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It all started with an Instagram post. You see, I have a little pantry problem. I never have enough room for my canned seafood stash. As I noted at the time: this isn’t even all of my pantry’s collection. Sardines, kippers and mackerel, oh my!
My strange-to-my-husband love for all things seafood in a tin traces back to my grandma, naturally. Grandma B was a classic “meat and two veg” type of cook and the kind of lady who would send me off to school with a full English breakfast in the morning, even if she had to get up before 6 am to do it. Recalling her disdain for cereal still makes me laugh out loud, especially when I consider how much my own cooking has evolved and yet come back to very similar thinking as hers. For as much as she was a traditional and frugal cook who wasted absolutely nothing in the kitchen, she was still playful and curious, too. I’ll never forget her discovering Indian food in her 60s: a few days later, she was teaching herself how to make garam masala from scratch and whipping up a veritable buffet of dishes. For the two of us. Because that’s how Grandma B rolled.
As much as I loved her kitchen sorcery and fabulous meals with multiple sides, one of my favorite memories is of evenings where she kicked back and announced that we were “winging it” for the night. Those evenings were for simple gustatory pleasures. Leftover chicken soup with crusty bread spread with a near half inch of salted butter. Bubble and squeak made with the leftovers from Sunday’s roast. Or, my favorite: sardines on toast. It sounds like a strange thing for a little girl to love, but I did. Gently mashed with a little lemon and some herbs, smattered with a few olives and capers folded into the mixture, then spread onto toast and broiled until warmed and almost-bubbling. I loved the crunch of each bite and how it contrasted with the richness of smoky sardines; the pop of brightness from the lemon and herbs and a little brininess from the olives and capers.
(My Simple & Sneaky Tuna Salad, above, is inspired by this meal with my grandma.)
This wasn’t “at the table” food. It was a little secret ritual only we shared: plates propped on our knees, messy-fingered and crumbs most likely on our laps. This was a meal without rules, shared as Grandma B listened to all the by-the-minute tales I could rattle off before I wiped my plate clean (again, with my fingers). It was a meal that told me I was important enough to be listened to. A meal that meant my grandma let me both simultaneously practice being an adult without stifling me with table manners yet again, while letting me stay a child, too, as she quizzed me about my day. So, sardines: to me, they’ll always be steeped in a little nostalgia and a big dose of love, despite their humble place in the pantry.
Perhaps for completely different reasons, it turns out that among my AIP-eating friends, I’m not alone in my canned seafood love. (I talk a little about this in the podcast I recorded with Eileen of Phoenix Helix and my foodie-girl-crush Mel Joulwan). But, going back to that Instagram post I mentioned earlier, there were as many people perplexed by these little cans as there were people who were firmly with me on Team Canned Seafood. I got lots of questions along the lines of: but what do you DO with those things? So buckle up, people, I’m about to dish all my favorite ways to eat canned seafood, with a bunch of bonus AIP recipes, too! Because there’s no portable, pantry-friendly, protein that’s as convenient or inexpensive as these funky little fishes and their under the sea buddies. Just make sure that you’re buying the varieties that come packed in either water or olive oil – you don’t want the suckers in vegetable oils – and look out for wild caught wherever possible. I’ve included links to brands below, so that you can see the packaging and ingredients list — but definitely shop around locally for the best prices!
Your AIP guide to canned seafood
Alright, these little guys are probably the #1 reason people claim they don’t like either a) anchovies or b) canned seafood. These are the flat little fillets you’ll find as a less-than-loved pizza topping — and almost nowhere else. While a lot of people claim they taste super “fishy”, they’re really little salty umami bombs because these little guys spend months being cured and brined before they make their way into cans or jars. You need to use these things sparingly: a little of that salty-savory flavor goes a long way. If you’re used to working with fish sauce, think of anchovies the same way – in fact, fish sauce is actually made from anchovies. So there you go!
Because anchovy fillets are potent, I like to freeze two flat fillets at a time. You can pop them in baggies or mash them gently with a little oil and freeze in mini silicone molds. They’re quick to defrost and can be whipped into sauces and dressings easily that way.
Anchovy & Roasted Garlic Green Sauce from Joanna Frankham
Celeriac Remoulade from meatified
Charred Brussels Sprouts with Anchovies & Orange from Healing Family Eats
Coleslaw with Caper Anchovy Dressing from Fresh Tart
Roasted Beet & Grapefruit Salad from Gutsy By Nature
Watercress Anchovy Burgers from Petra8Paleo
Not all sardines are created equal! These sardines are much smaller than standard sardines, usually averaging about 12 – 20ish fish per can and are usually lightly smoked. They are very mild and pretty delicate, without any “fishy” aroma to them and they’re nutritionally packed with good things, since you’re eating almost the whole fish. Don’t worry, they’re headless, but they will often still have their tails. The bones and skin aren’t discernible when they’re eaten since they’re so small, but add extra nutrition, making these guys a great source of calcium as well as omega 3s. Bonus fact: they have all the phosphorous and vitamin D needed for calcium absorption, too!
