Spaghetti with Crushed Sardine and Tomato Sauce Recipe

In ELLE à table, a French cooking magazine I contribute to, one of the longest-running sections is one called La Cuisine du placard (literally, cuisine from the cabinet or cupboard) that presents a picture of common pantry items, and offers recipes that make use of those, requiring as little fresh shopping as possible.

I consider myself a fresh ingredient cook, chiefly inspired by seasonal produce and market stalls, yet I get a special kind of kick from my occasional forays into the realm of pantry cooking: there is something curiously satisfying about using up supplies in ingenious ways, and a kind of primal gratification to be drawn from cooking in survival mode, even if the kind of ordeal you’re surviving through is just an empty-fridge Thursday night.

And now it’s almost 2pm and everybody’s hungry and clearly that food shopping expedition is not going to happen, but you should be able to scrape together some sort of a meal if you rummage through the kitchen cabinets long enough.

This pasta dish is the latest of my serendipitous cuisine du placard discoveries. I first made it for a late lunch a few weeks ago, on one of those weekend days when you know you should have gone out to shop for food in the morning, but you decided to laze around instead, and now it’s almost 2pm and everybody’s hungry and clearly that food shopping expedition is not going to happen, but you should be able to scrape together some sort of a meal if you rummage through the kitchen cabinets long enough.

In this instance, the three items that clicked were: a package of semi whole wheat spaghetti, a small carton of organic tomato coulis, and a can of sardines from Brittany. The former dived into a pot of boiling water, while the latter two joined a sliced shallot — I always have onions and shallots on hand, but you could omit that if you don’t — and a little cumin in the skillet, where they formed a deeply tasty, surprisingly complex, and very satisfying sauce.

I’ve made it again several times since then, even on days when there was fresh produce in the fridge but I wanted something quick and easy, and it always feels like a treat, so now I make sure I keep those ingredients on hand for emergency needs of tomato sardine spaghetti.

And of course, I’m curious: will you share your own favorite pantry cooking dish, and the ingredients you stock to prepare it?

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Spaghetti with Crushed Sardine and Tomato Sauce Recipe

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Serves 2.

Spaghetti with Crushed Sardine and Tomato Sauce Recipe


  • 1 can (135 g or 4.5 oz net weight) good-quality sardines packed in olive oil
  • 1 large shallot or small onion, about 100 grams (3.5 ounces), thinly sliced
  • fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 250 ml (1 cup) good-quality tomato coulis or canned cherry tomatoes (not tomato paste or concentrate, see note)
  • hot sauce or chili purée, to taste (optional)
  • coarse sea salt
  • 200 grams (7 ounces) spaghetti (I like to get spelt or semi whole wheat spaghetti)
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped (optional)


  1. Scoop a little oil from the sardine can into a medium skillet and place over medium heat. Add the sliced shallot, sprinkle with a pinch of fine sea salt, and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring regularly, until softened. Add the cumin and cook for a minute, until fragrant.
  2. Add the tomato coulis and drained sardines. Crush the flesh of the sardines into the coulis with the back of a fork, add hot sauce to taste, and stir well. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  3. While you're making the sauce, bring salted water to the boil in a medium saucepan. Add the spaghetti and cook until just al dente. Five minutes before the spaghetti is cooked, scoop a little of the boiling water into two pasta bowls to preheat. When the spaghetti is cooked, drain and add to the skillet, and stir to coat thoroughly with the sauce.
  4. Pour out the water from the pasta bowls, and divide the pasta between them. Sprinkle with black pepper and parsley if you have it, and serve immediately.


Avoid cans that have a white lining on the inside: it is likely to contain BPA that may leach into the food, especially if it's acidic like tomatoes. Unfortunately, there is no way to know until you've opened the can, but you can make a note to try a different brand the next time.
  • Sounds delicious! Love the addition of cumin seeds, which takes this from an ordinary pantry meal to something a little more exotic. I’ll bet mustard seeds, or panch phoron for that matter, would work really well, too.

