! Can the bright notes in a cup of generic “green tea” from Trader Joe’s swap in for an equivalent quantity of “white wine” in a poaching liquid? Certainly! Tea is not an all-purpose swap-in for wine—wine is wine and sometimes you need it—but I’m telling you, you might be surprised. Anyway …
What you want here is to brew up a cup of green tea; it can be a fancy whole-leaf kind you steep with patient attention or a generic bag you soak in boiling water. You also want to have some rice; leftover rice from the fridge is great, as is freshly-made stuff. Take a couple of tablespoons of dried seaweed—wakame or arame—and soak it in water for five minutes. (This stuff is great, but soaks up a lot of heavy metals from water; buy it organic and don’t eat barrels of it every day.) Heat your small cast-iron pan and put a couple of tablespoons of sesame seeds in until they start darkening, and then shake them; you don’t want them burnt, but you want them blackened. Put the rice in a bowl, pour the tea over it, put the contents of a tin of sardines (the oil aside) in, put the seaweed in, shake the sesame seeds over it all, mix it all up, and pour some hot sauce on and maybe scatter some chopped scallions on. Life-affirming, and will get you ready for the day.
The best ways
The best thing to do if you want an actual dinner involving tinned sardines, honestly, is to cook some rice, put it in a bowl, put those sardines on top of half of it, and then put just a shitload of chopped spring onions, peppers, parsley, etc. on top of the other half, then mix it up. I’m also very fond of dumping sardines into a bowl of lentil soup at the same time I dump some greens I want to wilt in it. Generally, these and the other preparations I’ve laid out here will warm the sardines the way you want them to be warmed via laying the room-temperature sardines next to warm starches. If you want to warm them independently for whatever reasons, pop the tin (important! you don’t want an explosion) and put it in a pan, then pour water in coming close to the lip of the tin, then gently simmer until things smell good. Should take 10 minutes or so, but beware of this technique if in a house with people who would not like the aroma of warmed tinned seafoods.
What’s up next
I am not a super responsive person via email—work has been very busy lately, and I have kids, and it’s been nice out, and I’m fully vaccinated—but I read everything I get, so please by all means email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any thoughts or anything you’d like to see in this newsletter. Thinking of reviewing some Matiz tins next week—that’s a really great tinned-seafood company that has excellent market penetration in the U.S., so that you can get their stuff anywhere—but also considering going to the South Philly Walmart and grabbing some of what it has on the shelves to make a point about how while the excellent stuff you can get from specialty sellers is worth the money, tinned seafood is democratic and there’s great stuff available to everyone everywhere at any price. Also thinking about just writing about tinned tuna—a horror at its worst, and just about the best at something way less than its best. Hope everything’s cool with you!