Beginning to love sardines, the why and the how

Sardines. For the average American, I’ve noticed that the thought of sardines doesn’t illicit any oohs or ahhs, and generally doesn’t incite any major cravings for this little fishy fish. But I challenge all notions and prejudgments of these little bundles of wonderful. Hear me out.

The Why

Nutrition

Sardines really are one of those “nutritional powerhouse” foods.

sardines

If you look at the nutritional data, they are high protein with no carbs or trans fat, and of course they are a good supplier of optimally balanced Omega fatty acids, as well as a slew of vitamins and minerals. Also, if you take in to account they are a whole food, your body will better take in the nutrients and be able to use them more efficiently and thoroughly. They are designed by nature be just right. The nutrients in a whole food work synergistically together which increases bioavailability and absorption of the individual nutrients.

For example, the calcium in just one 4.4 oz. can is just under 500mg, which, if you follow the guidelines, is just under half the daily recommended for women. 4.4 oz. also contains a high level of vitamin D and magnesium, which both aid in absorption, so more of the calcium is made available to the body. The higher levels of fat (good fat is good, every body needs fat to survive) also help with the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, K, D, and E.

Sardines are an excellent source of Vitamin B12. All the B vitamins essential to good health and can be found from a variety of sources. However, B12 can only be found in animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, etc.). Additionally, B vitamins are water soluble, so they cannot be stored in the body and must be taken on a regular basis to maintain healthy function. A 4.4 oz. can of sardines contains almost 5 times the recommended daily allowance for an average person, but that can fluctuate depending on individuals, i.e. disease, pregnancy, normal diet deficiencies, etc. Since B vitamins are water soluble, and extra that your body can’t use is put out as waste, providing more in a bioavailable (non-supplemental) form can’t hurt.

Sardines are also very low on the food chain. They feed on plankton, and are in turn prey for larger fish, so mercury and other noxious things that are of concern in larger predator fish like tuna and mackerel aren’t really a worry with sardines.

Cost

Sardines are cheap. I know I can find some brands for as little as 25 cents each at local international markets. Due to my sulfite sensitivity (and a general desire to not contribute to the uncaring and irresponsible nature of our food industry), I found a couple brands which are sustainably wild-caught (not farmed) and are available in all of my local stores. My go-to is Wild Planet, mostly because they are the cheapest of the pack but still a quality product.

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Environmental Impact

Sardines are not really subject to overfishing. As I said before, they are a prey fish, so there are tons of them in the ocean (generally speaking, the higher up the food chain you go, the more the numbers dwindle…..think rabbits to foxes, or wildebeest to lions). They also tend to stay in tightly packed columns in schools as a means of defense, so there is less likelihood of random catches of other species in the mix when the fishers throw out their nets, unlike long lines and fishing for more solitary or larger species.

The How

Straight from the can

My sweetheart and I always take a couple cans with us when we go on a long hike or when we camp and crack them open for a high energy meal on the go. Yes, we eat them straight out of the can, and then drink all the water left over in the can to get every last drop of nutritional goodness in there. (I generally only buy the ones packed in water for this reason, and I also like to have the freedom of flavor when I use them in recipes.)

My kids, not so much. They have a more “typical” pallet. While they do have a couple off-norm-for-kids-these-days dishes they like (the boy loves chicken livers and Brussel sprouts, the girl loves asparagus and miatake mushrooms), they mostly shy away from anything with a big flavor…like straight-from-the-can sardines. So I came up with a few recipes with them in mind to ensure they get some of this powerhouse staple in their diets. As a bonus, they are incredibly quick and easy to prepare, and of course delicious. Mom tested, kid approved over here!

Added to ramen

Growing up, we always doctored up our ramen. (Back then, it was the 10 cents a pack stuff…which thanks to sulfites, I can no longer tolerate. But I did find some organic ramen, a brand called Koyo, which runs about $1 a pack…still not bad for a meal…and causes me no issues.) Cabbage, egg, leftover meat of any kind, rice, lettuce, or, you guessed it, sardines. About 1 minute before cooking is done, crack a can and dump it in, water and all. The sardines heat fairly quickly in the boiling water, and the soup mellows out the flavor as it all melds together.

Over rice

One of my go-tos, especially if I have leftover rice and don’t feel like cooking.

  • Heat a little oil of choice in a pan. (you can drain and use the oil from the can if you have the kind packed in oil)
  • Sautee some onions and garlic in the oil until fragrant
  • Add a handful of halved cherry or grape tomatoes
  • Once the tomatoes start breaking down, add the sardines, with water, and sauté until heated through
  • Serve over rice

Optional: I like to cut cucumbers into matchsticks and spread on top. The cool, crunchy cucumber is a wonderful contrast to the warm, tomato-y fish.

Tomato bonus: If you paid attention to the nutritional chart above, you saw sardines have no Vitamin C. But tomatoes do! So adding tomatoes to your dish provides that one nutrient the sardines are missing, and as a bonus, the vitamin C aids in the absorption of Calcium and Iron.

Leftover pasta

I made this the other night when I didn’t feel like grocery shopping, or cooking, and it actually inspired this post.

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  • Heat a little oil of choice in a pan over medium heat (you can drain and use the oil from the can if you have the kind packed in oil)
  • Sautee some onion and garlic in the oil until fragrant
  • Add a handful of halved cherry or grape tomatoes (that might be starting to get wrinkly…but still good)
  • Add the trusty can of sardines, with water
  • Thinly chop and add a couple handfuls of the cabbage (that’s been sitting in bottom of the crisper for a week…or two)
  • Stir everything, breaking the sardines up a bit
  • Add salt and pepper to taste…don’t forget to account for the salt in the sardine water
  • Add the leftover spaghetti noodles (from dinner three nights ago)
  • Stir gently until everything is warmed through
  • Reduce heat (or turn it off all together, leaving the pan on the still-warm burner)
  • Beat an egg in a separate bowl (or cup or whatever) and pour it over
  • Stir/toss until the egg is cooked. It will be a sort of creamy sauce over everything rather than “scrambled eggs.”
  • Serve

Optionally: Top with (the last salvageable green leaves on that bunch of) cilantro (in fridge from the salsa you made over the weekend) and maybe something a little spicy…siracha, chili oil, and/or vinegar chilies all go really well if you like a little heat.

This took all of 10 minutes, including prep time, from start to finish. I was able to use up some stuff that needed to be eaten, and this made enough for two servings at dinner, and lunch the next day.

 

There are tons of ways to enjoy sardines. There are recipes galore out there. But these are my easy “starter” ways to incorporate them into your diet without a ton of commitment or effort. So if you have that can in your pantry that you bought forever ago and never used, give it a whirl! What have you got to lose (besides maybe some day old noodles and a couple of wrinkly tomatoes)? And there is so much to gain if you end up liking it.

Also, if you do enjoy sardines already, I’d love to hear your favorite way of preparing them. Please share! 🙂

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