In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, we wanted to bring you a recipe that would nourish your brain, be easy to prepare and of course take into consideration the current global landscape. Sardines don’t generally come to mind as a favorite food for the masses, you either love them or hate them. However this fresh, rich and unique salad brings out their best features while leaving the overpowering fishiness behind. It can be modified for all seasons, is friendly to most budgets, and contains no obscure ingredients. Sardine skeptics be warned, once you try it, you’ll never see these humble fish the same way.
Challenge Weeks: 1-13 (If apple and beet omitted)
Seasons: Living WildFit, Summer & Fall (Spring if apple and beet omitted)
Prep Time: 10 minutes.
Cook Time: 30 minutes (Beet only).
Makes: 2 servings.
Two 4.4-oz cans olive-oil-packed (drained) sardines
2 finely diced stalks celery
1 apple, cut in matchsticks, drizzled with lemon juice
1 medium beet, cooked & cut in matchsticks
4 small radishes, thinly sliced in rounds
Lettuce, for serving
Fresh herbs for garnish
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 Tablespoons black olives, chopped
2 Tablespoons of fresh herbs, 2 tsp dried (I used parsley and thyme)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
The first question some have asked me is, why sardines? Well, mainly because small fish like sardines, mackerel, and anchovies contain the same key brain-building nutrients found in larger fish without the bioaccumulation of toxins. They also keep well in tins, minimizing opportunities for their nutritious oils to turn rancid. I chose them as the star player in this recipe as I recently read that sardine oil can help improve memory in elderly people, and may help reduce risk of age-related cognitive decline (i.e. Alzheimer’s). Tests have shown that sardine oil can activate the cerebral cortex of the brain, which controls memory, attention, thought, and language.
Our brains are sixty percent fat, and omega-3s are an essential fat that is critical for optimal brain health. DHA is a key player for brain and mental health for all ages, while EPA fights inflammation, which is a key influencer in our mood stability, memory and overall brain function. There are several other key nutrients which are also abundant in this small wonder fish. One tin of sardines has almost half of your daily requirement of vitamin D, which supports mental health, memory, and cognitive health. It also has large quantities of selenium, which may help to reduce inflammation and improve mood. If you eat the soft, chewable bones you also receive a ton of calcium and phosphorus, essential minerals that help your nerves communicate with each other.
There are so many reasons to choose these fish (although they can easily be substituted for any other), but the other ingredients are not chosen by accident. Beets provide important carbohydrates to feed the brain and help your body to produce happy hormones. They also help increase blood flow, and are generally high in vitamin and mineral content. This is why, even though their preparation takes the longest, they are an important part of the recipe. Their earthy flavor also helps to balance the bright acidity of the lemon.
The dressing balances the rich flavor of the fish with the sour, pungent and slightly spicy flavors of lemon and mustard, with herbs and olives adding layers of complexity to the sardine salad. The brightest part of the whole dish comes from the lemon zest, and it is complemented by the other ingredients, becoming more balanced the longer it is allowed to meld.
It is prepared by first zesting the lemon peel into a high sided, small bowl. If you don’t have a lemon zester, use an alternate grater, or even cut off the peel and then dice well. By zesting right into the bowl, you keep more of the essential oils, which provide the aroma and main flavor. Next squeeze the lemon juice into the same bowl, and stir in the mustard, chopped olives, herbs, salt and pepper and stir to combine.
You may choose to use mustard powder in place of prepared mustard. In this case, use only ⅛ teaspoon of mustard powder in one teaspoon of water. You may also choose to add the chopped or sliced olives directly to the salad rather than the dressing, however the salt and depth of flavor in the olives becomes more pronounced when they are combined with the lemon juice. They pair nicely with sardines, as they are both prominent Italian foods, however olives and olive oil are also both strategically added to this recipe. Olives boost levels of two critical brain chemicals, brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor. These compounds encourage the formation and repair of brain cells. Your brain uses a lot of oxygen, about twenty percent of your total intake. This makes it especially vulnerable to oxidation caused by free radicals. Olive oil contains over 30 phenolic compounds that are potent antioxidants and free radical scavengers. Once all other dressing ingredients are added, pour the oil in slowly, stirring the bowl continually until the dressing is emulsified. Set it aside to let flavors combine.
Next you prepare the bed for the sardine salad by combining the leaves with some fresh, crunchy, sweet and spicy elements to fully round out the colors, textures and flavors of the dish. These fresh, raw ingredients are all hugely beneficial for overall digestion and gut health, which is key to well balanced mood and mental health. If we cannot properly digest and absorb our food, we cannot achieve optimal brain function or serotonin production, which largely happens in and around our gut.
Prepare a bed of leaf lettuce, chopped romaine, or prepared green of choice on a large salad bowl. Arrange the salad by sprinkling the beet pieces over the greens, so that they do not bleed into the other ingredients. Slice radishes, dice celery, and cut the apple into matchsticks, then squeeze a touch of lemon juice over them to prevent browning. Set these elements aside to prepare the fish.
Tinned sardines are already prepared, so you simply need to remove them from the can, check for debris, chop and serve. Canned sardines are something that goes through a bit of processing and some extra ingredients are added to preserve the fish well. Therefore, it is important that you choose a reliable brand that offers good quality and healthy sardines. My preference is wild, sustainably caught, lightly smoked, bone and skin intact and stored in olive oil.
In a medium sized bowl, combine all prepared fresh produce and sardine pieces with the salad dressing and toss gently to combine. This essentially becomes a fancy tuna salad, that can be used on greens (as intended here), in romaine boats as wraps, or on crackers, breads or anything you would like!
For the original version, spoon the mixed sardine salad over the greens and beet pieces, garnish with fresh herbs, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and serve. Enjoy this well balanced, surprisingly filling salad anytime you feel you’d like a brain or mood boost. Best if the sardine salad is enjoyed right away, but keeps up to 2 days in the refrigerator.