My father has always loved eating sardines pulled straight from the can, and my mother has always made him eat them in the garage because she absolutely hated the smell.
While a popular part of many cuisines including the healthy Mediterranean diet, small fish such as sardines and anchovies have yet to really catch on in America. Known for juvenile palates that favor bland tastes, many Americans eschew the briny, salty slam the little fish deliver.
However, with potent health benefits and greater environmental sustainability than most big fish, perhaps its time to reconsider adding little fish to your diet. High in omega-3 fatty acids, sardines and anchovies are heart-healthy. The little critters are also packed with a wealth of other nutrients, including potassium, iron, phosphorus, protein and B vitamins. They’re also an excellent source of dimethylethanolamine or DMAE, a compound that may enhance your mood and brain function.
Sardines and anchovies are also lower in contaminants such as mercury than their big-boned cousins. With a much shorter life span, little fish have less time to built up toxins in their flesh and are therefore safer to eat than big fish like tuna. Eating plankton to survive, these foraging fish also have a lower environmental impact than their farm-raised friends.
Little fish come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices. The tastiest and most expensive options are hand-cut and hand-packed, such as tart Anfele anchovies from Spain. You’ll also find smoked sardines from Portugal, delicate fish from Norway and meaty fillets from Argentina. Some little fish are still sold in cans, but more and more are offered in PCB-free plastic packaging. Whether you are buying top-end fish from a gourmet food store or a tin of sardines for $2.50 at Trader Joe’s, look for sardines and anchovies with the fewest ingredients on the label.
Small and strong-flavored, little fish add a briny depth to any savory dish. Try them in the following dishes and you might just add a new favorite fish to your diet.
Straight up: Pull from the can and onto a whole-wheat cracker. Top with a dab of hot sauce such as Tabasco, and enjoy with iced tea (my father’s favorite snack).
Appetizer: Toast small slices of French bread until they are crispy. Layer each with a piece of roasted red pepper, an anchovy or sardine, sliced red onion and a spring of watercress. Watch the treats disappear!
Pasta: Liven up your basic pasta with tomato sauce by topping it with a few sardines that have been broken up. Garnish with torn basil leaves and freshly ground black pepper.
Pizza: Pizza with anchovies is a classic Mediterranean treat. Gussy up your basic margherita pizza (with tomato, mozzarella and basil) with a handful of anchovies. Balance the salty meal with a cold microbrew or glass of chilled white wine.
Salad: Chop vinegar-cured anchovies and add to any salad for boost of protein and flavor. Anchovies are especially tasty paired with fresh lemon juice and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Sanwiches: Toast two slices of whole wheat bread and add layers of sliced avocado, tomatoes and sardines. Sprinkle with fresh lemon juice and add a touch of arugula for crunch.
Dressing: The secret ingredient to Caesar-style salad dressings, anchovies offer depth and sass to any sauce. For a fresh homemade dressing, blend together 12 oil-packed anchovies, ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, ¼ cup chopped Italian parsley, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black or white pepper.