  • I’m a keen proponent of store-cupboard cookery – as someone who builds up a stockpile of dry goods “just in case” (in case of what, i have no idea), it’s always extremely satisfying to be able to use them up! A Ghanian friend used to make a surprisingly delicious one-bowl dish of English baked beans, mixed with sauteed onions and garam masala. For me it’s pasta puttanesca (tinned tomatoes, garlic, dry chilli & anchovies simmered for the same time as the pasta, with capers stirred in at the last minute). Tonight – perhaps your recipe. Have a couple of spare tins of sardines… though I tend to find them a little frightening. Thanks!

    • Kathy Manelis

      I do the “just in case” myself and have no idea when that “just in case” might occur! In the meantime, we could live for weeks, if not months, on what I have stockpiled!

  • This is definitely one of my pantry staples. If I have fennel I put it in as well–I understand it’s a classic southern italian combination. Otherwise at least I put in fennel seeds. A big fan here of canned sardines (and meanwhile searching for a brand of canned tomatoes without BPA)

  • Rachel

    I’m a ‘fresh ingredients’ cook myself, but I do try to have well-stocked cupboards for just such an event. My store-cupboard standbys are pasta puttanesca, like Nicola, plus spaghetti aglio e olio (I think this counts even though it ideally includes fresh parsley, since I have some in the fridge more often than not). Another hybrid cupboard/fresh dish I like is coconut rice – I always have jasmine rice and a tin of coconut milk in the cupboard, plus lemongrass in the freezer, to make it, and I just do a stir-fry of whatever veg I have on hand to go with it.

  • I can usually whip up a quick stir fry of one kind or another, but in the event of nothing to fry, there is that pasta with marinara or puttanesca type meal. This is actually a variant – sardines instead of anchovies, and should be great. I’ve tried Bittman’s Pasta with Sardines, and was disappointed, very bland. What it lacked was the acidic contrast of the tomatoes in yours.

  • It would be a very funny day I had no fresh vegetables at all – if only a few cherry tomatoes or something. But my “stand-by” is couscous with drained and rinsed tinned chickpeas, whatever vegetables I have to hand, and Heidi’a tahini dressing stirred through it – in fact, the whole dish is based on Heidi’s version, although I wouldn’t use asparagus as the tahini dressing would drown the flavour!

    Or I might do some kind of lentil curry….

  • Caryn

    I be trying this dish!

    My fav pantry dish (an adapted Shakshuka). At a minimum the dish includes tomatoes (boxed, canned or fresh) and garlic cooked with paprika and/or cumin until it creates a nice sauce. If you have other veggies around, onions, shallots, leeks, peppers and/or sturdy greens only make the dish better.

    Then I just simmer the eggs in the sauce until the whites are firm, about 6 minutes.

    • Rachel

      An adapted Shakshuka is one of my favourites too! It goes really well with bread and any leftover tomato sauce can be kept, reheated and stirred into pasta for the next meal.

  • This sounds fantastic, and I’m always looking for (a) inventive pasta dishes and (b) more uses for sardines! This might very well become a staple in the Nervous household this winter.

  • sillygirl

    My new favorite “emergency meal” is a drained can of garbanzo beans smashed and mixed with mayo, onion, capers, any spice of your choice, salt, pepper on a piece of bread if I have it or on crackers from the cupboard if I don’t. It’s a fake of egg or tuna salad. Since I’m eating lots of celery lately I also put some of that in. And my husband even likes it!

  • rouxxx

    Hm my favourite is Mujadara…I always have enough lentils, rice and onions in storage, plus lots of spices for the variation. And to me mujadara is (healthy) comfort food with minimum fuss. Yum!

  • I like the thought of combining sardine, tomatoe and cumin to a lovely sauce, satisfying after a looong day.

    My pantry has a lots of different dhals/beans, rice types so I d make some curry too, cause I have always scraped coconut these days and the paste is readily waiting for me in the fridge.
    And as little treat some dried Bombay duck or Machrel Parra.

    I wish I could get certain european foods though…

  • Annie

    I occassionally make something similar to this using sardines in a chili tomato sauce, green onions, and spaghetti (works with penne too). Just saute the onions in a little bit of oil, add sardines and sauce. Cook and lightly break up the sardines. Add cooked pasta, tossing gently. Season with salt and pepper if needed. Eat immediately. Quick and comforting meal in about 10 minutes.

