Have You Met… Sardines

This post is part of the series Have you met… meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

February is American Heart Month, and a good time to consider what you can do to protect yours.

To name a few: be physically active most or all days of the week, kick the smoking habit, get regular wellness exams and blood pressure checks. Also, move toward or maintain a healthy diet including loads of heart-smart foods…

Have you met… sardines?

Sardines can

The sardine, a variety of tiny, young or immature saltwater fish, is an under-appreciated, misunderstood outcast. It’s a staple in our pantry for oh-so-many reasons, and is one of the healthiest foods you probably aren’t eating.

But should try. Or reconsider.

What’s so great about them?

One (3.75-ounce*) can packed in olive oil, drained, provides approximately 191 calories and 11 g total fat, though nearly 90% of that is heart-healthy unsaturated fat and 0% trans fat. This serving meets roughly 35% of your calcium needs (even without the bones; and even more so with!), over 60% for vitamin D to help improve calcium absorption and strengthen teeth and bones, as well as more than 100% of your daily vitamin B12 to improve critical thinking, boost immune function, help lower homocysteine levels and thus decrease the risk of heart disease. In addition, sardines are an excellent source of the essential vitamins and minerals like selenium, phosphorous and niacin.

Sardines are a great source of high-quality complete protein — nearly 45% of your daily needs. They are also one of the absolute best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), providing over 1,300 mg per serving. EPA and DHA, considered the most beneficial of the omega-3 fats, contribute to healthy brain and joint function, decrease risk of arrhythmia, slow plaque buildup in arteries, lower triglyceride levels, and has been shown to slightly improve blood pressure levels. Lots of heart love here!

For women who are planning to be or currently pregnant, recently postpartum or nursing, sardines are impressively beneficial for you and baby. During pregnancy, adequate intake of calcium may decrease risk of hypertension and preeclampsia, and the associated risk of preterm birth. The omega-3 DHA may also play a role in preventing early delivery, and can improve mood and mental clarity, reducing risk of postpartum depression. Omega-3s are also important for producing hormones that increase blood flow to the uterus, which increases chances of becoming pregnant. Furthermore, research suggests that babies whose mothers consumed fish during pregnancy and while nursing may experience improved sleep patterns, advanced brain development, greater visual acuity, and better communication skills. Studies are investigating the possible relationship between adequate prenatal vitamin D and a lower risk of asthma in children later in life.

Sardines are brined in a saltwater solution prior to processing for the can, making their sodium content very high (110 mg per serving). Regardless of whether or not sodium is something you monitor in your diet, I recommend always rinsing canned sardines prior to use. The average American consumes more than twice the 1,500 mg/day guideline. Too much sodium may increase risk for high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. Clearly we, and our hearts, stand to benefit from decreasing our sodium intake when possible.

In addition to their tremendous health benefits, sardines are one of the most sustainable, ocean-friendly fish due to rapid rates of reproduction, growth and maturation, and are therefore able to better withstand commercial fishing pressures. And because of their small size and place at the bottom of the food chain, sardines are low in contaminants, toxins and heavy metals, like mercury. (Why size matters: A small fish eats less than a big fish over the course of its lifetime, and therefore accumulates far fewer pollutants.)

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Where can I find them // What do I look for?

The cheapest, most convenient and most widely available form of sardines is canned. You may find boneless, skinless versions packed in water, olive or other oils, as well as those that are smoked or pickled and packed in tomato sauce or mustard. Unopened cans stored in a cool, dark pantry or closet will keep up to 1 year. Once opened, store sardines in a tightly-sealing container in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.

If you have a reliable source** for seafood, fresh fillets and whole sardines are other options. As with any fish, choose only those with clear, bright eyes (no redness), clear gills (also no redness), firm flesh and a mild, fresh sea aroma (no strong “fishy” odor). You can ask the fishmonger to scale, gut and bone the fish. This is usually at no or minimal cost to you, and is especially helpful if you’re squeamish, lack the appropriate tools, or simply want a more convenient product! Depending on your region, the “in” season runs from late July to early April. Fillets or whole sardines are best cooked the same day you buy them, but can be refrigerated in their wrapping or on a plate covered with a paper towel 1 to 2 days.

