Returning from Portugal and Spain this past spring, I devoted a significant section of my luggage to tinned fish. Though my cabin bag was subsequently heavy with the shoes I’d displaced, I had no doubt of my decision.
The tradition of preserving fish in Portugal is long and storied, stretching back to the Iron Age, but often pegged to 1853 and the opening of the Ramirez cannery, the country’s first. On my trip, it had been a personal mission to search out conservas wherever I could, from Lisbon, to Porto, all the way up the Douro, to Salamanca and Madrid. I collected a technicolor array of cans containing horse mackerel, bacalhau with chickpeas, eel, tuna, octopus, anchovies and sardines.
These souvenirs held not only reminders of the rustic, soulful meals that had beguiled me on the trip, but also boundless potential for their use.
Since then, I’ve been meting out my stash, pulling back the tabs and cracking the metal seal whenever I had a particularly fine bottle of wine or an exceptional bread to play partner, or when fond friends were at the table. I came up with a soup that speaks to both the Portuguese and Spanish routes of my journey: a remarkably fresh gazpacho garnished with sardines and a tomato salad.
The combination of tomato and sardines comes straight from the cans themselves, as so many tins are filled with fillets in a tomato sauce. Here, the sweet acidity of late summer tomatoes is rounded out by the starch of corn, which adds the body oftentimes provided by stale bread or ground almonds in similar preparations. Without the fibre and fat of those ingredients, the soup is startlingly bright.
For the corn, it is imperative that it is unequivocally fresh; if there is any question, blanch the cobs briefly. Or, replace the corn with two sweet yellow peppers, charred with the tomatoes, then peeled, cored and seeded before using.
The tomato salad is a loose suggestion. Ideally, use what is too gorgeous to resist at the farmstand or market. The sardine tartine – an elegant name for an open-faced sandwich – can be a meal on its own or a starter, sizing the bread appropriately and scaling up the ingredients as needed. It is a classic use for tinned sardines, and the magical sort of recipe that can convert even a sardine nonbeliever.
Late Summer Gazpacho with Sardine Tomato Tartines
For the soup
- 6 ripe tomatoes, red, yellow and orange (about 2 pounds)
- 2 ears fresh yellow corn, shucked
- ½ an English cucumber, peeled and diced
- 1 small shallot, peeled and minced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Medium-grain kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper as needed
- ¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar, plus more as needed
For the tomato salad and tartines
- 4 ounces (113 g) cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered, depending on size
- ¼ cup (60 ml) fresh corn kernels or diced summer squash
- ¼ cup (60 ml) seeded English cucumber, sliced or diced depending on size
- A shallot, peeled and sliced thinly
- A small bunch of mixed tender herbs (parsley, cilantro, chives, chervil, mint, or the like), minced
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- Medium-grain kosher salt and black pepper, as needed
- ¼ cup (60 g) softened butter
- 4 square slices of rye bread
- 1 4-ounce (115 g) tin sardines packed in olive oil
To make the gazpacho, first prepare the tomatoes. Over an open gas flame or under the broiler, char the tomatoes, turning often, until blistered and split in a few places. Set the tomatoes in a bowl until cool enough to handle. While the tomatoes are resting, trim the kernels from the corn. Add the niblets to the carafe of an upright blender. With care, use the back of the knife or a large spoon to scrape the milk from the cobs into the carafe as well.
Once the tomatoes are manageable, reserve any liquid collected in the bowl. Peel, core and seed the flesh, and add to the carafe, along with the reserved juice. Tumble in the cucumber, shallot and garlic, along with a generous pinch of both kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Affix the lid to the carafe and blend until smooth. With the motor still running, stream the olive oil into the purée, followed by the sherry vinegar. Cover and refrigerate until truly cold, about 2 hours.
Make the salad by folding the tomatoes, corn kernels, cucumber, shallot and herbs together in a bowl. Dress with the olive oil, then season. To assemble the tartine, spread butter on each slice of bread, then arrange the sardine fillets on top – the fish can be left in large chunks, split, or flaked, or forked into the bread, depending on preference.
To serve, give the soup a stir, and check for seasoning. Decant to bowls, then float a sardine-topped raft of bread upon its surface. Do not worry if it sinks a little. Spoon the tomato salad between the sardines on the tartines, and season with another sprinkle of salt and glistening drops of olive oil. Hand out spoons and do not hesitate in eating.
Enjoy the cuisine of Portugal and Spain on The Globe and Mail River Tour cruise along the Douro. For details visit globeportugalcruise.com.