Why everyone needs sardines in their larder

JP McMahon: Peel open a tin and turn a classic puttanesca into a tasty sardinesca

Fresh or tinned, sardines pack a great punch in terms of value, nutrition and sustainability. The English writer Alan Bennett famously wrote, "Life is rather like a tin of sardines – we're all of us looking for the key". Though perhaps being trapped in a tin would be more appropriate nowadays.

Their oily character means they lend themselves well to either tomato-based sauces or buttery ones with a hint of lemon and sage. For many people, sardines carry too individual a flavour, but they grill or barbecue well, dusted with flaky sea salt and served on some nicely buttered toast.

When buying fresh, consume on the day, as they don’t hold as well as other fish. I think this is why canned sardines are a great food to have in the larder, as they can be added straight into cooked rice or pasta with some fresh herbs to offset their robust flavour.

How to make sardinesca

Puttanesca is traditionally made with anchovies, though in truth any tinned oily fish can be used. Depending on how strong you want the resulting dish to taste, you can use one or two tins of sardines. For a very quick version, use sardines in tomato sauce, though I prefer to make a quick tomato sauce and then add the mashed sardines into it.


Fry one diced onion with two minced garlic cloves in a little oil until translucent. Add a tin of chopped tomatoes with some fresh rosemary and thyme. Wine or stock can be added but it’s not essential, particularly if you are cooking midweek. Perhaps on the weekend you can give one glass of red to the sauce and keep the others for yourself.

After the sauce has been cooking for 10 minutes, add a handful of pitted black olives. Make sure they’re tasty ones, such as Kalamata. Finish the sauce with one or two tins of sardines, chopped parsley and a little lemon zest. While the sauce is cooking, boil a 500g packet of pasta in well salted water. Finally, strain the pasta and fold the whole lot together.