Earlier this month, NY Mag published a list of shelf-stable essentials that will have your pantry looking like the shelves at your favorite gourmet grocery store. The list is fun to scroll through, for sure, but aside from the drool-producing photography, it's interesting to note the amount of canned fish on it. Of the 50 items, four are devoted to conservas, or carefully preserved seafood in the Spanish tradition.
Hook-and-line-caught wild chub mackerel, Ventresca de Bonito del Norte: These are the same canned fishes you'll find at The Wild Detectives as part of their recently revamped food menu and at Fair Park newcomer Eight Bells Alehouse. Conservas are becoming trendy, breaking free from their domestic reputations as human cat food as restaurants and bars showcase them as thoughtful menu items.
The best part about all of this attention is you can easily play along just by shopping local grocery stores. Central Market carries the best collection of conservas I could find in the area, including multiple cans by Ortiz, a giant in the Spanish canned fish business. Look for their multiple types of tuna, mussels, sardines and shellfish scattered around the canned tuna section, but don't miss their bonito del norte pictured above in the red and gold box (the blue lettered can). It will set you back $11, but it's absolutely worth it to see canned fatty tuna at its absolute best. Central Market also carries tuna by Santa Catarina in cans wrapped in fake newspaper. The fish is not quite as good as the Ortiz bonito, but it costs half as much.
Whole Foods' selection isn't quite as diverse, but they offer a few gems. Cole's is packaged in attractive boxes that almost beg to be collected. My location (Lakewood Whole Foods) stocked versions of trout and mackerel, both of which were absolutely delicious. Their website lists smoked salmon, mussels, octopus and other shellfish, which may be available depending on your location. Whole Foods also carries sardines and herring from Canadian cannery Bar Harbor.
With a few cans in hand, pick up a package or two of crackers or bread for toasting. Lemon slices and minced fresh herbs including parsley and chives create a simple garnish, and mustard and small pickles like cornichons, gooseberries and capers all make for great accompaniments. Outfit your pantry with these and you can turn out a great tasting spread in minutes. Don't forget a few cans of cold, light beer to wash it down.
There's something special to be achieved by curating a few preserved items and thoughtfully plating them to create a simple meal. It's fast, but doesn't feel hurried, and depending on the conservas you pick, it can also be healthful. Sardines and other small oily fish are low in mercury, high in omega 3 fatty acids and low in saturated fats — way better for you than that pizza you were about to pull from your freezer.