IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The wonderful world of canned fish

Pop open a tin and you'll unleash endless pastabilities.
Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

For many, the phrase "canned fish" likely invokes an unpleasant childhood memory: grayish pink globs of tuna tossed with too much mayo and oppressively large chunks of celery. I happen to like tuna salad (even tuna casserole!), but if my association with canned fish began and ended with tuna fish sandwiches, I probably wouldn't be as enthusiastic as I am about this category of food.

While quarantined at home, we're all turning to our pantries and cabinets (who has a pantry? I certainly don't ...) for cooking inspiration, where every day is a not very exhilarating episode of "Chopped": What can I throw together with broccoli, stale bread and rigatoni? For me, the ingredient that usually ties all the other ingredients together is tinned fish — usually anchovies, sometimes sardines. It enhances all other flavors by dropping a much-needed umami bomb on them. That boring broccoli-pasta bake becomes a savory sensation when topped with anchovy-laced bread crumbs.

But when I post my creations on social media, many reactions are less than positive. Of course, I have followers who also extol the virtues of tinned fish, but they're in the minority. I receive DMs asking me how they can make the dish I posted without anchovies. (I usually answer: "With fish sauce!")

Canned fish — which happens to be packed with those much-coveted omega-3 fatty acids! — just isn't very popular in the U.S. Even tuna is drowning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2016 that tinned-tuna sales had fallen 42% over the previous three decades.

I mean, I get it: fish from a tin can be intensely briny and slimy. Pop one in your mouth and it's an explosion of the ocean. But that's also why it's so good; a little goes such a long way. "Think of Caesar salad!" I too-often say.

Pasta Puttanesca

While the U.S. might not give canned fish the recognition it deserves, many other countries understand the possibilities that are unleashed when you peel back a tin. In Spain and Portugal especially, tinned fish — aka conservas — is a way of life. And a luxurious life, at that: Walk into a wine bar and you'll be met with a few varieties — mussels! sardines! octopus! — to pair with your glass. Canned anchovies are a staple in Italian cooking — think of puttanesca, a tomato-based sauce that features anchovies, olives and capers, or bagna càuda, an anchovy-infused dipping sauce typically paired with raw or cooked vegetables.

In Spain and Portugal, tinned fish — conservas — is a luxurious way of life.
In Spain and Portugal, tinned fish — conservas — is a luxurious way of life.Getty Images

And it's not just Europe: Asia is a canned-seafood mecca. In Japan, you can find miso-marinated mackerel served simply over a bowl of rice or onigiri (rice balls) filled with canned salmon. In China, canned fried dace with salted black beans is an iconic food, and in Korea, gochujang-infused tuna with potatoes is a popular one.

Korean-American chef David Chang recently showcased a canned spicy tuna on his Instagram, calling it "outrageously good." In the caption, he wrote, "Canned and tinned food is beloved in Europe and Asia but not so much America. I hope that changes...canned: mussels, clams, octopus, perilla leaves and even kimchi can all be tasty preserved goodness. Great way to taste flavors from around the world in times like these. This is one of my favorites."

I love to eat these salty snacks straight out of the can, but I understand that may be an intimidating idea to many. Tinned fish never deserves to be masked by other ingredients, but it can be used in softer, more subtle ways to augment other flavors.

Melissa Clark's Salmon With Anchovy-Garlic Butter

Beyond the aforementioned Caesar salad, you can use anchovies to add depth of flavor to any pasta dish from something as light and simple as aglio e olio to something as hefty and complex as Bolognese — just heat up some olive oil in a pan and add in what I like to think of as the trifecta of taste: minced garlic, minced anchovies and crushed red pepper, and then continue on with the rest of the recipe. The same goes for sautéed vegetables. Add these tiny, briny fish (I like the brands Ortiz and Cento) to your burger blend or steak marinade (FYI Worcestershire has anchovies in it), blend them into pesto, chimichurri or butter, or, if you're feeling bold, plop them right atop your toast. I can't think of a food that wouldn't benefit from the use of anchovies (other than dessert — but hey, I'm open to ideas.)

Unlike the anchovy, the meatier sardine doesn't disintegrate and disappear from sight when cooked. Like tinned tuna, salmon, trout and mackerel, it's much more of a main ingredient than a supporting actor. Flake these fishes on toast (I like to pair them with creamy ricotta and pickled onions) or in a sandwich (a banh mi, perhaps), into pasta, atop salad (like a niçoise) or over rice for a Japanese-style breakfast.

My favorite canned sardines come from Roland, Bela (especially the piri-piri version!) and Porthos. Bela and Porthos also make great tinned mackerel. And as far as canned salmon goes, I am partial to Patagonia Provisions.

Canned mussels (I like the brand Ramón Peña) are commonly preserved in an escabeche sauce of olive oil, vinegar paprika and other spices, making them less fishy and more smoky. This makes them good for serving simply on crusty bread, over thinly sliced, roasted potatoes or, again, mixed into pasta.

Sardines from many Mediterranean countries are prized not just for their flavor, but also for their colorful, collectible tins.
Sardines from many Mediterranean countries are prized not just for their flavor, but also for their colorful, collectible tins.AFP via Getty Images

As we all know, canned tuna has plenty of uses worth celebrating — from salads to casseroles — but perhaps its most important use is as a gateway to the wonderful world of canned seafood. While many of us are at home trying to find new ways to add a little excitement to the same meals, consider turning to the humble-but-mighty tin.