I like to pose challenges for myself from time to time, and this week I took inventory of our pantry and the fridge, and decided to clear out some of the underused items before adding more and shoving them farther toward the dark corners where the chances of ever being consumed become slim and finally none. Wielding an unwavering confidence in my miraculous abilities to produce delectable and nutritious meals out of even the most miscellaneous of ingredients, I reached back into the pantry abyss. When I unearthed two cans of sardines from the very back of the cabinet, I was thrilled, my brain immediately fired up on a quest for ideas.
When I was a child in land-locked Serbia, we did not have cans of tuna available. The only canned fish were sardines and mackerel packed in oil. Tuna appeared when I was a teenager, touted as superior and costing twice as much, but I stayed loyal, losing myself to the briny taste and saltiness of humble sardines that transported me with each bite to the coast of the Adriatic Sea, allowing me to feel the gentle caress of the Mediterranean sun, even when the temperatures plummeted well below zero.
Right along with Popeye, we were entertained on TV by a big, husky walrus outfitted in a striped muscle shirt and white sailor hat, popping cans of Eva sardines, which made him strong enough to battle the most ferocious of Adriatic sea creatures. Only in retrospect do I question the ad-men of that era who decided to make a commercial by pairing the testosterone-ridden mammal with a romantic-sounding, but definitely female slender fish in a metal tub. It sounds odd, but Eva commercials featuring the husky walrus are still going strong.
Not big on religion, but respectful of our grandparents’ beliefs and Serbian traditions, we abstained from red meat, dairy, and eggs on Fridays. Instead of spreading milky kajmak or rich lard on homemade bread, we had to use ajvar, the ubiquitous Balkan roasted red pepper relish, which was not such a great sacrifice to bear for one measly day a week. We looked forward to Mother opening a few cans of sardines for breakfast and mixing them with freshly diced, crispy onions, leaving most of the oil in Father’s bowl. Most of the kids in school had similar fare for their morning meal and bad breath was not an issue.
Throughout college, eating sardines with onions continued to be a tradition, but this time influenced more by frugality and desire to spend the stipend and allowance on a new book or a concert, rather than satisfying the dietary tenets of the Serbian Christian Orthodox Church. And chewing a few sticks of Juicy Fruit or Spearmint gum dispelled all guilty feelings about fishy, onion breath.
When I moved to the U.S., canned tuna was abundant and awfully cheap. Feeling somewhat decadent in my newfangled financial ability to procure the superior product, I abandoned the humble sardines, selling out to “the other white meat.” I only remained stubborn in my reluctance to buy tuna in water, opting always for the oil as a filler.
Years later I started craving that strong, overwhelming, but comforting and weirdly pleasant taste of sardines that was such a big part of my childhood. A few times a year I would grab a can or two from the shelves and enjoy them by myself, drained of oil, mixed only with crisp diced onions. I still made tuna salads for my girls, carrying in the back of my mind that misleading commercial message that sardines are somehow inferior.
But propelled by my new challenge, I was determined to bring the sardines out of the closet, to let them shine and seduce not only my girls, but my white-bread American husband who is as drawn to tuna-fish packed in water as I am to sardines. As much as I wanted to present them in the simple form that is still my favorite, I realized that they would have to be elevated to dinner course. I had a few ideas, but decided to consult the omniscient Google in gathering the information.
I was disenchanted after my search. Almost every site tried to recommend the best ways for disguising the flavor of these little fishes, and the overall feeling was grimly apologetic. I was dismayed and saddened that this treat from my childhood was some sort of culinary pariah, but at the same time I was wondering if my own American family would take to this briny fare without too much grumbling and complaining. In the end I came up with a solution and paired my sardines with the ProvenÃ§al flair. My approach was definitely Mediterranean, adhering to my cucina povera concept. I emptied the remnants of two pasta boxes, cut up a leftover half on an onion, pitted a handful of black and green olives, used slow-roasted tomatoes from last week and the last of the baby greens. In went some capers, juice of half a lemon left to rest on the cutting board, and a couple of spoonfuls of toasted pine nuts.
The flavors of the dish were bold, in-your-face, and unapologetic. The concentrated taste of sardines took center stage, but its dominant nature was complemented by the caramelized sweetness of oven-roasted tomatoes, the tang of lemon juice, a burst of brightness brought on by the capers, and slight bitterness from the greens. The crunch of the pine nuts added a welcome change in texture and the olives sang in harmony with the fishy brine.
I stole a furtive look or two, but the girls were happily engrossed in their meal, and Husband could not hide his enthusiasm for the unappreciated sea creatures. I felt vindicated and vowed to replenish the reserves as soon as I get to a grocery store. I will still make tuna salads for school lunches, and Husband will still eat albacore tuna packed in water on top of dry lettuce in summer months when he decides to drop a few pounds, but sardines are not going to sneak into our dinners any more: they are going to take a proper place of honor, appreciated and respected, as they deserve to be.
MEDITERRANEAN PASTA WITH SARDINES
- 250gr (8oz) of pasta (I combined shells and penne, as thatâ€™s what I had left)
- 2 cans of sardines packed in oil, broken into chunks, drained (I removed the spine because my girls are squeamish about fish bones, but itâ€™s completely edible)
- ½ small onion, diced
- 10-15 slow roasted tomatoes, sliced
- 2 Tbsp capers
- a dozen or so black or green olives, pitted and diced
- 1-2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
- a handful of bitter baby greens
- juice of ½ lemon
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package. Drain.
In a bowl combine the rest of the ingredients and carefully mix into the hot pasta, making sure that chunks of fish are not disintegrated.
For years, even before I started writing my blog, I have enjoyed creative and versatile recipes on Presto Pasta Night, an event started by Ruth from Once Upon a Feast. I am bit sad that there are going to be only two more installments; it feels as if a dear friend is moving away. I am sending my Pasta With Sardines for the penultimate edition hosted by Kirsten from the blog From Kirsten’s Kitchen to Yours.
Last year at this time I wrote a post Go East, Young Lady, featuring Soba Noodles and Tempura Vegetables.