I like to add Brisling sardines to salads and if I have time, I like to warm them gently before using them to top off peppery arugula with plenty of fresh lemon or lime juice to balance their richness. They’re fantastic stirred through zucchini noodle dishes and I also like to pair them with avocado, chopped onion, radish and cilantro to make little jicama “tacos”. If you’re feeling adventurous, try lightly dredging them in arrowroot flour and deep frying until crispy!
Lemon Herb Sardine Salad from Martha Stewart (omit the Dijon and black pepper for AIP)
Pan Fried Sardines from Popular Paleo
Sardine and Grapefruit Salad in Endive Cups from Seasonal and Savory
Sardine, Avocado & Radish Salad with Cress from Food52 (omit black pepper for AIP)
AIP friendly brands: Crown Prince Natural
I had to include crab here, since it is also a readily available canned seafood option, but it is the exception to the “inexpensive” rule I mentioned above. It’s definitely a more spendy option, but there are plenty of ways to use it in a way that stretch this protein a little further. It’s more delicate and sweeter than other canned seafood and as such it’s a great gateway into the tastier and richer options out there. I like to mix it with a little smashed avocado and lemon juice as a baked white sweet potato topper, add it to my Artichoke Hummus for an easy dip, or pile it on top of a fennel and citrus salad. Another lunchtime favorite: topping tostones with avocado, crab and a little sliced mango is beyond fantastic!
Crab Bisque from Gutsy By Nature
Crab Stuffed Mushrooms from Gutsy By Nature
Dungeness Crab Salad from Martha Stewart (omit black pepper and jalapeno for AIP)
Mexican Crab Cakes from Beyond The Bite
Sweet Potato Crab Cakes from Adventures in Partaking
Kippers are actually cold smoked herring and they have a distinctive smoky taste that you either love or hate. The name “kipper” comes from the process of preserving the herring: they are traditionally butterflied before being salted, then air dried or smoked. To “kipper” actually means to preserve almost any meat or fish in that manner, but now is used specifically to refer to these “kippered” herring and other oily fish. I grew up eating whole kipper fillets, usually served with a little butter on top and a side of mashed potatoes and vegetables. I loved the deep orange color, the rich smokiness and the firmness of each flaky bite. Their strong flavor make these fully cooked “kipper snacks” utterly addictive to me and I love to eat them straight out of the can: no shame!
That said, they can be used in other dishes, too, where you can either play up the bold flavors or pair the kippers with ingredients that will help tone down the smokiness. If I’m going bold, I love to flake them into my Whipped Parsnips, cook them into a coconut milk curry with lots of garlic, ginger and turmeric or use them to top an otherwise dull salad. If I’m going for a more subtle approach, I like adding flaked kippers to my Creamy Cod & Shrimp Chowder or stirring them into a vegetable “rice” dish (like the Kedgeree from my cookbook Nourish) with lots of fresh herbs.
Kipper Cakes from Beyond The Bite
These meaty fillets can be found “as is” or in skinless and boneless versions, so you can take your pick if the idea of fish bones squicks you out. Unsmoked mackerel is very similar to standard canned tuna, yet much better for you since it is an oily fish, making it richer, less dry and higher in omega 3s for the win. If you can make a recipe with canned tuna, canned mackerel will usually stand in perfectly because it has a relatively mild flavor compared to, say, sardines. If you’ve got picky eaters to feed, try mixing tuna and mackerel 1:1 in your usual tuna salad recipes! Try substituting canned mackerel in my Tuna Cakes with Green Olives as a start. I love to whip mackerel into a grown up “tuna” salad by stirring it into a smooth avocado puree in place of mayo, then adding green onions, minced arugula, olives, capers and lots of lemon. It also makes a great addition to a veggie hash or spread on top of sweet potato rounds, topped with a little coconut cream. It pairs wonderfully with fresh horseradish, too.
I don’t need to tell you about this one! Canned salmon used to be horrible, dried out, overcooked fish when I was a kid, but these days, canned salmon tastes nothing like how I remember it! It’s a great way to add a quick protein option to your plates without breaking the bank and it’s super convenient. I like to add it to my veggie based breakfast soups in the morning as it just needs warming through before serving, or to roll it up with broccoli slaw in nori or lettuce wraps for a speedy lunch.
