A Trio of Tinned Fish

1. Fantastic French Sardines

A Little Bit of Brittany in Ann Arbor

I’ve long loved good sardines. I’m happy to have them in pretty much any form I can get them. I especially love fresh ones when I can get them (we have them at the Roadhouse at times). Top notch tinned sardines are equally superb. I try to have those on hand all the time. They are one of the ultimate convenience foods. Canning was actually started first with sardines in an effort by Napoleon to feed the troops out on the front lines. I regularly open a can and put them on salads, sandwiches, and pasta dishes. Unlike the fresh fish, the tinned sardines never go bad so there’s no reason not to carry a high level of inventory. In fact, they actually get better with age.

I’m particularly excited right now because we’ve just gotten in a couple of types from France to add to our already really good sardine selection. Fished only in the summer months (which is officially “sardine season”) off the coast of Brittany using small, old-school nets (to protect the delicate flesh), the sardines are brought back to port that night to maintain freshness. They’re then cleaned, very lightly fried in olive oil, tinned up with additional olive oil and then finished by being cooked inside the tin. When you open the can you’ll find four or five beautiful, silver-skinned sardines carefully lined up inside. A bit denser in texture than the also terrific offerings we’re getting right now from Portugal, these French sardines are very meaty, herbaceous and just darned delicious.

Better still I’d say are the aged sardines we’re getting from the same folks in France. Each tin has four beautiful, big (for a tin at least) sardines, caught, cooked and packed as above, but then put aside to mature for three years. As the months pass, the olive oil penetrates to the center of the sardine, making them even more delicious than they were to begin with. Delicacy that they are, I like to eat the aged sardines in simple ways—next to a small green salad or with some toast topped with a bit of butter or extra virgin olive oil. A sprinkling of sea salt seals the deal. Here, Breton fleur de sel would be geographically correct, and its delicate texture would be a good compliment for the sardines.

2. Vintage Spanish Tuna

2009 Bonito from off the Coast of the Basque Country

While I’m on the subject of aged tinned fish I should tell you about the really delicious Spanish tuna we’ve tracked down this fall. It’s line-caught albacore (known to Spaniards as ‘bonito’) from the Cantabrian Sea. We get it from the Ortiz family, who’ve been at this since 1891, and are known across Spain for the consistently high quality of their tinned seafood. Like the Breton sardines above, the bonito is aged right in the tin along with extra virgin olive oil. Same basic process, same really good results. For a particularly good treat, pour a bit of extra virgin olive oil on a plate. Add a few spoonfuls of harissa (if you’ve had the jar in the refrigerator, let it come to room temperature before you do this so it will soften up, and its complex flavors will be even easier to appreciate.

3. Portuguese Mackerel with Piri Piri

Holy Mackerel!

The third in my trio of tinned fish favorites of the moment. This time it’s mackerel packed with Portuguese piri-piri hot sauce. Easy to use and easy to love, like all the great tinned fish we’ve got on hand, this stuff is super healthy (very high in Omega-3 oils) and super convenient. Fast food at its finest!

This post is part of a series of Ari’s Best Foods of 2011.