  • On the topic of BPA, I do not think there is any alternative to BPA for cans meant to contain products as acidic as tomatoes., at least not just yet. Even if there is, it could be just as unsafe as BPA! The only alternative in my opinion is to buy glass jars of tomato coulis and, in the US, I love the one made by bionaturae, which is organic and pretty inexpensive. Plus, the bottles are pretty!

    • The cans I buy from one organic store here don’t have a plastic lining (and don’t taste like metal). What could be unsafe about these, just for my information?

      • I heard on France Inter that there is currently no substitute for BPA for cans destined to contain tomatoes because of their high acid content… So I’d check with the manufacturer to see if there is indeed no BPA in your cans. I know in the US a lot of manufacturers like Eden Foods (whose cans are BPA-free… except for tomatoes) and Muir Glen are busy developing alternatives to BPA for tomato cans (in fact, that is what my husband’s friend is doing at his job!). Beyond the issue of BPA, I really have been trying to stop buying foods in can, with the exception of sardines, just so I stop worrying about these issues. The other issue in my opinion is also that, yes, we might see BPA alternatives for cans but will we ever find out that the alternative comes its own health risk in 20 years?

        • So interesting, thank you Estelle ! And like you, I hardly ever buy anything canned anymore…

  • I always keep various lentils and rices around, along with vegetarian bouillon. So I riff off the guideline of this recipe. You can use any kind of lentil or split pea, and I especially like it for using up odd leftover amounts of lentils. (A few tablespoons le puy, half a cup of red lentils, quarter cup yellow split peas, etc.) I’ve used all kinds of brown rice, and even pearl barley instead of rice. For the topping, I just use whatever olives or capers I have around, and any sort of nut. Sometimes I just drizzle some olive oil and sprinkle some more red pepper flakes on top.
    It’s hearty, filling, and easy. Also, shallots are nice but not necessary if all you have is onion.

  • This sounds so flavorful and awesome!! I do something similar, minus the sardines… But might have to change that!!

  • Kristin

    Hooray for sardines and other preserved fish, for that matter. We have a standard sardine dish in our house that is my husband’s specialty: a riff from a (now extinct) teahouse in Seattle. We call it garlic sardines, but besides those two ingredients, it also includes zucchini, onion (green or yellow), green chilies and (usually) spinach, soy sauce and sesame oil. Delicious over steamed rice with crisp, seasoned seaweed on the side. Another pantry favorite (over pasta) is canned tuna in olive oil sauteed with onion, garlic, a little tomato (canned is great) and a good dose of pimenton. This is glorious cooked to a ruby sludge and spritzed with lemon. Those same ingredients deconstructed (tuna, onion, pimenton, and tomato) also make terrific bruschetta. One of our favorite lunches with a green salad.

    • That “garlic sardines” dish sounds really good, Kristin. Are all the vegetables stir-fried together with the sardines? And love the idea of that ruby tuna sludge, too.

      • Kristin

        Sorry for the long delay in replying (traveling!). My husband adds olive oil (plus drained oil from the sardines), minced garlic, jalapenos, zucchini, and onion all together in the pan and cooks that till veggies are tender. He adds the sardines toward the end (so they don’t cook to a mush) with the soy sauce and sesame oil and the spinach is tossed through just before we dish up. Heavenly…we love to make this on our backpacking trips but also at home when nothing else sounds good, although I think my husband could eat it everyday! Highly reccomend you eat this with seasoned seaweed (‘gim’ or ‘Kim’ in Korean). Thanks for a terrific blog and books and Merry Christmas!

        • Thanks for elaborating on the recipe, Kristin, I’ll give it a try for sure!

  • Frances

    I’m now wondering if coulis de tomates could be passata? Sieved tomatoes – a touch thicker than tomato juice?

    I love tinned firsh for food emergencies like this! Pasta e ceci is a staple of mine for these situations.

    • Tomato coulis is made from cooked tomatoes, whereas my understanding is that passata is made with uncooked tomatoes. It would work well here too, but I decided against using the term because depending on where you live (outside of Italy of course), it can mean either sieved uncooked tomatoes or *tomato paste*, and the latter would be way too concentrated to use it with the measurements given here.

