Eating lower on the fishy food chain
“Hold the anchovies!” was the pizza-ordering cliché of my favorite childhood TV shows and movies. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in particular, convinced me that no sane person would choose to eat them. All the anchovy relatives — sardines, herring, and mackerel — were also tainted in my mind. For most of my life, however, I had unknowingly savored their understated nuttiness in Caesar-salad dressing and pasta sauce.
These small fish — also known as forage fish — grow and reproduce quickly. According to Alison Barratt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, forage fish “are theoretically some of the most abundant in the ocean,” which is “beneficial if you’re looking for fish you can catch in abundance without impacting the population.” So fulfilling our seafood needs with forage fish reduces the environmental impact of our diet. Tiny fish are also an affordable source of nutrients difficult to find in plant foods, including essential omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins D and B12.
Unfortunately, sticking to small species isn’t enough to eliminate ecological damage. Mediterranean sardines are severely overfished, and attempts to manage these fisheries have been ineffective. Nevertheless, Twilight Greenaway of Grist recently concluded that forage fish are still one of the most sustainable forms of animal protein for humans. For sardines, stick with those harvested from sustainable Pacific fisheries. Almost all mackerel and herring are safe bets.
The high oil content of forage fish — the source of those healthy omega-3s — accounts for their intensely “fishy” flavor. The oil also makes these fish quite perishable, which means that most of us have been exposed to fresh or canned fish that have been handled improperly.
So pay attention at the market. When buying fresh small fish, recall the regular fish-shopping rules: look for crystal-clear eyes, crimson gills, and flesh that bounces back when pressed. When selecting canned fish, remember that the best are packed in olive oil; skip those packed with soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup.
Some folks snack on sardines straight from the can, but if you prefer subtler flavors, cook with them instead. Anchovies in particular contribute a savory background note to many dishes. Tangy ingredients like tomatoes, olives, capers, citrus juice, and vinegar complement all of these species.
Here are eight ideas for experimenting with small fry.
Tomato sauce. Anchovies are the secret ingredient behind a balanced puttanesca sauce. They’re packed with L-glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the taste sense known as umami. To make a puttanesca sauce, heat some olive oil over medium heat and sauté chopped onions and garlic for a few minutes. Next, mash the anchovies into the onions until they disintegrate, add the tomatoes, and scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Flavor the sauce with herbs, chiles, and olives, and let it simmer for at least 30 minutes before serving over pasta.
Anchovies are the secret ingredient in puttanesca sauce.
Salad dressing. Anchovies are also responsible for the pronounced savoriness of a genuine Caesar salad. You can serve them whole on the salad or add them to the dressing. (Soaking the fillets in milk beforehand will make them sweeter.) For dressing, chop two or three anchovies in a food processor and add garlic, black pepper, and an acid like lemon juice or vinegar, then slowly drizzle in some olive oil. The resulting thick, smooth dressing will taste full and rich without necessarily reminding eaters of fish. (You can also serve it over other vegetables, such as steamed broccoli.)
Caesar salad demands anchovies.
Caramelized onions. A few salty anchovies or sardines dissolved into sweet caramelized onions create a perfect harmony. Follow your usual routine for caramelizing onions, but mash four fillets into them early in the process, and perhaps add a teaspoon of chopped fresh rosemary or sage. If you like, purée the results for a satisfying pasta topping or sandwich spread.
Add small fish to caramelized onions.
Pizza topping. Shriveled anchovies have a terrible reputation as a pizza topping, but when executed correctly with quality fish, their satisfying saltiness makes cheese unnecessary. You can make a rustic pissaladière topped with caramelized onions, olives, and anchovies. This Provençal dish is like a cross between a tart and a pizza.
Top pizza with whole anchovies.
Grilled or roasted. Grilling accentuates the appealing characteristics of fresh mackerel or sardines. The skin becomes deliciously crispy due to their high fat content. Rinse whole, descaled, and gutted fish, coat liberally with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and grill over very hot coals for about three minutes per side. Those without a charcoal grill can pop them in the oven at 450 degrees to bake for 15 minutes per inch of thickness. In Mediterranean countries, whole sardines are eaten as finger food. Larger mackerel will require utensils.
Whole raw mackerel.
Pan-fried. Mackerel and sardines can also be pan-fried. Season the fillets or fish with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. Heat some olive oil over medium-high heat, add the fish, and cook for three to five minutes per side. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing; the acid will temper any residual fishiness.
Pan-frying small fish is easy.
Marinated or pickled. The Spanish are know for snacking on boquerones, mild white anchovies marinated in vinegar, and the Dutch are crazy for pickled herring. Escabeche is a popular preparation method throughout South America and the Mediterranean, in which sardines or mackerel are lightly cooked, marinated overnight in olive oil and vinegar, and served cold. And Italians love their simple appetizer of fresh anchovies served cold in a light curing marinade.
Marinated anchovies are a classic Mediterranean appetizer.
Rillettes. In her latest cookbook, Around My French Table, Dorie Greenspan riffs with sardines on the better-known salmon rillettes. Her recipe of flaked sardine fillets mixed with cream cheese, shallots, lemon juice, and herbs heightens this humble fish into a sophisticated spread to serve as an appetizer with crackers or toast.
Canned sardines make a delicious spread.
Meredith Bethune is based in Austin, Texas and blogs about cooking at Biscuits of Today.