Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sardines On Toast (Jeremiah Tower)

Don't laugh.

        I cannot think of a tinned product that has more of a cult following than sardines.  Arguments rage about how long sardines should be aged in the can (yes, there are vintage sardines) and whether they should be Portuguese, French, Spanish, Chinese or Southeast Asian.  In the Phillipines, I had the famous delicacy of the freshwater sardines from Lake Bombon, but after I saw the polluted lake I was unfairly prejudiced against the fish.

        Let's not get into the whole debate about brislings versus sardines, but do read "Oules of Sardines", an article that Elizabeth David wrote for the Spectator in 1962.  You can find it in her superb An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984).  Or read Alan Davidson's essay "What Is A Sardine?", published in the Petits Propos Culinaires, No. 2 (August 1979), published by Prospect Books in London.

        A plate of good quality, canned sardines is a fully satisfying dish that takes only 10 minutes to prepare.  Eat them with horseradish, hot sauce, Meyer or salt-preserved lemons, or mayonnaise, but always with freshly grated onion.


2 cans sardines in olive oil or water

1 sweet onion (Walla-Walla, Vidalia, Maui or a fresh red one), peeled

4 leaves fresh mint

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon coarsely ground fresh pepper

Hot toasted bread, English muffins or brioche

        Finely grate the onion and chop the mint., and mix in a bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper.  In another bowl, mix the olive oil, salt and pepper.  Pour the oil or water off the sardines and put them on a plate.  Pour the seasoned olive oil over them, turn them over in it several times, and serve on hot toast with the mint relish on top.

VARIATION:   A bit over the top but amazing is toasted brioche slathered with ham mousse and then topped with sardines prepared as above.

Note:  Easy, fun and highly informal recipe from Jeremiah Tower Cooks.  Tower is a fascinating figure in many ways and this snippet imparts, I think, something essential about his taste and style, something people mentally caught up in the fancier trappings of the early Chez Panisse menus and the chic of Stars, might overlook.  My favorite Tower contributions, actually, are the how-to/technique photo-essays in the Time-Life Good Cook series (where Tower assisted Richard Olney), which teach so much so well.  Anyway, I love sardines and am told I should eat more of them by my doctor.  No argument.  I can't wait to try this recipe.

For More SardinesSee Here


  1. Jonny, Thanks so much. I happily accept membership/followership into the Society, which looks cool. So did the beer blog, which I only briefly had time to survey because, although I'm currently on vacation in Maine, work (and worry) never seem to stop. But it is extremely beautiful where we are and your note and kind words lifted my spirits. Please visit here again. I write about all sorts of fish and other things also. Curtis

  2. This evokes the Lower Gunn sardines fad. Among other things, it entailed calling them 'dines.

    Not sure whether it came before or after, or overlapped with, the Lower Gunn A-1 Steak Sauce fad. For that one, the consumer poured a line of sauce onto the back of the hand, on the triangle of flesh connecting outspread thumb and forefinger. Then licked it up.

    Beyond a penchant for pungent flavors, signifying what? Fondness, sincere or ironic, for un-classy, outre Americana? That was my guess at the time. Sardines were hobo food, I knew from watching cartoons.

    Then there was the practice of chewing cylinders of cinammon bark. Blake and Clay, at least, did this. It featured the advantage of making the chewer look like he was smoking, at least when glimpsed across a quadrangle.

  3. I love all fish and fell in love with sardines when I was in 6th grade. I ate them on buttered English muffins for breakfast every day for a long time. Then when I attended camp and went on canoe trips, two cans of sardines were provisioned for each traveling camper. Since I was the only one I knew who enjoyed them, I alone returned from the wilderness having gained weight. I still love them and this Jeremiah Tower recipe seems superb. Tower is a sort of towering figure, but also a very weird one. Immensely talented, he seemed to have a proclivity for screwing up good situations. But maybe he was too creative a person at heart to survive in the day job of building restaurant empires. For a number of years I used to travel to San Francisco and Stars was about the only restaurant where I was truly happy dining alone. Curtis