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Like many of us, Josh Pollack, founder of Bridge & Tunnel Restaurant Group behind Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, Lou’s Italian Specialties, and Famous Original J’s Pizza, grew up eating canned fish. “I never thought of it as a gourmet thing,” he says, and indeed, most folks who grew up in the U.S. only think of bland tuna packed in water for dishes like casseroles and tuna salad. Nowadays, however, thanks to new brands with aesthetic designs and sustainable sourcing, fine-dining menus highlighting these goods, and TikTok creators showing off their fanciest “seacuterie” spreads, tinned fish is trending.
Pollack, who credits chef Kelly Whitaker (of Brutø and the Wolf’s Tailor) for introducing him to quality canned fish, loves how the Portuguese and Spanish tradition of conservas—top-grade seafood preserved at peak freshness in oil, water, or a variety of flavorful liqu ids—has evolved into a new era. “That these humble foodstuffs are now being elevated to new heights and levels of appreciation makes my heart happy,” echoes Jamey Fader, culinary director at Marczyk Fine Foods, which operates two high-end groceries in Denver.
While it can be a snack all on its own, tinned fish also serves as a handy substitute or addition to a charcuterie or cheese board. “Being Jewish, a lot of people don’t eat pork, or cheese and meat together,” Pollack says. “Canned and smoked fish has always been a great alternative.”
Curious about building your own board? Here are the pros’ guidelines for creating a seafood spread to impress, whether you’re entertaining guests or just assembling the #girldinner of your dreams.
Before you can create your tinned fish spread, you’ll need to track down the right cans. While the selections at your local King Soopers suffice in a pinch, you’ll find a better range—especially those trendy tins from the likes of Fishwife, Scout, and Patagonia Provisions—at gourmet markets like Marczyk Fine Foods, Lou’s Italian, and St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop. As a bonus, these stores also carry all the fanciful fixings you’ll need for a killer tinned fish board.
Variety Is Key
Curate your tinned fish board to maximize the variety of flavors and textures and increase visual interest. “If you’re looking to create a spread for four people to snack through, then four to six tins would work well,” Fader says. “I like to include sardines—sometimes two options based on their seasonings—mackerel, cockles/clams, mussels, smoked oysters, and octopus.” While many conservas feature seafood in straight-up olive oil or brine, many feature smoked seafood or added flavors such as lemon, spices, and chiles.
Dress It Up
While high-quality seafood is delicious right out of the can, it also lends itself to embellishment. Creating little salads and dishes with tinned seafood is an excellent way to level up your spread. One of Fader’s recommendations is to smear crème fraîche or Greek yogurt on a platter, top it with mussels, then sprinkle atop dill, fennel fronds, crushed Marcona almonds, and chopped preserved lemon. Pollack likes to create a spicy salad with Ortiz tuna and Calabrian chile relish and serve it with lettuce or inside endive leaves for an easy bite. Or keep it simple with a heavy spritz of fresh citrus and a scattering of herbs.
“The more toppings and sauces you provide, the more options you have for enjoying each item,” Fader says. Condiments are a must; think: gribiche (a French sauce of oil, mustard, and hard-boiled eggs), chimichurri, pesto, mignonette, aïoli, or tapenade. It’s also a great opportunity to use up lingering bottles in your fridge or pantry, such as a high-quality olive oil or your favorite hot sauce. Fader’s go-to brand is local Merfs Condiments hot sauces, which come in a broad range of flavors. Kristen Kapoor, co-founder of Flouwer Co. in Denver, endorses flavored compound butters—especially the black truffle, garlic, and basil—from Boulder-based Fireworks Butters.
Round Out the Spread
Fresh bread is an excellent accompaniment to a tinned fish spread. Kapoor loves including soft focaccia topped with grated tomato; Fader and Pollack both recommend a sliced baguette. Crackers, such as the one from Flouwer Co. topped with herbs and edible flowers, are also welcome. Pickled items, from cornichons to giardiniera to capers to piquillo peppers, bring pops of acidity; Fader recommends the handcrafted pickles from Denver’s the Real Dill. Fresh cucumber slices and endive spears make for great munching vessels and add color to the platter. Want to level it up a notch? Hard-boiled eggs and blini—mini pancakes often topped with caviar—are also right at home on a tinned fish board. “Go super pro and add some caviar and Torres black truffle potato chips to make this an over-the-top experience,” Fader says.
Pick a Drink
Don’t forget the beverage pairings. Fader recommends dry white wines, such as Albariño and Muscadet, which add a nice clean pop of acid, although rosés also work with seafood. If you’re looking for nonalcoholic options, peruse the beverage case at Flouwer Co. All the wines, like the sparkling Prima Pavé Blanc de Blancs, and apéritifs in the case are alcohol-free.
Where to Buy
- Marczyk Fine Foods (multiple locations): You can expect a robust selection of 40-plus types of canned fish, from anchovies and sardines to cockles and mussels, by brands like José Gourmet, Ati Manel, Matiz, and Fangst at Marczyk’s two Denver locations.
- Lou’s Italian Specialties (Curtis Park): This small but mighty Italian market generally stocks around eight rotating tinned fish and shellfish selections at a time, including José Gourmet ragu-stuffed calamari that Pollack loves for pasta dishes.
- St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop & Market (West Highland): This decades-old shop is an excellent destination for conservas. Opt for the conservas gift pack ($75), which includes six to eight of the owners’ favorite selections and a paired condiment in a padded cooler bag.
- Flouwer Co. (West Highland): This tiny shop carries most of the Fishwife product line, including the women-owned brand’s collaboration with Fly by Jing, smoked salmon with Sichuan chile crisp. Bonus: If you’re in need of a beautiful board, serving ware, or glassware, Flouwer Co. also has you covered.
- Natural Grocers (multiple locations): The entire Patagonia Provisions product line is stocked at this chain, as well as its own brand of sustainably caught oil-packed sardines.