Mighty little fish: Heart-healthy nutrients, packed in like sardines

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters

I like to think that I eat rather well. Yet there is one commonly accepted dietary standard that I’m failing to achieve. It’s eating fish on a regular basis. And chances are you’re in the same boat.

Both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association recommend we eat fish twice per week. Unfortunately, only one in five follows this advice, and half of the country eats seafood just occasionally or not at all.

Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health, in which hundreds of thousands participated, found with some certainty that eating two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish a week, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies or sardines, reduced the risk of dying of heart disease by 36 percent.

Impressive. And that’s mostly due to the omega-3 fats found in fatty fish. They noticed that these omega-3 fats also help lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function and protect against the development of erratic cardiac disturbances.

I know many people are concerned about mercury levels in fish. I was happy to read in this same Harvard report that the concern about mercury and PCBs may be a little overblown. Studies suggest that the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the potential negatives. You can always limit the intake of fish that are known to have higher rates of mercury and choose those with lower rates, such as shrimp and light tuna. But if we’re going to have such concerns, I think we should probably also consider the pollutants in our meats, dairy, eggs and vegetables and hold those foods to the same standards. We’re eating way more of them, anyway.

Personally, it’s not the concern for mercury that keeps me from eating more fish. More often, it’s the cost. Quality seafood isn’t cheap, and it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, a visit to the fish market isn’t always within my budget. What then, is one to do?

I did something I’ve never done before. I bought a can of sardines. Considering that canned tuna has always appalled me (there’s just something about fish in a can) I had no expectations with the sardines. Yet, for good reason, we should all give sardines a chance. They’re one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and are an excellent source of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D and protein.

Sardines are a bottom feeder in the ocean’s food chain. They feed only on plankton. This, and the fact that they’re caught rather young, means that they have a low level of mercury. In fact, they’re one of the lowest-mercury-containing fish you can find. They’re all wild caught, not farmed, and are also considered one of the most sustainable fish we can choose, due to their abundance and high production rates.

While you may find them fresh, canned sardines are more commonly found. They keep well in your pantry for long periods of time, making it easy to incorporate into your cooking without much planning. Look for those with the bones and skins removed for easiest use, and those packed in olive oil — without much in the way of additives — are the best bet. I picked up a can of Bela Olhao lightly smoked sardines packed in olive oil for less than three dollars.

Perhaps some people have no problem digging into a can of fish (tuna, sardines, anchovies, etc.) and eating them plain, but not me. I wanted to freshen up and transform the fish in a way that wouldn’t have anyone guessing they ever came from a can. Fish cakes allowed me to do just that, and as usual, my plan was a success when carried out on my girlfriend. She had no idea that canned sardines were the star of the dish.

What I like about this recipe is that not only does it transform canned sardines into something new, it’s also quick to put together, cheap to make, and doesn’t require much planning. If you stock your pantry with a few cans of sardines, you’re likely to have the other ingredients already on hand. We no longer have an excuse for not eating more fish.

While fish cakes are just one idea for cooking with sardines, I found this recipe over at chowhound.com in a list of 13 ideas for using canned sardines. Fritters, sandwiches and noodle dishes were just a few of the other suggestions that are worth checking out.

Sardine fish cakes

Makes six cakes

Adapted from chowhound.com

2 medium gold potatoes

2 cans sardines, roughly chopped

1 cup green onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

A few grinds of black pepper

2 teaspoons dried dill

2 tablespoons flour

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1 cup breadcrumbs

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons olive oil

Peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Cover with water in a medium pot and boil until tender, about 15 minutes.

Drain and mash the potatoes. Add the sardines and mash again. Stir in the onion, salt, pepper, dill, flour, garlic, lemon zest, egg and breadcrumbs until well combined. Use your hands to shape the mixture into six cakes.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and when hot, arrange as many cakes in the pan as you can without crowding. Sauté the fish cakes until golden brown and crispy, about four minutes per side. Repeat with the remaining cakes, adding more oil to the pan as needed.

Drizzle the lemon juice over top and serve one to two cakes per person with some fresh greens.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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