There’s the can of wan tuna buried in your cupboard or shriveled anchovies knocked to the side of your Caesar salad . . . and then there’s the preserved seafood currently crowding restaurant menus. Tinned fish—sardines, oysters, squid, mussels, and more, processed and packed in oil, often with added spices or herbs—is having a moment in the United States.
The trend is arriving in coastal cities such as Seattle, Boston, and Portland, Ore., from parts of Europe—Spain and Portugal, especially—where the style of canned seafood known as conservas is a way of life, whether nabbed at the market or ordered off a menu. Haley Fournier opened Boston’s haley.henry wine bar in 2016 with an emphasis on this seafood to pay homage to the culture she’d fallen in love with while traveling in Spain a decade ago. A casual menu built around charcuterie, cheese, and high- end tinned fish are central to her concept of an intimate, wine-focused, shared-plates spot.
While diners have been receptive to the preserved offerings at haley.henry—full of flavor, protein, and an array of nutrients including calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, the snacks appeal to both adventurous and healthy eaters alike—a certain amount of education is necessary.
“Here in America we don’t eat or make [a lot of] tinned fish—it’s not part of our culture,” Fournier says. “So we have a lot of people who come in and say, ‘I’m not eating that,’ and I say, ‘Yes you are,’ and 99 percent go for it, and they love it.”
Though fish and cheese are not the most intuitive pairing, these canned creatures, with tender texture yet brawny, briny traits, do, in fact, get along swimmingly with curds and cultured dairy—stigma be damned.
Rich and meaty with strong saline flavors, sardines are often packed with bones intact (albeit softened through processing), so the fish may be an acquired taste. “I like to serve sardines with potato chips,” Fournier says, “which are [also] salty and crunchy and obscure the crunch of the bones.” Match the pair with a fluffy, creamy cheese such as sheep’s milk ricotta—its mild, tangy flavor helps shoulder the salt, heft, and texture. Or flake sardines into a salad with thinly sliced celery, chopped parsley, and fresh lemon juice, then make it rain Parmigiano Reggiano. The robust cheese high-fives the fish, while the cool, vegetal tones of celery and herbs bring flavors into balance.
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO + Bela Sardines
“If someone’s new to oysters, I suggest they try smoked ones first,” says Nick Jambor, founder of Ekone Oyster Company on Willapa Bay in southwest Washington State. Once milky, slippery raw oysters are cooked, brined, smoked, and canned, he says, the bivalves’ mildly sweet, brackish flavors are concentrated and texture becomes much firmer and drier. To prepare an addictive fish pâté, blend these oysters with rich cream cheese, chopped pimento, and parsley. Or build crostini that juxtapose spicy preserved bivalves with a smear of cakey, tart goat’s milk curds—neither component overwhelms the other.
Octopus is central to the cuisine of Galicia, Spain, also the location of third-generation seafood cannery Ramón Peña. Super-rich and tender with a mild ocean flavor, Ramón Peña’s tinned pulpo in olive oil is so luxurious it demands simplicity. Try it atop baguette slices with a slick of cultured butter and a sprinkle of smoked paprika—the nutty-sweet butter offers a restrained pedestal for the canned cephalopod. Or sauté it gently with garlic to serve over rice with a sprinkle of Greek feta—the curds provide a briny accent but allow the octopus’s flavor and texture to take center stage.
Feta PDO + Ramón Peña Octopus in Olive Oil