Jampacked with good things

Sardines: The fish is being touted as health food with important nutrients.

January 02, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

Wanna start a food fight?

Just say "Sardines!"

The little critters can spawn outsized opinions. My household may well be typical. I like them; my husband doesn't.

He really doesn't - in fact, he has extracted a promise that I will eat them only when he's not in the house.

That would seem to settle the matter, but recent dietary news tempts me to proselytize again, however hopeless the mission. Sardines are enjoying a new status as health food, packed with important nutrients doctors and dietitians are urging us to eat.

Sardines are superb sources of protein, calcium and vitamin B-12. They also have significant levels of coenzyme Q-10, a nutrient that is getting increased attention from researchers for its beneficial effects in patients with congestive heart failure and other cardiac conditions, as well as its ability to help compensate for immune deficiencies caused by aging or disease.

If that weren't enough, they are also fine sources of one of the current nutritional stars - omega-3 fatty acids. In case you've missed the latest fat debates, here's the Cliff Notes version: There are good fats and there are bad fats.

In that lineup, omega-3 fats are not just good but very, very good - credited with such feats as increasing elasticity in muscles, reducing the risk of heart disease and lowering blood pressure. They also help prevent cancer, act as mood stabilizers and - drum roll, please - even enhance brain activity. Researchers are looking into their role in improving concentration in hyperactive youngsters.

That's the good news. The bad news for people like my husband is that all that good stuff comes in the form of a canned and somewhat smelly fish. That wouldn't be a problem if we lived in a place like Portugal, where fresh sardines are readily available.

Alas, we don't. There are, of course, plenty of people who don't consider canned fish bad news. For them, sardines aren't smelly, they're pleasantly aromatic. And there are people like me who don't always like the aroma but are easily mollified.

A colleague reports that one of her favorite easy dinners is based on sardines. She uses two cans of sardines packed in olive oil, drains them, sautes the fish in a good dose of fresh olive oil with a few cloves of minced garlic until the fish breaks up. She adds white wine and capers, then tosses it all with penne. She suggests holding out some of the sauce to top the dish off before serving. The trick, she says, is to make sure there is enough liquid and oil in the sauce to coat the pasta. "It's a big hit," she says, "especially if you don't tell anybody what it is."

There are plenty of other ways to enjoy sardines - on a cracker, in a sandwich or crumbled over salad. They can also be a handy snack on a camping trip or hike.

If you're still squeamish, you might want to check out a Portuguese import available in several Baltimore-area stores under the Bela-Olhao label. Blue Galleon Inc., the company that distributes the sardines in this country, says that the fish come from Portugal's nonindustrial, unpolluted southern coast and have no detectable levels of pesticides. Canned within eight hours of the catch, Bela-Olhao sardines have less fishy smell than many other brands. And, like most sardines, these come without the heads and tails.

If, like me, you live with a sardine-phobic person, that promise, along with a few aids like capers, garlic, lemon juice or tomatoes, might be just the enticement to win a convert.

Bella Mia Caesar Dressing or Dip

Makes about 1 1/4 cups

3 large cloves of garlic

one 4 1/4 -ounce can Bela-Olhao sardines, deboned

4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon grain mustard

Combine first 4 ingredients in work bowl of food processor.

With motor running slowly, pour olive oil in steady stream until emulsified. Add mustard. Refrigerate.-- Georgia Axt, Nantucket Nourriture Inc.

Baked Potato

Makes 1 serving

1 baking potato

1 can sardines in olive oil, drained

1/2 red onion, chopped

handful of parsley

1/3 cup, or more to taste, Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

Bake a big potato at 350 degrees until tender. Scoop out inside while warm.

Add sardines, chopped red onion, parsley and shredded cheese to contents of potato. Mix together and stuff the potato. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.

Penne With Sardine Cream Sauce

Makes 2 to 3 servings

1 can Bela-Olhao sardines in olive oil, drained

6 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon capers in vinegar, drained

2 ripe salad tomatoes, peeled and seeded

handful of fresh basil leaves

1 pound penne

salt to taste

Mix sardines, oil, capers, tomatoes and basil in a blender until smooth and creamy. Add water if mixture is too thick. Boil a large pot of water. Add penne and salt.

Cook until al dente. Drain pasta, mix with sauce and serve at room temperature. -- Blue Galleon Inc.

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