A quality frozen variety will be rock-hard, and should appear somewhat shiny with no evidence of freezer burn/defrosting (excess ice crystallization on the inside of the package). These will keep well-wrapped in your freezer for up to 6 months.

Sardine can open

How do I use them?

Any variety of sardines, but canned especially, represent not only some of the most economical meals, but also some of the most healthful and flavorful. Straight from the tin they have a similar taste and texture to canned tuna, and are pretty much interchangeable in recipes. Mashing the canned variety is my recommendation for the fledgling eater. Just remember to give them a good rinse before using.

If you’d like to know how they’re enjoyed in our home, two of our favorites are Sicilian pasta con le sarde and a spicy chilli-garlic pizza with sardines, broccoli and lemon:

Made with sardines and anchovies, fennel, golden raisins, saffron, toasted pine nuts and breadcrumbs, pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines) always feels special. This recipe uses fresh versions of both the fish; we opt for canned sardines and a bit of anchovy paste. If you have access to either fresh, try those!

For the pizza, we spread extra virgin olive oil that was quickly warmed through and infused with slivered garlic and red chilli flakes over our dough, and top that with chopped broccoli florets and mashed sardines. On to the pizza stone in a cranked oven 8 to 10 minutes, until the crust browns at the edges. Just before serving, scatter over fresh chives or oregano leaves, dress with lemon juice, and if we’re feeling cheesy, some shavings of Pecorino or Manchego. We’ve also done a version with roasted red peppers, sardines, capers, thinly sliced red onion, plus aged balsamic and fresh parsley to finish. Both simple, and both so good.

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Here are a few more recipe ideas to reel you in:

+ Riff a tuna melt and let the broiler drape your favorite melty cheese over some portions of canned sardine. Helllloooo, easy weeknight supper! Bonus points for first mashing the sardines with a bit of aged balsamic, red wine vinegar or hot sauce, and sneaking a few leaves of arugula or spinach under the cheese.

+ Even easier: Spread a generous amount of your favorite hummus mixed with whatever green herb you have in the fridge or growing in a pot onto a thick slice of grainy or seedy bread. Top with canned sardines, a squidge of lemon juice, and a dusting of sumac or smoked paprika, if you have either.

+ Use a fork to combine canned sardines with diced fresh tomato, thin red onion slivers and mint leaves, pile onto toasted bread and drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil for an elegant, yet quick and affordable pre-meal nibble.

+ Mix up your fresh green salads with a topping of lemony sardines and white beans with homemade croutons, or a mustard, herb, caper and sardine smash-up.

+ Stuff an herby-lemony mixture of canned sardines, cooked barley, red peppers and red onion into hollowed-out tomatoes, top with breadcrumbs and bake until golden.

+ If you’re lucky enough to have fresh sardines available near you, be adventurous and serve whole grilled sardines with an herby-citrusy chimmichurri sauce or a vibrant piquillo pepper sauce.

+ Another for the barbecue (or grill pan): Grilled sardine tacos with pepper paste, lime and pineapple salsa.

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Opinions tend to be strong about sardines, but perhaps the info and recipes above have persuaded you to at least give them an honest try. Even if you have to do it alone at home as to not attract attention or stray cats, treat yourself to some sardines and reap the delicious, nutritious, health-promoting rewards — your heart deserves love every day of the year!

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Will you try (or do you already enjoy) sardines, or do you need more convincing?

*The 3.75-ounce can shown above is technically labeled as two servings, but the American Heart Association’s guidance uses a 3.0 to 3.5-ounce serving size, so I tend toward the latter.

**Visit the Apps tab on my Resources page for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app, or download one of their sustainable pocket guides to eco-friendly fish in your area.

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

And if you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing. Thanks!


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