Baked Parsnip Salmon Cakes from meatified
Hearty Fish Chowder from Beyond The Bite
Speedy Salmon Salad from meatified
These sardines are larger than the Brisling variety and can be bought in either boneless and skinless or with their bones and skin still intact, so you can pick which you prefer. They’re usually unsmoked and have a stronger flavor than mackerel, which means they can be a little more of an acquired taste. I love their richness and think it lends itself beautifully to quick and easy pâté creations: I like to throw a few cans into my mini food processor, along with fresh lemon juice and herbs to make a coarse spread, or add a little coconut milk, lard or even bacon fat to make a smoother spread. Both are delicious and can be used in lettuce or endive cups, as a side or dip for fresh cut vegetables or stirred through a sweet potato salad for a punch of umami. Keeping things even simpler, I love to broil whole sardines until the skins blister and crisp a little, then serve them with a side salad for a super simple and speedy supper.
Avocado and Sardine Tapenade from The Primitive Homemaker
My Favorite Sardine Salad from Beyond The Bite
Parsnip and Sardine Cutlets from Provincial Paleo
Sardine and Anchovy Pâté from Don’t Eat The Spatula
Simple & Sneaky Tuna Salad from Meatified
Spinach Salad with Sardines and Crispy Prosciutto from Martha Stewart
AIP friendly brand: Crown Prince Natural
These guys are straight up flavor bombs. They’re equal parts strange and addictive, if you ask me. They have a deep smoky flavor that contrasts with a hint of brininess from the actual oyster and they’re just the right side of chewy to make for a great “meaty” bite. As well as being delicious, they’re little nutritional nuggets of gold, packed with zinc and iron. Truth be told, I usually pop them straight from the can to my mouth as a great emergency / on the road snack, but there are plenty of other things you can do with them. Chop them up and stir them through your favorite seasoned cauliflower rice recipe for a neat take on “dirty rice”. Wrap ’em in bacon and serve them as tangy little appetizers if you’re being fancy. Add them to your seafood spread or pâté recipes for a lovely smoky hit of bonus flavor, or drop them into a creamy vegetable soup. Lightening things up, I love them over a salad, especially paired with zingy citrus like grapefruit.
Smoked Bacon Oysters from Mark’s Daily Apple
Smoked Oyster and Avocado Nori Rolls from Grazed and Enthused
Smoked Oyster Party Appetizer from Fermented Food Lab
Smoky Seafood Spread from Meatified
AIP friendly brand: Wild Planet
Unlike their more pungent cousins, cured flat anchovy fillets, these are similar in appearance to canned sardines. However, they’re much milder in flavor, with a more delicate texture and cleaner taste. If you find sardines too strong a flavor, give these anchovies a go. They make a wonderful stuffing for mushrooms with a little bacon on top and are wonderful flaked over grilled romaine with an AIP Caesar dressing. Pan fry them with plenty of fresh garlic, or marinate them with a little red wine vinegar, red onion and orange zest and serve them as part of a tapas plate with olives.
Spanish Anchovy, Fennel and Preserved Lemon Salad from Bon Appetit
As you can see, although these canned seafoods are easy to find, inexpensive and can be enjoyed plenty of different ways, there aren’t actually a lot of written recipes out there! When I was creating recipes for Nourish, it was important to me to include simple, inexpensive recipes using canned seafood, for that very reason. That’s why you can find these tasty recipes in the “Super Seafood” section, perfect for budget friendly meals:
- Anchovy Stuffed Portobellos with Pancetta (pg 130)
- Crab Soup with Radishes (pg 124)
- Kedgeree (pg 24 – uses kippers)
- Pan Fried Sardines with Lime, Cilantro & Mint (pg 104 – pictured above)
- Seared Scallops with Cauliflower Leek Puree & Anchovy Dressing (pg 117)
- Smoky Seafood Spread with Sardines and Oysters (pg 127 – includes sardines)
- Sneaky Tuna Salad with Green Onion Dressing (pg 131)
I like to think that Grandma B would have approved. If you’d like to learn more about Nourish, head on over here to see photos, read a full recipe list and more. Don’t forget you have until January 31st to vote for your favorites in Paleo Magazine’s Best of 2015 awards – Nourish is up for Best New Cookbook and I would love to have your vote!
What are you favorite ways to eat canned seafood? Bonus points if you can point me to a recipe that I can add to this post, especially for kippers, mackerel or white anchovies!