We all know that oily fish are loaded with healthy omega 3 fats, but that’s not all they have to offer. While we typically think of salmon as the oily fish of choice, other options include herrings, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, blue fish and pilchards. Oily fish are one of the few naturally occurring sources of dietary vitamin D, and are also a good source of protein, iodine, B vitamins, and selenium, and oily fish with edible bones, such as sardines, are a great source of calcium.
Historically the small fishes like herring, sardines and anchovies were dietary staples, and salmon was the food of kings. These days, the roles have reversed. Salmon is farmed and has become a staple, while the other fishes have fallen in popularity, and except for afficionados, are disappearing from our tables. This is particularly here in the US, though the Baltic and Scandinavian countries still savor herring, and sardines and anchovies are still enjoyed all around the Mediterranean.
For a good diet and our health overall, we should be eating more of these these little guys. They are among the most nutritious fish we can eat. And because they are small and lower down the marine food chain, they have less mercury and other contaminants than large fish like tuna. Yet they have all the downsides of fish eating attached to them: small bones, strong flavors, lingering cooking smells, and the fact that for many of us eating a small fish whole, head and all, is maybe a little too real. So since we have salmon well covered on the site, I’m going to talk here about ways to cook, and eat these deliciously healthy fish:
Atlantic herring are a food staple all over Northern Europe.
- Fresh herring. These are great grilled. If you buy them cleaned, cut them along the belly and open them up like a book. You can pull out the spine and all the main bones this way. They cook in a minute under the broiler, and are delicious with a little horseradish butter or mustard butter.
- Canned and prepared herring. I live in New York, and deboned herring fillets in the form of vinegary rollmops and herring in sour cream are a fact of deli life here. Since these also come jarred and canned too, they are a great introduction to eating herring. If you’re in Ikea, go by the food store and try the herring in mustard sauce. They are very good. Plain canned herring make a great salad tossed with boiled potatoes, and veggies. Check out our Herring and Vegetables recipe here.
- Kippers and Arbroath smokies. These are lightly smoked herring and a Scottish specialty, though they are mostly imported from Canada here in the US. Kippers are meaty and delicate. They can be eaten grilled or poached, with a smear of sweet butter. They are great flaked into scrambled eggs for a weekend breakfast, or in rice for kedgeree.
These fish need to be eaten very fresh. Their skin should be vividly and iridescently colored and their markings clear. If they look at all dull, don’t buy them. When I lived in France, one of my favorite starters was mackerel poached in white wine, but the easiest way to enjoy them is simply broiled, as in this Blue fish recipe, which can be interchangeable for mackerel.
- Fresh sardines: these are great if you can get them, as they need to be really fresh to be good. They are truly delicious simply grilled, and are a perfect summertime BBQ item. Once cleaned, they can be grilled and eaten whole with a little lemon.
- Canned Sardines: These come packed in olive oil or spring water and are a fabulous pantry standby for a quick and healthy meal or snack. Eat them mashed onto a piece of wholewheat or 7grain toast and broiled with a little squeeze of lemon, or as a meal in this Sicilian Style Pasta dish.
Love them or hate them, they are really good for you! The Mediterranean countries use them as condiments. They are chopped into a paste with oil and garlic and used instead of salt to flavor vegetables and pastas. Anchovy based sauces like bagna cauda, make a fabulous dips for veggies. And of course the fillets find their tangy way onto pizzas and salads all over. They come several ways:
- Oil packed fillets: the most common form – in cans or jars.
- Salt packed fillets: these are the most prized ones. The fillets need to be soaked before eating.
- Alici: still anchovies, these marinated white fillets are less tangy than regular anchovies.
- Creamed, in a tube. This is good for flavoring dressings and sauces instead of salt. Although many don’t think the quality is there compared to the oil or salt packed, the tubes are super convenient. They need to be refrigerated after opening.
- Fish sauce aka Coloratura, Nuoc Mam, Thai fish sauce. Coloratura is Italian, Nuoc Mam is Vietnamese, and Thai fish sauce needs no explanation. These are all extracted by gradually pressing barrels of salted anchovies until they expel a clear golden brown liquid, the sauce. All are strong smelling and salty tasting, and all are used to flavor cooking with their tang instead of salt.
We hope this info helps you. We recommend using the Seafood Watch app to help you to buy and eat the most sustainable among them.
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