Pittsburgh sits 400 miles or so from the nearest ocean, so getting fresh fish here can be a pricey, dicey proposition. And although the words “canned fish” might conjure up lunchroom memories of bland tuna salad sandwiches, it’s time to give those tins another chance. Healthy, hardy, and packed with flavor, canned fish is the pantry staple you never knew you needed.
Every good pantry should be stocked with a few varieties of canned seafood. They are relatively inexpensive, ready to eat in a moment, and keep for a long time. Food writer and scientist Harold McGee actually found that the flavor of some canned fish improves with age: some restaurants even sell various vintages of sardines.
Your average American grocery store likely stocks the same slim selection of brands and varieties of canned seafood. But stop into a shop in Spain or Portugal and you’ll be greeted by a vibrant array of options: sardines and anchovies, of course, but also cockles, octopus, and baby eels. They are popular as tapas, eaten straight from the tin with a few simple accompaniments.
Delicious on their own, many varieties of canned fish also provide an easy, shelf-stable way to jazz up a simple meal. Some chopped smoked herring immediately boosts a pedestrian salad, and minced anchovies will add a briny,savory note to an otherwise ordinary pasta dish.
A USDA study found that canned and fresh fish contain similar amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, those Dzgood fatsdz that are believed to prevent cardiovascular disease and may even protect against cancer and other diseases. And many commonly canned fish are low on the food chain, meaning minimal mercury levels.
In recent years, the Mediterranean love for canned fish has made its way to the states. Hip restaurants like NYC’s Maiden Lane and Bar Vivant in Portland, Oregon, boast entire conservas menus stocked with canned seafood from all over the world. Local chefs are also picking up on the trend, using canned fish for a whole lot more than Caesar dressing. Canned seafood is popping up at Pittsburgh’s best restaurants, from the boquerones (anchovies marinated in vinegar) that dot the menu at Morcilla to the sizeable conservas selection at the brand-new Merchant Oyster Company. So next time you need a snack, skip the chips and grab the can opener.