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California Cook

The canned catch of the day: Sardines

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In this age of fresh and local, canned foods are so far out of fashion that it sometimes seems as if they hide their heads when you walk past them in the grocery store. In some cases, this is valid: Who still buys canned peas or asparagus? But in others, it's nothing but shortsighted snobbery on our part. What is more delicious than a really good canned sardine?

Well, certainly a fresh sardine is right up there, split and grilled over a hot fire. But canned sardines are not ersatz fresh sardines; they are a different product entirely, like cucumbers and pickles, or roast pork and prosciutto.

Canned sardines are worthy in their own right. They have earned their pungent dignity.

And pungent they can be. Rightly or wrongly, canned sardines have a reputation for masculine appeal. They're the kinds of things hard-boiled detectives might eat, leaning over the sink, pulling on a strong craft beer, with Charlie Parker on the stereo.

They're good with mustard and/or capers. Of course, a little sharp onion is never out of place. A little heat? Why not? A squirt of lemon or a few drops of red wine vinegar bring balance. Maybe mash them up with butter or mayonnaise into a spread or a soft pâté.

If you've got canned sardines in your pantry, dinner is never far away.

When his wife is out of town, Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Provisions & Wine in East Hollywood and former proprietor of the beloved Lou wine bar, makes what he calls his "bachelor special": sardines spread on toasted crusty bread, moistened with a little of their oil and topped with pickled red onions.

Hungry yet?

Just recently, The Times' Jonathan Gold reviewed Octavio Becerra's new Acabar restaurant, where the chef makes a fetish of sardines — served on grilled bread thickly spread with butter and topped with a spicy herb mix. I simplified this a little, mashing sardines onto crackers and spooning a little of a chermoula made with mint and parsley and just a touch of garlic. Pungent meets pungent.

But, of course, sardines are not just a hard-boiled guy thing. I remember renowned cookbook writer Paula Wolfert serving an appetizer of toasts topped with wedges of ripe avocado, sardines and thinly sliced onions. She said she'd learned it from Ferran Adrià, an amazingly rustic offering from the wizard of modernist cooking.

Sauté olive oil, garlic and fennel seeds, and add canned sardines at the last minute, so they just barely break down. Stir this together with cooked pasta, parsley and fennel fronds chopped together and soaked golden raisins. And finally, scatter over fresh bread crumbs that have been toasted in sardine oil.

That's my version of a dish that I learned from an old friend, the late actor Vincent Schiavelli. He called it pasta chi sardi a mari, or "pasta with sardines that are still in the sea." It's a pun on the great Sicilian fresh sardine dish pasta con le sarde, for those times when fresh sardines are scarce.

Granted, this is another case of me taking liberties with someone else's recipe. Traditionally, it is made with anchovies — either salted or canned. However, I think with canned sardines, the pun seems even more pungent.

russ.parsons@latimes.com

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