Add a surprising and delicious touch to your pasta sauce with sardines – a can of these rich-tasting little fish adds an umami depth of flavour to a simple tomato sauce (no fishiness) and packs a powerful health punch. If you want to add more fish to your diet, this is a tasty way to do it. (Skip to recipe.)

Pasta Sauce with Sardines and CapersSardines? Yes – sardines!

Before you go ‘yeccchhh’ and click away, let me tell you that the sardines in this pasta sauce are nothing like what you remember in childhood, or what you think sardines might taste like (in the event that you’ve never actually tasted them). Don’t let yourself be turned off the humble little sardine before you know what a nutritional powerhouse it is. You might get to like it, after you hear its pedigree.

Sardines are super rich in the omega-3 fatty acids which we need for heart health and to lower cholesterol. They are a concentrated source of vitamin B12 (one 90gm can provides more than the daily requirement per person), and they also have high amounts of tryptophan, selenium, protein, phosphorous, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B3 and choline. How’s that for good news?

And even better news – in this pasta sauce full of bold flavours, the sardines just meld in to add richness, but not overpower, the other assertive ingredients. In other words – you can hardly taste those healthy little fishes in this robust sauce. It’s a great way to ease into sardine-eating for the timid. A good glug of red wine mellows out the acidity of the tomato sauce base, a chorus of onion and garlic sings with a few high notes of sweet little carrot cubes, a hit of oregano and rich sun-dried tomatoes add harmony, and the puckery jolts of  capers add the accent notes.

Even though I LOVE eating sardines now – I understand those of you who don’t (yet), because I felt just that way growing up. My parents loved sardines (full of flavour and cheap, too) but they’re European and ate all kinds of fish that turned up the noses of my friends – herrings (pickled, canned and fried), smoked mackerel, eel, octopus. A common lunch for our family was several cans of sardines, sweet butter and a loaf of rye bread, and onions (maybe a few sliced fresh tomatoes to eat alongside). We’d spread our bread slices with butter and smush a few sardines on top. When the sardine can was empty, my dad would put chopped onions or chives into the oil that remained in the can, let them sit for a few minutes to blend flavours, then eat them with gusto, wiping the last bits of oniony oil from the sardine can with a piece of bread.

I do have to admit that I was the squeamish kid who would carefully pick the fine little row of vertebrae out of my sardines and scrape out the guts (no delicate way to say this) before I could eat them. I hid this behaviour from the stern gaze of my father who thought I was being wimpy and wasteful (my mom understood and aided me in the surreptitious removal of the offending fishy body parts). Now that I’m a grown-up, I can easily squash the tasty little sardines onto my bread and throw on a few slices of sweet onion, then eat the whole thing – bones, guts and all. No squeamishness anymore- just pure enjoyment of a very delicious little fish. A very nutritious little fish.

I often open a can or two of sardines and mix them with mayonnaise and onions and fixings (minus the pickles), just like a tuna salad. The soft little bones aren’t even noticeable once they’re all mixed in. Very tasty, I must say (and even more healthy).

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Kitchen Frau Notes: On the day I took the pictures of this pasta sauce, I only had sardines in tomato sauce in the house. They worked fine – I just added them into the pasta sauce along with their tomato juices. If you have regular sardines in oil or water, you can drain them before adding them to the sauce.

This recipe serves from 4 to 6 people, depending on the size of the appetites. Usually about 1 pound (450gms) of pasta serves 4 people, so cook the amount you think you need for your crowd. I used brown rice spaghetti.

tomato pasta sauce with sardines and capers

Tomato Pasta Sauce with Sardines and Capers

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil,
  • 2 cups diced onion (1 large or 2 medium onions)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup finely diced carrots
  • ½ cup (120ml) red wine
  • 1 28 oz. (796ml) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ cup (60ml) sundried tomatoes in oil
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 2 cans sardines – in oil, water or tomato sauce
  • spaghetti or other pasta for the amount of people you are serving
  • parmesan cheese for serving (optional)
  • leaves of fresh basil for serving (optional)

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the diced onions, garlic and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes until the onions are translucent and tender.

sauteed onions, garlic, and carrots

Add the wine, tomatoes, bay leaf, oregano and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, until the sauce reduces to the thickness you like. If it gets too thick, use some of the pasta cooking water to thin it out.

While the sauce is simmering, cook the spaghetti according to the package directions, in lightly salted water. Reserve some before draining it in case you need to thin out the pasta sauce.

sardines in the can

Open the sardine cans (that’s the fun part – but watch when you pull away the last little bit of the lid, because a few drops of the oil or tomato sauce invariably splat out and always seem to go right for my shirt). Drain them if they are in oil or water – use the liquid if they are canned in tomato sauce. Cut the sardines roughly into a few pieces each (they are very soft and will mush up a bit – no matter) and add them to the pasta sauce along with the sun-dried tomatoes (with their oil) and capers. The sardine pieces will melt right into the sauce and you won’t even see them. Dilute the sauce with the reserved pasta water if needed.

tomato sauce with sardines and capers

Cook the sauce for 2 to 3 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until it is bubbling again.

Serve over the cooked pasta, garnished with parmesan cheese curls (shave them off the cheese block with a vegetable parer) and torn up leaves of fresh basil if you like.

 tomato pasta sauce with sardines and capers

 Serves 4 to 6

Guten Appetit!

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