A Renaissance of Sardines

A recent conversation with my wife led me to discover a wonderful new way to enjoy one of my favorite foods: canned sardines.

She asked, innocently enough, if I’d ever had a sardine sandwich.  Perhaps she wondered about it because she noticed I had gotten into a bit of a sardine-consumption rut.  That rut involves opening a can of sardines in olive oil, placing said sardines on a small plate, and consuming them alongside sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, crackers, and hot sauce.

I said I did not recall whether I had ever enjoyed such a meal, but could imagine a sardine sandwich involving canned sardines, black rye or pumpernickel bread, and a nice hot sauce.

Regardless of the motive behind her question, that’s all it took for me to explore the possibilities.    I scoured dozens of online articles and recipes involving sardines, looking first for information about sardine sandwiches.

It seems sardines once were extremely popular, the way tuna is today. Sardines were common fare in restaurants all over the U.S.  Both fresh and canned, they were well-liked and frequently-eaten by a large portion of the population, fresh-caught being especially popular along the coasts.   Sardines’ fall from public favor began in the 50s, when corporate purveyors of tuna began to employ factory trawlers to catch and process them.  Tuna salad became popular because tuna was cheaper than sardines and tasted less like fish.  “Fishy” tasting foods, apparently, lost the appeal they once had.  The diminution of sardines’ appeal coincided, as well, with a period of homogenization of U.S. culture; “ethnic” dishes (and sardines were seen as such, due in part to the ethnic fishermen who caught them) were viewed as foods for the lower classes.

Today, sardines are enjoying a bit of a renaissance in upscale restaurants.  The old-world Mediterranean style of preparing them, grilled over hot coals and sprinkled with sea salt and lemon juice, seems to be the most common way of serving them. That’s the way I had them years ago during a visit to Portugal; vendors sold them in crowded alleys just off main thoroughfares in Lisbon.  Later, during a trip to Croatia, they were served the same way for lunch on a sightseeing day-cruise out of Dubrovnik (grilling on the deck of the boat!).

I love canned sardines just as much as fresh ones.  It’s far easier to find canned sardines and they are much, much less expensive than fresh.  My wife’s innocent question got me exploring different ways of eating them.  I found a LOT of ways to eat sardines.  I’ve only just begun to try them; this post was prompted by my breakfast this morning, the recipe for which follows:

Sardines and Grits
Combine the following:

  • One can of skinless and boneless sardines packed in olive oil, broken up for mixing with the remaining ingredients
  • One cup of cooked grits
  • 3 tablespoons of diced canned tomatoes (I used a can that contains habanero peppers, which added some flavor and zip to the dish)
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped black olives

Heat the mixture for a minute or so in the microwave (everything else except the grits is cold).  Add hot sauce and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice at the table.

Oh my god!  This has to be one of my all-time favorite breakfast meals!  I seriously doubt I’ll find it in any restaurant in Dallas, and probably not anywhere else in the state of Texas…and maybe no other state…but I don’t know why!

Oh, back to the sandwiches.  I found literally dozens and dozens of recipes for sardine sandwiches, many of them intended to be of the open-faced variety and eaten with a knife and fork.  I may try those styles, but first I will begin with these (not yet eaten, but soon will be):

Sardine-Avocado (Sardicado) Sandwich (inspired by someone’s adaptation of an Alton Brown recipe…I hope my version is good…can’t wait to try it)

  • 2 (3.75-ounce) cans of sardines in olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • Zest from one lemon, and the leftover lemon cut into 4 wedges
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 slices dark rye bread
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • Sea salt
  1. Drain the oil from 1 can of sardines into a small bowl and set aside.
  2. Drain the oil from the second can into another small bowl and mix it with 1 tablespoon of parsley, vinegar, lemon zest, and black pepper. Add the sardines and stir. Let sit for a bit to let the flavors combine.
  3. Toast bread.
  4. Halve the avocado pulverize the flesh in each half with a fork. Spread the avocado evenly onto the toasted bread, then top with a scoop of the sardine mixture.
  5. Pour any remaining sardine oil dressing on top and garnish with the remaining parsley.
  6. Season with sea salt and a squeeze from the lemon wedges.
  7. This should make two sandwiches…I think.

And here’s another adapted version I plan to try soon…more “traditional,” I think:

Sardines on Rye Sandwich

  • 2 TBL Dijon mustard
  • 2 slices dark rye bread, toasted
  • 1 large leaf of lettuce (whatever type you have on hand)
  • 1 small can sardines in oil, drained, plus 2 tsp. reserved oil
  • 1/4 small yellow onion, thinly sliced crosswise
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. Spread mustard evenly over each slice of bread; Put sardines, onions, and lettuce on one slice of bread.
  2. Drizzle with reserved oil, and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Place other slice of bread on top and eat the sandwich!

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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