Feeding a family, or even just yourself, can be expensive and time consuming, especially when you’re trying to buy consciously and cook wholesomely. For years, Italian cooks have turned to tinned and jarred fish for inexpensive and healthy sources of protein. Although over-fishing is a serious environmental issue, many of the fish in Italian cooks’ repertoires, including anchovies and sardines, are not threatened by over fishing. Mackerel and tuna both suffer from over-fishing, but in moderation there are still ways to eat them ethically and responsibly.
We all know that fish provide a variety of health benefits, but it is slightly less well known that the “oily little fishes” such as anchovies, sardines, and mackerel contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. Cooking with these types of fish provides both a health and a flavor boost.
Anchovies can be purchased most commonly in jars or tins packed in olive oil. Some anchovies are also packed in salt, although these anchovies must be cleaned before being used. You can also buy them fresh, it all depends on how you want to prepare them.
Anchovies definitely have a negative connotation—detractors will say that they have an overwhelmingly fishy flavor. To them I say, you’ve probably never had anchovies prepared well. One of the most common ways Italian cooks use anchovies is as part of a base, to add flavor to a dish. Many cooks, for instance, dissolve a couple of anchovy fillets in extra virgin olive oil along with either garlic or onion as the base of my tomato sauce. Used in this way, anchovies provide a savory depth of flavor and impart no fishiness on the final dish.
If you can find whole fresh anchovies, one of the best ways to cook them is to butterfly, clean, then batter and deep fry them. Cooked in this manner anchovies become a delicious addition to a fritto misto or a tasty snack. This preparation lets more of the flavor of the anchovies shine through, so it probably wouldn’t appeal to anyone suspicious of fishiness. Paired with a crisp sparkling white wine, fried anchovies are heaven.
A by-product of the anchovy-curing process is called colatura. When anchovies are packed in barrels in between layers of salt to cure, the golden liquid that they release is called colatura. It might not sound appealing, but it is very similar to the better known Asian fish sauce, or the ancient Roman garum. Colatura can be used much as fish sauce would—to add depth to sauces, soups, or whatever else you like; but it makes an even better pasta sauce along with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and peperoncino.
Sardines are most often found in tins, packed in olive oil. Of course, fresh sardines also make appearances at the Italian table, but if ease and speed are what you need, tinned sardines are the way to go.
Sardines play the starring role in my second favorite pasta (after carbonara, obviously)—Pasta con le sarde. Pasta con le sarde is a Sicilian pasta, commonly eaten on Saint Joseph’s Day (also Italian Father’s Day) to welcome spring. It has fresh wild fennel, garlic, dried currants or raisins, pine nuts, and, of course, sardines. The flavor of the sardines is sweet and not at all fishy, give it a try!
Bigoli with sardines is a dish common in the Veneto region. Onions are cooked down with salted sardines until they make a delicious, cohesive sauce. Since the onions are so sweet, the more savory flavor of the sardines provides a beautiful contrast. This dish is also sometimes made with anchovies.
Tinned sgombri can be used in much the same way as sardines—in a pasta sauce, they add flavor and protein.
A Calabrian woman I know would make a pasta sauce with a little tomato, capers, and sgombri along with peperoncino. The pasta was simple but filling with the addition of the sgombri. Sgombri can also be marinated and eaten with bruschette; the fish’s meaty texture makes it great for eating with crunchy bread.
Another use of sgombri, for those more inclined towards “fishy” flavors, is a mackerel salad. Tinned mackerel is tossed with onion, tomato, olive oil, and a variety of spices and herbs to make a delicious and satisfying salad.
Tuna is perhaps the most commonly used tinned/jarred fish, both in Italy and abroad. The best tuna to buy is packed in extra virgin olive oil in glass jars; the fillets should be large and in defined pieces rather than a bunch of flakes mushed together.
Tuna’s uses are seemingly infinite—they do great on top of any sort of salad, especially the delicious farro, chickpea, and tomato salad. Another great salad is tuna with borlotti beans and finely diced onion—delicious, if a little smelly.
Tuna also lends itself well to pasta sauce, as do all of the fish we’ve talked about so far. One of my favorite quick meals is a can of tuna in tomato sauce with capers and/or olives and anchovy. Tuna can also be used to stuff vegetables, such as tomatoes, for light summer meals.
A lesser known, but still delicious tuna preparation is polpette di tonno. Tuna is combined with fillers such as breadcrumbs and mashed potatoes and various herbs and spices, then formed into balls and fried. If you keep tuna in your pantry, these are quick meals that can be whipped up and served with a side salad in no time.
Buying imported tinned or jarred fish can be expensive, but a little goes a long way. Sardines and mackerel especially are inexpensive to purchase, and go a long way towards making a meal more delicious, filling, and healthy. These Italian pantry heroes make our lives much easier, we hope they can do the same for you.
Julia Terranova is a Brooklyn born, Italian-American student with a love of Rome and all things Italy. She spends her time cooking for friends and reading as many cookbooks as she can find.