In the 1933 reprint of his cocktailing book What’ll You Have, Julien J. Proskauer gives basic instructions for preparing a variety of appetizers as “the perfect hostess never serves cocktails without some little appetizer accompanying them.” Toward this end, the book is full of simple appetizer ideas, many of them are of the canapé variety. Proskauer defines canapés as “slices of bread toasted, dipped in butter, and browned in the oven. The slices are then covered in some mixture. They are served warm. The bread is cut a quarter of an inch thick, then into circles two and a half inches in diameter, or into strips four inches long and two inches wide.” The order of information here is confusing, but we’re using a baguette, so I say don’t sweat it too much. Among the canapé recipes are one for anchovy canapés, and one for sardine canapés. For the former, “spread strips of fried bread with anchovy paste. Arrange in lines, on top, alternate rows of the white and yolk of hard boiled eggs chopped fine.” The Sardine variety is essentially the same, but with sardine paste, on circles of bread. For topping, “arrange…in circles to resemble a rosette, lines of chopped hard-boiled egg and chopped pickle” (122).

There’s both a ruggedness and a fussiness to these that is oddly delightful, and to which the temporal culinary purist can certainly try his or her hand. We’ve gone a slightly different route.

Looking back at cookbooks from the 1930s—Mabel Claire’s The Modern Cookbook for the Busy Woman, Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (later Fannie Farmer’s), The Joy of Cooking—we do find sardines a frequent component. They were common, inexpensive, long lasting, and provide both flavor and seasoning. They flavored sauces in a variety of cuisines, and were often components of spreads and used frequently in regional dishes. Sardine sandwiches were once a not uncommon diner or deli menu item. But sardines lost their vogue, fell into disrepute alongside canned pearl onions, cream of mushroom soup, and pimentos. Still, our mothers, ever the flouters of convention and progress, continued to use them until that one fateful Christmas when we all put our collective feet down and said “no more!”  This happened to everyone, right?

But the little bastards have been making a huge comeback in recent years, popping up again in fine-dining establishments and gastropubs. Not long ago, and still in many places, it was difficult to find good quality sardines. If you can find them, we prefer the following brands, based on recommendations from Renee Erickson’s cookbook, the Prune cookbook, and the fascinating blog of the Sardine Society.

  • Ruby (if you can find them, Prune recommends highly)
  • Angelo Parodi, esp Portuguese
  • Matiz  
  • Pollastrani di Anzio brands

For more on the history of sardines and their appreciation in other cuisines, especially on aged sardines, check out Zingerman’s Delicatessen Blog and the blog Mouth Full of Sardines in which the author rates so many brands of tinned sardines it makes the head spin.

We’ve tried to pull together elements of popular dishes in 1933, but updated to a more modern palate, and using ingredients that (mostly) would have been available on a sea voyage of moderate length, but which are likely of a higher quality. We’re also still dealing with the Depression and Prohibition, so we’ve kept the ingredient list pretty thrifty. We have sacrificed some authenticity in favor of making something we actually want to eat. 

So we’ve made a canapé with a sardine butter spread and a simple and quick pickled red onion with julienned lemon peel and some preserved lemon heaped atop it. All components can be made ahead of time and will keep up to a week in the refrigerator, but should be served at room temperature. We think it’s a bit of a step up from sardines with chopped egg and pickle. Serve with a nice dry white wine, such as a soave, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot grigio—look for whites with fruity or citrusy notes—or a citrus based cocktail, such as our Rum and Meyer Lemon Sidecar

Sardine Butter Toasts with Pickled Red Onions and Preserved Lemon

Makes 24

The sardine butter in this recipe is an alternate version of a herring butter recipe featured in Renee Erickson’s stunning new cookbook, A Boat, A Whale & A Walrus. We’ve topped ours with pickled red onion, julienned preserved lemon peel, and a bit of chopped parsley. You can skip the preserved lemon if you'd prefer, in which case we'd suggest doubling up on the lemon peel in the pickled red onion.

To prepare baguette toasts:

Cut a baguette diagonally into ½ inch slices. Arrange these on a baking sheet, drizzle or brush with olive oil (about 1/3 cup for the whole baguette), sprinkle with salt, bake for 8-10 minutes in a 350 degree oven, rotate pan once or twice throughout. Check frequently being careful not to over toast. Apply topping after toasts have reached room temperature.

To prepare pickled red onions:

  • 3/4 cup white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons  sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 peppercorns
  • julienned peel of one lemon (or two if not using preserved lemon)
  • 1 small, dried chile pepper
  • 1 large red onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise into strips

In a small, non-reactive saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar, salt, seasonings and chile until boiling. Add the onion and lemon peel and lower heat, simmering gently for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Transfer the onions, lemon and the liquid into a jar, allow to cool completely, and then refrigerate until ready to use.

To prepare sardine butter:

  • 4 ounce oil packed sardines (see above)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoon finely minced shallots
  • ½ teaspoon dijon mustard
  • one pinch cayenne pepper

Combine first five ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer or large work bowl. Whip with paddle attachment of mixer, or first a large spoon and then a whisk and whip by hand, scraping sides of bowl when necessary. Mix until finely combined, homogenous, spreadable in consistency. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired. Store in refrigerator if making ahead, up to one week, but allow to become room temperature again before using.

Putting it all together:

Spread a generous smear of sardine butter on toasts, top with pickled red onion, julienned preserved lemon peel, chopped parsley and a sprinkling of finishing salt and serve.