Cheap Eats

Where to Find Miami's Best Canned Seafood

It takes only one good encounter with canned seafood to fall in love. My grandfather initiated me with weekend sandwiches of shimmering King Oscar sardines arranged in a neat row atop salty, butter-slicked whole-wheat bread. Like odd smells and cash in strange denominations, the humble sandwich was a staple of the few years we had together.

For centuries, even millennia, preserved seafood, mostly salted and dried, was a linchpin of human survival. It’s how Nordic tribes endured lengthy sea voyages. It sustained their European counterparts on similar trips hundreds of years later. Yet canning technology, now ubiquitous, dates to the beginning of the 19th Century, when British, French, and American researchers perfected the art and science. In the two centuries since, canned food has morphed from a French status symbol to something synonymous with the military and blue-collar workers. There's more to it than that. 

Some people flinch when offered canned seafood. That’s because most haven’t experienced the right kind. They've been limited to pungent anchovies, commodity tuna, and all sorts of other cheap, sordid varieties. But there's much more. Across Miami, healthy, affordable preserved seafood is available in droves. You simply need to know what to look for.

Beijing Mart
This North Miami Beach Asian market (316 NE 167th St.; 305-945-1188) is one of the newer ones in the area. It’s a bright space, with nice high ceilings. Most around Miami are dingy, musty, low-ceilinged affairs. Here, you’ll want to pick up a can of vegetarian mock abalone ($1.89). The bivalve that lives inside a mother-of-pearl-lined shell is a prized ingredient in Asia, but you can get something similar without the cost or the meat. The chief ingredients are wheat flour, soy sauce, salt, and sugar — relatively innocuous. Give them a good, hard stir-fry for a bit of char before hitting them with some oyster sauce and scallions.

For the more adventuresome, the safest and most flavorful bet is the suspicious-sounding roast fish chili ($2.19). The fish is black scraper, a member of the subtropical filefish family that is widely caught and farmed in and around China. It’s a bit oily, but no more than your average sardine. The best use for these: Swap them out for the dried shiitake mushrooms next time you fry a bunch of pak choy or yu choy. The spice adds a nice hit to the greens, and the fish’s natural glutamic acid mimics the mushroom’s similar savory pop.

Trader Joe’s
The arrival of this West Coast packaged-foods mecca in South Florida has caused a frenzy as each new store has opened. As you fill your cart with frozen dumplings and some bottles from the fine selection of wines, don’t gloss over the little flat tins. The delicate smoked trout ($3.49) stands beautifully on its own. It also goes well mashed with some aioli for a briny bagel shmear whenever you're in a bind. 

Sardines ($1.49) packed in olive oil or water are a fine addition to any pantry. Smoked oysters ($2.69) are meaty and can stand on their own. If you’re squeamish, mash them with some cream cheese, milk, diced onion, and Worcestershire sauce for an addictive dip. Put it out for guests, and don’t tell them what it is until after the fact.

Marky’s Gourmet
Sure, you’ve long relied on Marky’s on 79th Street for your Ibérico ham, $20-per-pound butter, and hundreds of dollars' worth of Osetra caviar. But it’s also a great place to buy canned seafood. Go for a tin of the Matiz cockles ($8.80). First drain the meaty, sweet gems and give them a rinse. Marinate them in olive oil and garlic. Stash them until you fix up a plate of pan con tomate. Their sweetness and saltiness are the perfect match for ripe tomatoes and hearty bread.

Next grab a can of French Helix snails ($8). Rinse them, load them into a cupcake pan with compound butter (garlic, thyme, and chervil work best), and sprinkle with unseasoned breadcrumbs. Top with a few flakes of Maldon salt and dive in.

Ah, the mothership. If you'll have an unfortunate experience with canned seafood, it'll come from either Publix, Sedano’s, or your neighborhood grocer. If you find yourself examining the choices in the last two, take a moment to realize the folly of your ways. Publix has the vastest selection of canned seafood in town. I’ve been through much of it, for better or worse, and among the most reliable choices are those King Oscar sardine "brisling" fillets packed in olive oil or water ($3.09), your choice. Make the classic sandwich with them, butter, and wheat bread, or enjoy them with a few roasted red pepper strands and a spicy eggplant or zucchini purée.

Your other standby is octopus, specifically the Palacio de Oriente brand packed in olive oil ($3.79). Tweak the simple recipe on the back to make the most of these meaty little gems: Sauté garlic and shallots in a touch of neutral oil, add the octopus and some crushed tomatoes, followed by a splash of sherry vinegar and some good olive oil. Reduce a bit and you're off.

Delicias de España
Few nations love their canned seafood like Spain. And few have as pristine — and pricey — choices. If you're looking to get into the canned seafood game, a stop at Spanish market is a must. Start with Bird Road's Delicias de España II — first, because you can prostrate yourself upon their holy alter of Spanish hams, and, second, you can pick up a few earthen red cazuelas for the next time you come across some of the choice baby eels called gulas. Finally, take your time to peruse the ocean’s preserved bounty.

Pick up a can of meaty Daporta razor clams ($13). They work just as well as the cockles from Marky’s on some tomato-rubbed bread. Alternatively, you can quickly stir-fry them with olive oil, parsley, red chili, and white wine for a fine appetizer. Next, try a can of the belly tuna. Sure, it costs $12.95, but one bite of the supple, savory flesh of the ventresca tuna, and you'll never want to see another can of albacore again.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson