A quite pungent love affair with canned sardines

LOS ANGELES TIMESMarch 2, 2014 

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.

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 pate.

If you've got canned sardines in your pantry, dinner is never far away.

The quality of the canned sardines will make a difference. There is an ocean full of variety at local markets. Consider spending a few extra dollars to get a quality product.

Try sardines spread on toasted crusty bread, moistened with a little of their oil and topped with pickled red onions.

The following recipe is 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.

PASTA CHI SARDI A MARI

30 minutes. Makes 4 to 6 servings

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

1 (80-gram) can sardines in olive oil

1 pound spaghetti

Salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 whole clove garlic

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup chopped fennel fronds

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

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.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of rapidly boiling, heavily salted water until it is al dente, about 12 minutes.

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.

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.

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.

Scatter the toasted bread crumbs over top and serve.

Nutrition per serving: 400 calories; 14 g protein; 64 g carbohydrates; 3 g fiber; 10 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 19 g cholesterol; 6 g sugar; 94 g sodium

Prefer your sardines on crackers? This recipe calls for a dollop of chermoula - a blend of herbs and spices - on a cracker with sardine.

SARDINES WITH CHERMOULA

12 minutes. Serves 6 to 8

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

3 teaspoons chopped mint

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 (120-gram) can sardines in olive oil

Crackers

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.

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.

Nutrition per serving: 79 calories; 4 g protein; 0 g carbohydrates; 0 g fiber; 7 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 21 g cholesterol; 0 g sugar; 297 g sodium

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