Ashlee Aubin, chef at Chicago’s modern Spanish restaurant Salero, is well aware of the stigma associated with canned seafood. “In America, it was always a cheap thing, linked with tuna sandwiches when you were a kid, or a bad experience with a crappy anchovy,” he says. “I think some people have been scared off by bad examples because there’s not a lot in American culture to get people familiar with it.”
This is something he’s hoping to change through his work at Salero and at sister restaurant Wood, where he serves small-plate American fare. Both venues offer an array of bar snacks and dishes that feature some of Spain’s finest canned offerings, from clams and octopus to bonito and anchovies.
Perhaps the simplest way that Aubin showcases these preserved delicacies is alongside three bare-bones ingredients: bread, lemon and butter. “It’s super-traditional,” he says. “If this was lunch at home in Spain, that’s how they would eat it.”
What’s second nature for some is still catching on with others — i.e., much of America. And it’s only natural that we’d raise an eyebrow to the vacuum-sealed, years-long-warranty tins — after all, we live in a culture that is increasingly obsessed with local and fresh everything, Aubin himself included. Still, the chef reserves a time and place for the specialty finds. “We can make many Spanish recipes here, but they’re going to be filtered through Chicago because we’re getting a pig from 50 miles away and seasoning it for an American palate,” he says. “This is the closest you can get to authentic Spanish food without actually going to Spain — so much of the country’s identity is in these products, which are indigenous to the [locale].”
Much of that identity stems from the country’s long-running history of needing to preserve seafood before shipping it to regions inland. “Historically, they were always preserving, salting, pickling and canning in order to get this fish to those who weren’t living on the water,” Aubin notes. “Until we had refrigerated trucks, you were probably only eating seafood if you lived within 20 miles of the coast.”
Aubin caught a bit of that history when he visited Arroyabe factory, a packing house located just 10 minutes from San Sebastián. “It’s cool because all these tiny fish are being hand-filleted and packed by three generations of women working side by side, and they’ve been doing it that way for 100 years,” he says.
Small producers like that are becoming tougher to find, but Aubin notes that the availability of these products in the U.S. is getting better, overall, with appearances in Whole Foods and other higher-end markets. When you can’t find what you’re looking for there, he suggests asking your local Spanish restaurant if you can buy a bit of its inventory. “Anytime you’re looking for a hard-to-get ingredient and you’re a regular at a restaurant, just ask them,” he says.
“This is the closest you can get to authentic Spanish food without actually going to Spain — so much of the country’s identity is in these products.”
Before committing to a can, you may want to check out the expiration date, though Aubin suggests the actual shelf life is often a lot longer than what’s printed. “When ingredients are canned, they become totally sterile, and there’s no way for bacteria to grow — meaning they’re good for years,” Aubin says. “They put an expiration date on there somewhere, but I think that’s a USDA thing — I don’t think they go bad, ever.”
In many cases, canned seafood can even get better with time; one example is the Ortiz berberechos, tiny clams that Aubin uses for many of his rice and pasta dishes. “They pack these so fresh, and they get better as they age,” he says. “In Spain, you can find ones with vintages on them, and they’ll charge astronomical prices for a three-year-old aged tin.”
It’s for that reason that Aubin opts to preserve a lot of seafood in-house, such as octopus conserves, salt cod, mussels escabeche and sherry-cured mackerel. “We tend to make our own whenever we can get great fresh product from Spain,” he says.
Here are two of Aubin’s recipes to try out at home.
Salero’s Mussels Escabeche
“This is a more economical way to try mussels escabeche, because fresh mussels are really affordable,” says Aubin. “Mussels escabeche from the tin tastes a certain way, and it’s really good, but this method gives us more control over its flavor profile. This is the baseline recipe that we then do variations of.”
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- Zest and juice of 1 orange
- Bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon smoked hot paprika
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1/2 cup sherry vinegar
- 2 pounds mussels
- 1/2 cup sherry
- 1/2 cup water
- Steam open mussels in sherry and water. Strain liquid and reserve. Pick mussels from shells and cool.
- Combine olive oil, cirtus zest, garlic, herbs and spices. Heat on low to infuse.
- Add vinegar, citrus juice and mussel liquid. Bring to a boil and season with salt.
- Let cool, then combine with mussels.
- Store in a nonreactive container in the fridge for up to four days.
Wood’s Caesar Dressing
“I definitely understand the intimidation factor with anchovies,” Aubin says. “You’ll get that concentrated flavor by putting just three of them into 16 ounces of dressing. Start by pureeing anchovies with garlic, Parmesan and black pepper, then add vinegar and oil. It’s your classic Caesar dressing, which is something people should be doing at home — it’s super-easy.”
- 5 egg yolks
- 8 cloves garlic
- 2 shallots, sliced
- 4 ounces sherry vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
- 8-6 fillets brown anchovies
- 3 ounces grated Parmesan
- 5 cups canola oil
- 2 cups olive oil
- To finish: Black pepper, salt, lemon juice
- In a food processor, combine shallots, garlic, Parmesan, anchovies, salt and pepper, and mix until evenly minced. Scrape down the sides and bottom.
- Add in dijon and egg yolk and mix until it lightens in color. Scrape down the sides and return to mixing.
- Slowly drizzle oil blend to emulsify, using the sherry vinegar to loosen as it thickens.
- To finish, add remaining sherry vinegar and season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.