My grandfather first introduced me to sardines when I was about 7 or 8. Some family members were not as appreciative as I was and complained that they smelled fishy. Isn’t that what fish are supposed to smell like? I thought they tasted great and I really liked the smallness of these fish in a can. It was like eating miniature fish! I remember wanting to be a sardine fisherman during that time. I still use small fish as one of my major food sources but have slightly more refined tastes and pay attention to what oils they are packed in. I introduced these to my very young boys as soon as they started eating solid foods and I am happy to say that they still are eating small fish and smoked oysters with a passion.
I believe in and fully support the movement that seems to be underway for a sustainable food source for the future of the world. To do that, we must look beyond the traditional food sources. Since I have always been a fisherman, I have used many a sardine as bait. For the longest time it never struck me that this was the same fish that I had been eating from a can for most of my life. I have had success with netting these fish and now smoke them or dry them with my own methods and we thoroughly enjoy them as a tasty and sustainable source of protein.
Types of small fish: Most sardines eaten in America are actually herring and the larger ones are Pilchards. Canned anchovies from Morocco and Peru are also very popular and although extremely salty to eat by themselves, they are best added to salads and other dishes where they become complementary and a great source of omega 3 fatty acids. Finely chopping anchovies and adding to a vinaigrette enhances the flavor without tasting fishy. The uses for anchovies in the kitchen are numerous and one should always have a supply on hand for such. I like to buy the flat anchovies in olive oil as opposed to the ones rolled around capers. I have added anchovies to pesto, roasted them in meat and used them in sauces. The funny thing is, you don’t really taste the fish in these dishes. It makes them taste more rich and juicy for lack of a better description.
Brands: This is a food that is near and dear to me and is also one of my comfort foods. I have become a sardine snob since not all cans of sardines are created equal. I have found that one of the least expensive canned fish is the Brunswick kippered herring (smoked and filleted). There are no scales and very little bones in this and the light, pleasant smoky flavor is delicious. Not that I mind the bones and scales because this is what adds to the nutritional value. Avoid the brands that pack them in soybean, cottonseed or peanut oil. I prefer them to be packed in olive oil or water. Another brand I prefer is Wild Planet along with the foreign brands that are packed in olive oil.
Nutrition: As with any fish, the small versions are just as high in protein. One small 3.5 oz tin of herring touts a hefty 16g of quality protein. One 2 oz tin of anchovies contains 10g of protein. The same 2 oz tin contains a whopping 951 mg total omega 3 fatty acids. Trace minerals abound in the tiny fish as well, especially if the bones, skin and scales are intact. Consider the ample amounts of vitamin A, selenium, calcium, magnesium and potassium to name a few.
How to eat them: The easiest and arguably the most popular is to chop them up and add to a salad. I have not had a salad that they were not good in and it is a very nutritious and smart way to get about 10 grams of protein just from 1 can. I also use them in soups and broths. Sardines and herring eaten directly from the can are always a pleasure and convenient to take on picnics and camping trips.
I now catch and cook my own. It all starts with my 6 foot cast net. The fish are kept alive with a bubbler or immediately placed on ice. Clean and prep is simply scaling with a fork then snipping off the heads with kitchen shears. The fish are then placed in a very salty water and left in the refrigerator overnight. Lately I have been smoking the herring for about 2 hours using apple wood pellets in a cold smoking fashion. They can be eaten right after or quickly pan fried if one prefers crispy like my kids do.
So far, the only bugs I have knowingly eaten are crickets, grubs and earthworms. It was fairly recent when I first tried crickets in the popular Exo bar. I was so excited to learn of these that I told my boys and got them excited as well. My youngest had already sampled freeze-dried crickets from the jar of pet store crickets we use to feed our aquarium fish. For a time after our new discovery, we made them a regular snack item. These can be put into snacks and lunches without appearing weird because they look like any other protein bar. The tiny cricket bodies have a very solid amino acid profile and per pound they provide more protein and less by-products than just about any meat based bar. We started occasionally buying the original bar by Chapul, which I think tastes better than Exo bars. We sold some from the gym vending machine but they weren’t exactly selling out quickly. Bug eating (entomophagy) is common in many other countries but not so much in the US (yet). I am hoping to stimulate a larger interest in the benefits of eating bugs through my writing, education and cooking demonstrations. Most likely the most popular form of eating bugs, at least in the US is in the form of cricket powder or flour. This is made by freezing the crickets and grinding them up into a fine unidentifiable flour like powder. Many types and brands of cricket powder are readily available on Amazon.com. Some companies will mix this powder with other ingredients like chocolate, making cricket protein indistinguishable from ordinary whey protein. Other insects commonly eaten include wax worms, meal worms, grasshoppers, and ants. I have many recipes and cooking methods readily available for future reference.
Gastropods, Cephalopods, Bivalves, Mollusks!
Still low on the food chain are these tasty things. Mussels and snails are a very popular food source in certain places. Mussels are a popular restaurant dish and easy to obtain locally(Blue Mussels are the most popular). One of the highest sources of B12 at 340% DV! Also high in selenium and manganese, just 3 oz provides 20 g of protein and 736 mg of omega 3! Mussels are sustainably farmed in many countries including the US. They are readily available in grocery stores and fairly inexpensive. Mussels are sustainably farmed from suspension systems and contain almost no sand and are very beneficial to the environment.
Mussels are quite easy to cook and create a delicious broth. Although there is a lot of waste from the shells they are surprisingly filling. I have also cleaned and cooked squid and small octopus and they are delicious.
Summary: One of the many benefits that I have discovered while eating low on the food chain is that my kids really get into it and readily eat all sorts of creatures that I prepare in my kitchen. Low food chain eating is not really a new frontier and has been practiced for millennia by hunter gatherers. although fairly new in the US. This is something that must be thought about for future generations of humans. Low food chain eating fits well into the the notion of being an omnivorous predator. By expanding our list of possible food choices, not only can we take in a wider selection of essential nutrients, we also develop and experience new tastes and life experiences. Sustainability is another great benefit. Large fish that are so commonly farmed raised have their own list of problems. Big agriculture and its growing contamination by pesticides and genetically modifying plants to increase food production is not a healthy option. Why not look down the food chain and experience some of the many healthful and adventurous options that have always been there for the bold omnivorous predator.
I am available for cooking demonstrations and kitchen help as well as advice on catching, cooking, cleaning, preparing and serving low food chain subsistence. Through my writings and experience I am becoming the low food chain chef and expert bug connoisseur in my area.
Martin, Daniella, “Edible”, 2014, New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Sharpless, Andy, “The Perfect Protein”, 2013, Rodale.
For more details on the safest fish, visit the Environmental Working Group’s site to get the lowdown on fish consumption:
Image of cricket amino acids profile courtesy of cricketflours.com
Websites containing more detailed info on this topic: