Wild-caught fish is a tasty source of protein, low in saturated fats and high in health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids. But it's not exactly sustainable, considering that most wild fish stocks are grossly over-harvested, nor is it cheap, unless you know where to shop—in the canned fish section of your supermarket! Canned, and these days "pouched," fish is an incredible deal: modestly priced, fully cooked, shelf-stable, and packed in manageable, no-waste, no-fuss sizes, even single servings.
Of course, with any canned food, problems inevitably arise related to the hormone-disrupting plastic bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in the epoxy linings of nearly all canned goods. This harmful chemical, linked to a variety of ailments (from hyperactive behavior in children to heart disease in older women), is best avoided at all costs. Fortunately, sustainable seafood companies have been working to find replacements for BPA-based can linings: Vital Choice and Wild Planet Foods have both removed BPA from most of their product lines, and those pouches, made from plastic sandwiched between layers of foil and used by other, more mainstream companies, are BPA-free as well.
While on the topic of canned-fish caveats, I also generally avoid canned tuna. Though tuna melts and tuna casseroles were nutritious, inexpensive staples during my childhood, tuna is best left swimming in the ocean, both from an ecological standpoint and because it's high in mercury. If you simply must have it, albacore tuna caught on the Pacific coast of the mainland U.S. and Canada are more abundant and lower in mercury than other tuna; look for American Tuna brand as well as tuna sold by the sustainable seafood companies listed above. (Check out these 12 fish you should never eat, and what to eat instead.)
So what canned fishes are OK to eat, and what can you do with them? Check out my suggestions below.
After tuna, the next-most common and versatile canned fish is salmon. According to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, wild-caught Alaskan salmon is the most sustainable type to look for. (Though even wild Alaskan salmon face many challenges, including attempts to produce and spawn genetically engineered salmon and gold and copper mining near Alaskan coasts that could pollute the fishes' waterways.) If you want to ease your family into enjoying the slightly different taste, try mixing salmon half-and-half with one of the aforementioned brands of albacore tuna for a few runs. Canned salmon often contains skin and bone, both of which are edible and packed with nutrients, such as calcium.
How to use it: Toss canned salmon into a pasta salad, sprinkle it over a green salad to make it a meal, or mold it into "salmon burger" patties for a sit-down meal. Below are a few other ideas...
Quick Salmon Bagel Sandwiches: Mash a 3-ounce package of smoked salmon or a 3-ounce can of salmon, juice and all, into 2 to 4 ounces of organic cream cheese or soft goat cheese, and spread on your choice of whole-grain bagel.
Salmon Salad: Substitute canned salmon for tuna in your favorite tuna salad recipe, and spread it on whole-grain bread or over a bed of mixed greens. Try adding a few finely diced green olives for variety.
(Have a little more time? Make this one-pan salmon and roasted veggies meal!)
By definition, the most sustainable fish are those that are harvested when they are small and those that reproduce quickly, allowing their populations to rebound. One such fish is the oft-maligned, lowly Pacific sardine.
Sardines are actually various kinds of small fish in the herring family. Wild-caught Pacific sardines (not those in the Atlantic or Mediterranean) are among the most sustainable and healthful fish on the market; they're rich in omega-3s and vitamin D, without all the mercury. Fresh or frozen sardines are sometimes available in fish markets, but the vast number end up in tiny cans, usually packed in oil and sometimes in mustard or spicy tomato sauce. I prefer the kind packed in olive oil.
Canned sardines can be somewhat more fishy tasting than tuna or salmon, but are very tasty all the same. The easiest way to enjoy them is right out of the can (mashed or whole) on crackers, but there are dozens of other ways to use them, depending on your individual preferences. (They're even great to add to your pet's diet, but choose no-salt, water-packed as a treat for your furry friends.) Here are a few of our favorites:
BRETT STEVENS/ Getty
Greek Salad with Sardines: Toss oil-packed sardines with chunks of fresh tomato, cucumber, feta cheese, and good olives, and dress the salad with a lemony vinaigrette (use the oil from the sardines in your dressing for an extra burst of flavor).
Bean-and-Sardine-Spread Sandwiches: Mash one can of sardines in the flavor of your choice, and blend it with 1 cup of cooked, drained white (also called cannelini) beans. (To make life even easier on yourself, use Eden Organic cannellini beans, also packaged in BPA-free cans.) Spread on a good whole-grain bread and complete the sandwich with some fresh watercress or arugula.
Mini Sardine Pizzas: Toast an English muffin and spread each half with 1½ tablespoons of spaghetti or pizza sauce, put on 3 small sardines (or one larger sardine split in half), and sprinkle with 1 ounce of shredded cheddar or "pizza" cheese; broil for 3 to 4 minutes, until the cheese is melted and just beginning to brown.
Despite their reputation as cheap and smelly, sardines lend themselves to truly gourmet dishes that are surprisingly quick and easy to make on even the busiest night of the week.
Pasta con Sarde
A quick, classic dish that is ready in the time it takes to cook the pasta. It's delicious hot, and even better cold the next day for lunch!
Makes 4 modest or 2 large servings
8 ounces dry fettuccine pasta (I always use whole grain pasta)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 3.75-ounce can of sardines (flavored or in oil, your choice)
1 lemon, juiced
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
While cooking the pasta in boiling water, heat the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion till soft. Add the garlic and cook until it just starts to brown, then add the sardines and any oil or sauce from the can, and stir, mashing the sardines into small pieces. Let the mixture simmer. Once the pasta is al dente (still just a wee bit stiff in the center), drain it and toss it in with the sardine sauce, stir, turn off the heat, cover, and let it sit for a few minutes while you make a green salad. Squeeze the lemon over the pasta, arrange it on plates, and top with the cheese.
A great one-pot meal that is good hot or cooked ahead, chilled, and served on a bed of greens.
Makes 4 modest or 2 large servings
1½ Tablespoons olive oil
1½ pounds potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1" chunks
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup diced tomatoes with their juice (fresh or out of a box; I don't eat tomato products out of cans)
1 teaspoon sea alt
1 teaspoon Spanish paprika, ground
1 bay leaf
1 cup water
1 3.25-ounce can sardines in olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a large deep skillet or Dutch oven, and sauté the onion until soft. Add the garlic and cook until it just starts to brown, then add everything else except the sardines. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for about 45 minutes until the potatoes are very tender. Stir in the sardines and their oil and either dish up right away or cool and refrigerate the dish for later.
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