Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Not to overlook the oily little fishes


In general, fish is good food -- high-quality protein rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and also delicious. What's not to like? Oh, just that in our hunger for tasty fish dinners, humans are rapidly depleting the earth's fish populations, destroying habitats and polluting the water via unsustainable industrial fishing practices. (For a lucid, empowering analysis of the state of our oceans and fisheries, plus things you can do to help turn the tide, check out the Monterey Bay Aquariums sustainable seafood info site, with handy pocket guide to safe, sustainable seafood choices).

Possibly as a means of revenge on the havoc our species is wreaking on the piscine world, many fish are now actually dangerous to eat. Big boys at the top of the marine food chain -- swordfish and all tuna species, shark -- are not only endangered species but contain high levels of mercury. Mercury is released into the air through industrial pollution; it then precipitates into our streams and oceans and turns into methylmercury in the water. Fish absorb the methylmercury and it builds up in their flesh; although human bodies can eventually flush mercury from our systems, it takes a long time -- a year -- to rid yourself of even one meal's worth of mercury exposure.

Fortunately, it's possible to still eat fish in good conscience and minus the mercury. Small plankton-eating fish don't accumulate as much mercury as do larger predator fish and so are safer; also the fisheries for sardines, anchovies and mackerel are well-managed. Since these are oily little guys, they contain a lot, proportionally speaking, of the beneficial omega-3s. All around a sustainable and healthy choice.

My friend Brian and I have been talking about sardines recently, trying to think of ways to eat them rather than just, well, eating them, like on crackers or bread. Brian came up with a tasty avocado-and-sardines sandwich, while I've been struggling to recall a dish I enjoyed several times while living in Italy that involved sardines tossed with breadcrumbs in pasta. Since fresh sardines are pretty rare around here, our experiments have involved preserved fishies, but good-quality canned sardines are widely available. I prefer to buy sardines and anchovies in glass jars rather than metal tins due to bisphenol-A exposure from the plasticized linings now used in all canned foods
(more about that here).

As for buying sardines, look for Spanish or Italian-packed brands. The best sardines are caught near near Portugal or Spain, and the olive oil they're packed in tends to be better quality. Skip those packed in soy oil, really really skip those packed in tomato sauce or mustard -- often a ploy to cover up inferior fish -- and be sure to check ingredients: there is no need for anything but fish, oil and possibly salt in that can. Italian groceries tend to carry good selections of sardines and anchovies; in Baltimore, Trinacria is my favorite place to shop for salty, oily little fish. (I personally just can't get past the cat-food smell and flavor of mackerel, so I can't speak to eating or shopping for that particular fish).

So last night I had dinner just for my own self, no picky little boys to displease with funny fish, and so played around trying to recreate pasta alle sarde from memory. There are two ways canned sardines are paired with pasta in Italy: one is Sicilian, where the sardines get tossed with a little tomato paste, fennel, golden raisins and pine nuts. The other is more typical of Sardinian "cucina povera" -- literally "poverty cuisine" -- using just bread crumbs, garlic, and olive oil plus seasonings, and that's the one I remembered fondly.



While the pasta water heated I heated an iron skillet, drizzled in a couple tablespoons of olive oil, then sauteed 4 cloves of garlic until just aromatic. Then I tossed in about 3/4 cup of bread crumbs -- fairly rough crumbs from stale bread chunks pulsed just a few times in the food processor. (On the rare occasion we don't wolf down a whole loaf before it's stale, I run the remainder through the Cuisinart and toss it in a ziploc I keep in the freezer, bread crumbs in the bank). Once the bread crumbs were golden and crispy I scraped them into a bowl, wiped out the skillet, and reheated it with 2 more tablespoons of oil.

Turns out that was a little bit of oil overkill -- since the sardines came in their own oil bath, and of course you want to use that in the pan since it has all that good fish flavor. (Also, as I sauteed the sardines over medium-high heat they expressed a surprising amount of moisture; the whole thing got pretty soupy, so I drained most of the liquid off -- straight down the sink. That turned out to be a mistake as the final dish was pretty dry, so next time I'd save the juices in a ramekin until finished). After the sardines sizzled for 3-4 minutes I sprinkled in some flaked red chile pepper with seeds -- just basically crumbled one small red chile in -- and a big handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus some coarse sea salt. I used kitchen shears to cut up the whole sardines into bite-size pieces as they cooked, and then tossed them around with the seasonings. Once things were well incorporated and heated through, I folded in the bread crumbs, then mixed in the al dente spaghetti.

Pretty good, but a little flat -- needed more salt, which helped, but was still lacking something essential. After a few tastings and a little ruminating, I hit upon lemon zest -- a little citrusy pick-me-up to accent the bold sardine flavor and counteract the oiliness. A few scrapes of an organic lemon across the fine end of the grater and, voila! Dinner was served, a little something from nothing. Or at least from ingredients I commonly have sitting in pantry and fridge.

So, to summarize:

1/2 lb spaghetti (or any other long pasta), cooked al dente
1 jar or tin of sardines in olive oil (I like Angelo Parodi brand)
4 cloves garlic
chile pepper flakes to taste
coarse salt to taste
flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped, to taste
lemon zest to taste
3/4 cup coarse bread crumbs (make these yourself -- the packaged kind will ruin this dish)
olive oil

Sautee minced or sliced garlic in olive oil until just fragrant, about 30 seconds, then toss in bread crumbs. Toss and stir until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, set aside. Wipe out skillet and reheat with more oil -- perhaps the oil drained off the sardines plus additional if that seems scant. Drop in the sardines, which should be whole and firm. Heat them for 2-3 minutes, then sprinkle on salt and red pepper, then cut the sardines up in the pan, tossing everything around. Once heated through, add the bread crumbs, toss, then the spaghetti and parsely, toss, and taste. Add lemon zest last, to taste, and then buon appetito!

5 comments:

Laura said...

That's funny that you mention the oily little fishes because Nik and I just ate them ourselves this week! Your recipe sounds delicious! We ate them the Greek way - staring out with frozen fish and then (after thawing) dipped in flour and pan fried. We eat them bones and all this way too - only the diehard eat the heads though! Nik's mom made them for us - they are traditional food to be eaten during the Lenten season. She buys them at Prima Foods - the Greek wholesaler in Baltimore. It's also a great place to buy Greek feta and olive oil. I'm not sure which kind of fish she buys exactly. They are smaller than sardines. Nik only knows the name in Greek. But I'm sure if you asked about the little fish, they'd know what you were talking about.

Michelle Gienow said...

I'm not sure there is an official fish that is designated as sardines -- according to wikipedia up to 21 different fish species might be classified as sardines! But I'm interested in checking out Prima Foods no matter what kind of oily little fishies they sell, that sounds like a fun place to visit.

Michelle Gienow said...

Also, I totally wish I had a Greek mother-in-law.

non said...

silly question, but bear in mind I'm a sardine virgin: are there bones in sardines?

Laura said...

hey - so I forgot to check back to see if there were any more comments! I think that in English, yes, sardines just mean little fish. But evidently in Greece, each little fish has its own name and sardines are one particular kind. Anyway, here's a link to Prima Foods - http://www.primafoodsinc.com/
Buy the Kolios feta - it's the imported kind and WELL worth the extra money you pay. We call the domestic stuff from the grocery store, "not-feta".

And Non - I'm not sure about the canned kind but the frozen kind that we get - yes they have bones in them and you eat them bones and all and if you're brave, the heads too. (I'm not brave) My guess is that the canned ones have bones in them too - the fish are so small, it would be really hard to de-bone them.