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Oily brain food... Yum!

by Sharon Johnson

for the Mail Tribune

Have I told you this before? I absolutely love sardines. My husband calls them my "Mediterr-anean diet in a can."

Maybe it's my Norwegian ancestry, but offer me sardines on a crisp soda cracker and I'm totally satisfied. How about you? Ready to find out?

I intend to make a persuasive case in favor of eating something with a tiny fanned tail and little buggy eyes.

Let's start at the top. Sardines and all Omega-3 seafood (things like salmon, mackerel, black cod and herring) contain staggeringly positive health benefits. I heard Dr. Andrew Weil, integrative medicine physician and author of "Healthy Aging," discuss Omega-3 eating recently. He passed over sardines a little too quickly for my tastes (I'm thinking he must be a wild-salmon guy), but he cataloged the benefits of eating "oily fish" quite convincingly. The impact on heart health is well-known, but Omega-3 seafood also benefits thinking capacity and memory. In Dr. Weil's words, "People who eat fish regularly are less likely to experience cognitive decline." He calls sardines, and their oily-fish relatives, "brain food."

A 2006 study in the American Journal of Medicine indicated eating Omega-3 seafood once a week reduced the likelihood of Alzheimer's disease by 60 percent; twice a week bumped that up to 70 percent. Rethinking sardines perhaps?

I'm told freshly-caught sardines, salted on the boat and eaten raw, are delicious. I don't dispute that contention, although I prefer them grilled — surrounded with copious amounts of lemon. Freshly caught sardines definitely appeals, but local options are limited, so I settle for the flat metal tins with aging fishermen on the lid.

We did a family tasting. We gathered together several different types of canned sardines, rolled open those amazing metal lids and rated the contents. This is what we learned:

  • First, canned sardines should not be overly fishy-smelling. Generally speaking, good quality seafood should not smell fishy. However, it must be said, sardines do usually remind your nose where they came from.
  • If you can find sardines in extra-virgin olive oil, buy them, but I suggest avoiding sardines in other types of oils. I've read those packed in spring water have the purest taste, but I like the olive oil version better. The flavor of sardines is rich and distinctive; the texture is what I call "tender-firm."
  • When you open that little can, the contents should look organized, not unkempt or disheveled. And while we're on the subject of looking, there's another thing "¦ those little fish should not look up at you from their corner of the tin. In other words, buy them with heads and tails removed.

Indulge. Serve sardines with angel hair pasta. Bake a few with diced onion, peeled tomatoes and white wine, or toss sardines into a green salad and add some artichoke hearts. Good recipe ideas all.

But I'm a plain-spoken Norwegian girl, so I'll always opt for sardines and soda crackers. Let's party. Got any crackers? I have a pantry full of sardines.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu.

or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.