Over the last three weeks or so, I’ve been fielding a lot of Q.C.Q. (Quarantine Cooking Questions), and while I am working overtime on “social media” trying to answer them, I thought it would also be useful to start using this column to answer the most frequently asked.
So, here goes: Yes, you can use red onion instead of shallots in most recipes. No, I don’t think you need to soak beans. And yes, I can tell you some things to do with sardines.
Tinned sardines are really having a moment, which is great because not only are they a delicious, shelf-stable, sustainable source of protein and Omega-3s, but finding fresh fish right now is kind of a challenge. So you see the tinned sardines, you buy the tinned sardines. Now what?
First, I want you to know what you’re getting into. Unlike anchovies (be still my heart), sardines have a much meatier texture (not as meaty as tuna, but close) and more intense, (dare I say, fishier) flavor. I like intense things, so that doesn’t bother me. In fact, I like it! But if you find yourself among the seafood-flavor averse, you might not ever love sardines, not even now.
Similarly to tuna, they come packed in either spring water or oil that’s sometimes flavored with things like lemon or peppers, and even smoked. Just like my sparkling water, I always go for unflavored, and prefer oil-packed to spring water. In almost every instance, the heads are removed, leaving the spines and tails intact: I eat both. The bones are very delicate, but I actually like their texture. Plus, someone on NPR told me that they contain a lot of calcium.
Regardless of how you’re going to consume them — for me, sometimes it’s just out of the tin on heavily buttered crackers, with a plate of pickles and mustards — there are a few good rules for how to best enjoy them. Sardines, very oily little fish, really love a lot of acid. It is hard to beat fresh lemon juice squeezed over them, but a vinegar — white wine, rice wine or white distilled — is also good. To give you a sense of how much to use, I often douse them in my choice of acid, almost as if I were treating them like escabeche.
Despite their rich, fatty description, sardines also, perhaps counterintuitively, love more fat, which helps mellow out their flavor, so don’t hold back on the olive oil (meaning, when you think you’ve added enough, add a bit more). Or consider eating them with mayonnaise, aioli, softened butter or jammy eggs. This should go without saying, but they also love lots of fresh herbs and thinly sliced onions, scallions or chives.
If you’re not sure that you’re ready to commit to a full plate of sardines, I get it. (For most, it’s better to wade out than jump in.) They’re easy enough to eat alongside dishes you’re already making, taking little bites here and there. I love opening a tin and nibbling them next to an oversize plate of waxy potatoes, boiled, crushed and tossed with lots of lemon juice, fresh herbs (whatever you can get your hands on, really, but yeah, dill), scallions, spring onions or chives, and lots and lots of celery. (I am obsessed with celery, and I want you to share my enthusiasm.) The recipe here was originally published in my second cookbook, “Nothing Fancy,” but it felt right to excerpt it now given that it’s made from very basic ingredients and is one of my favorite ways to eat, and introduce others to, the magic of sardines.
A Few Ideas for Sardines
Spread a smear of softened butter or aioli on thick-cut bread, toast or crackers. Top with sardines, raw onions tossed with lemon juice and whatever fresh herbs you have on hand. Squeeze with more lemon or a splash of vinegar, and sprinkle with flaky salt and ground pepper. Eat open-faced, or top with another piece of bread for a sandwich.
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, and toast garlic until golden brown. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes, the zest of one lemon (or, finely chop a half a lemon — seeds removed — and add that), some al dente pasta like spaghetti and a few splashes of pasta cooking water. Season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat in the garlicky oil. Add a few sardine fillets, and toss to coat, letting them fall apart slightly, but keeping large pieces intact. Finish with another good squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar (or raisins soaked in vinegar, if you are a raisin person), and a handful of chopped parsley or chives.
Place a few sardines on the bottom of a plate or bowl and top with an abundance of shaved vegetables like fennel or radish and assertively dressed, preferably peppery greens, a handful of crushed olives or capers and a halved jammy egg. Niçoise-y.
Pluck them from the tin and dress with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar or white distilled vinegar, a finely chopped fresh or pickled chile or a pinch of red-pepper flakes. Eat over a bowl of warm rice with thinly sliced cucumbers.
And to Drink …
The operative flavor in this dish is not the potatoes, not the celery and not the dill. It’s the sardines, or the anchovies, or whatever tinned fish you are using. Their pungent, oily deliciousness calls for one of two possibilities: You could pick a wine that will comfortably accompany the dish without clashing — a rosé, for example, whether from France, Spain, the United States or anywhere else. Ideally, it will be dry and crisp, offering cool refreshment without getting in the way. The other option is a fino sherry, and if you like sherry, this is by far the more dynamic pairing. The sherry and fish will synergistically improve each other, proving once again that when serving tinned fish, do as the Spanish do. ERIC ASIMOV