A baby sardine saw her first submarine:
She was scared and looked through the peephole.
"Oh come, come, come," said the sardine's mum.
"It's only a tin full of people."
Silly songs aside, the sardine doesn't get much love in America. Probably even less than the beet, really. It's either confused with its brine-cured cousin, the anchovy, or dismissed as another entry in the category of Strong-Smelling Fish, along with pickled herring and smoked mackerel and the like. It probably gets mentioned more frequently by commuters in packed subway cars than it ever does in a culinary context.
This is, of course, a pity and a shame. Sardines are definitely not anchovies, and they're not a strong-smelling fish. Contrary to popular belief, you won't need to leave all the windows open or make an appointment to have the house fumigated after you've served up a meal of sardines. They don't smell much stronger than oil-packed tuna - in fact, fresh salmon fillets are probably more noticeably fishy than sardines. They're also not brine-cured like anchovies, so their flavor is assertive, but mild.
Though fresh sardines are spectacular, they're also a pain to find, so I usually make do with tinned.* Sardines on toast are a classic, but they can be put to more interesting uses, like the following spaghetti with garlic, lemon, and capers. It's quick, simple, and if you usually keep the ingredients on hand in the pantry, it's a good hot meal to prepare on short notice.
When the water has reached a rolling boil, add half a pound of spaghetti. Cook until al dente, then drain and toss with the sardines. Serve immediately. A salad of bitter greens makes a nice accompaniment.
*The Venetians make a wonderful dish called sarde in saor: fresh sardines, fried and marinated in vinegar with onions, pine nuts, and plump white raisins. Keep an eye out for them if you ever visit Venice - they're absolutely delicious.