Fennel, Tomato and Sardine Linguini - Omega-3 Rich Fish Recipe

Have you ever actually tried sardines or anchovies? Many Americans have never given sardines a chance. I have to admit my only childhood exposure was that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ate anchovies and blue cheese pizza. Then I did Peace Corps and we happened to live in a community that had an NGO with volunteers living a village away. Not only did English Becky and Italian Daniel teach me about risotto, they taught me about canned fish other than tuna. They didn't convince me to go out and buy tins of sardines, but they opened me up to the idea.

Then, last month, I was reading about how humans evolved big brains when they had access to seafood and thus omega-3 fatty acids. And how our brains and nerves function better with omega-3s. Our bodies will substitute omega-6s if that's all that available. According to Dr. Terry Wahls at the University of Iowa 80% of us aren't getting the omega-3s we need daily.

I started to research good fish options. By good I mean fish that have more than 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids per serving, are not in danger of being over fished and are low in mercury like sardines and anchovies! One 3.5 ounce serving of sardines will give you 1.4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids and less than 0.09 ppm of potential mercury, the lowest category the USDA has for mercury contamination in seafood. It's time to give sardines a chance.

I went to my favorite recipe hunting grounds: tastespotting.com and foodgawker.com. There I found a recipe for Linguine with Sardines, Fennel and Tomato on Food52.com.

Sardines are a common Mediterranean food. The practice of salting and preserving sardines has been part of their culture for centuries. Huge schools of sardines migrate along the coast of Greece, Italy, France and Spain in late spring. Salting and canning is a way to preserve the bounty; kind of like a salmon run. The result is generations of experience cooking with sardines. If there is a place to start learning about sardines, Italian Cuisine seemed good.

This traditional Italian recipe is a strategic balance of flavors to make sure the sardines aren’t over powering. The fennel adds a nice crisp element; the light anise flavor helps brighten the dish. Tomatoes and lemon add the acid necessary to cut through the oily fish and a dash of hot pepper flake brings some heat. The most genius part of this recipe is the bread crumbs which help absorb the oily sauce and make the noodles less slippery. This recipe is absolutely delicious enough to make a regular rotation in our menu.

Yes my kitchen and apartment smelled like hot sardines while I was cooking. I expected that to bother me, but it really didn't. Although I suggest refraining from bringing the leftovers to work and reheating them in the communal lunchroom, especially if it is right next to the reception desk. 

Give sardines a chance.

Fennel, Tomato and Sardine Linguine

Salt (I like raw natural sea salt) about 1/4 teaspoon
1 tin sardines packed in olive oil (about 4 ¼ oz.)
Extra virgin olive oil
2-3 fat cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed, and roughly chopped
1 small or ½ large bulb fennel, fronds reserved
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes, or more to taste
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved or 1cup canned tomatoes with their juice, gently crushed
2 ounces white dry vermouth, I used dry sherry
1 medium lemon, juice and zest
1/3 cup toasted bread crumbs
3/4 pounds dry whole grain linguine (1 box)
  1. Bring a large pot of water for pasta to a boil on the stove. Add a couple tablespoons of salt.
  2. Clean and cut the fennel bulb into thin slices. A mandolin would be ideal, but I don't have one so I just used a knife. I am a rebel and used more than just the white bulb. I also chopped up the green stalks, saving the ferny leaves for garnish at the end. Nothing goes to waste! Zest all of the lemon and reserve a tablespoon of zest to add to the bread crumbs. The rest of the zest and the juice from the lemon can be combined to be ready for the sauce.
  3. Open the tin of sardines and drain about a tablespoon of the oil into a large skillet. If you don't have enough, add olive oil to reach a tablespoon. If you happen to have bought sardines in water, like I did, use a tablespoon of olive oil.
  4. Over a medium-low burner heat the oil. Then add the garlic and continue heating until fragrant. Use medium or lower heat because olive oil and fish oil denature at higher temperatures. Add the fennel and cook until it starts to brown and caramelize. Then add the tomatoes and their juices and continue cooking until the liquid is thick and reduced. Pour in the vermouth or sherry, stir and let that reduce quickly.
  5. Add the sardines to the mixture in the skillet and any remaining juice or oil. Break up the sardines so they are in more bite sized chunks. They will break up a little as you stir the sauce too. Add the lemon juice and zest. Taste the sauce and see how it is doing. It should be very potent. Remember you will be serving this with a lot of linguini. Add a little salt if needed. Turn off the heat.
  6. Cook the linguine according to the directions for al dente. The pasta I had said to cook 7 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, mix the breadcrumbs with the reserved tablespoon of lemon zest.
  7. Once the pasta is just short of al dente, add about a half cup of the hot pasta water to the sardine sauce, if things get sticky add up to a cup. Then add the pasta to the skillet. Combine the sauce with the linguini. My skillet wasn't big enough to toss in, so I used a big Pyrex bowl.
  8. Serve up your tasty fennel, tomato and sardine linguine. Sprinkle generously with the lemon zest bread crumbs and garnish with fennel fronds. (If you are feeling decadent an extra drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is in order.)
This recipe makes four large dinner servings. If you have leftovers, refrigerate them without the bread crumbs. Wait to add the breadcrumbs until after reheating.

What do you think? Are you willing to give sardines a chance? Have you already? How do eat them?


  1. I found your blog on Facebook. I love sardines, but not so big on fennel. I do love the idea of incorporating sardines with a pasta dish and perhaps I will come up with a substitute for fennel.

  2. HI!! I just found you over on foodbuzz and I love your blog! your recipes and picture are great! I am following you through my google reader, I would love it if you followed my blog too. It is over at www.comfyandconfident.com

  3. Great recipe, sounds delicious!

  4. I have personally never tried sardines or anchovies. But we do get these tinned sardines now in India at a few supermarkets. Might just give it a try next time thanks to your smashing recipe!

  5. Anonymous1/11/2012

    this is a Sicilian pasta dish called "pasta con le sarde" The traditional recipe adds currents and toasted pine nuts in the pasta sauce.

  6. I just read a post that sardines were part of the top ten foods to eat in 2012. My comment? "I don't do sardines." Your post is changing my mind. Thank you!

  7. A very tasty and creative use of sardines! I added a bit more lemon and the kids sprinkled parmesan cheese on theirs. Thank you!

  8. Thanks for sharing Foy. You might get me to give sardines another try! ;)