  • For whatever reason I’ve never been a big pasta eater, but my pantry is always filled to bursting with grains–barley, lentils, and couscous (pasta and grain??). My standby “pantry” meal is always some variation on a simple mushroom-barley risotto: Dried shiitakes, reserved water, a cup of barley, green onions, rosemary, onion, olive oil, and butternut squash or kabocha pumpkin if I have it. It’s a wonderful cool-weather meal that makes plenty of leftovers!

    • That does sound really good, Melanie!

  • Amy

    Tonight was a empty-fridge Thursday night for me, so I thought I’d try this out. It was the most fantastic and easy to prepare dinner I’ve had all week. I’ll be making it again soon for myself and maybe even company. Delicious! Thank you for this wonderful idea.

    My usual empty-fridge dinner involves something with polenta. Usually I’ll make little polenta cakes and top them with whatever is available. Last week it was spinach and mushrooms sauteed with a little white wine and olive oil mixed in with some cannellini beans.

    • I’m happy to hear it, Amy, thanks for reporting back!

      And would you mind elaborating on those polenta cakes and how you make them?

  • Diana

    tired employee’s dinner: you need pasta, garlic, anchovies and whatever pancookable veggies you have on hand.

    Boil pasta water, and saute veggies. If no veggies, then just boil pasta water until it boils and you can add the pasta (with a drop of olive oil and salt, of course).

    When pasta is ready (or when pasta and veggies are ready) add garlic to pan, mash, add anchovies to pan, mash, drain pasta, add pasta to pan, and you have dinner.

  • Eva

    We totally do pasta too, with chilies, garlic, olives/capers, and lemon– and greens, if we have them. I don´t know what it is about pasta but it makes such a fulfilling last-minute meal. Funny, David Tanis just wrote something very similar about late-night pasta in the NYTimes (or maybe you contributed to the inspiration for his article?)

    • I, too, thought it funny that most of the pantry meal suggestions contributed here involve not just pasta, but specifically spaghetti. How intriguing!

      And I did not see David Tanis’s article, but I’ll look it up.

  • Cindy

    I always have chickpea flour in my pantry, so I sometimes make socca when I have nothing in the fridge. I sometimes have a jar of roasted peppers or olive tapenade in the pantry too, which go well with socca.

  • Bob Y

    My favorite pantry meal is similar to yours. It involves shallots, garlic, capers, red pepper flakes, white wine (I use vermouth), farfale, and tuna packed in oil. I like it so much, I make it even when I’m fully stocked. I think I found it on the “Simply Recipes” blog.

  • I’m a sucker for pantry pasta too, it’s usually my go-to if the fridge has nothing but baking soda and Pro-biotic in it! I almost always have artichoke hearts, chickpeas, and preserved lemon. Nothing fancy but very filling and, for lack of a better term, yummy! (If I feel like something different, I use quinoa instead of pasta.)
    p.s. I never, never buy canned sardines. And yet for some reason I threw a can into my shopping cart last week with no plan. Thanks for giving me a delicious use for them!

    • I’m sure there’s something clever to be done with just pasta, baking soda and pro-biotic. :)

  • sillygirl

    I second making socca! It went well last time with kale chips. And I discovered that I can make several pans of kale and keep them in the fridge for snacking cold and/or put them under the broiler briefly. Somehow my husband hasn’t tasted the last 4 batches I have done!

  • Pantry cooking is a great idea, and I have just added some of the ingredients in your recipe to my shopping list– just in case we get snowed in again this winter in the great Pacific Northwest! ;-) On another note, I am a big fan of yours (and a Follower of your blog’s.) Today is my blog’s first anniversary and I am offering one of your books as a prize for my first ever Giveaway. ;-) PS: I don’t know why I wrote this comment in English since we are both French… Monday morning, sorry. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

    • Thanks so much Véronique, and happy blog anniversary! ^_^

  • Sounds fresh and tasty. Pasta or frittata is my pantry staple meal.

  • I cant think of anything that would work better than this!

  • Yes, I can totally relate. I really only cook with fresh ingredients, but sometimes there’s just “nothing” in the frig. My go-to dish is based on a box of mac n cheese. I like to add frozen peas to it along with a can of fire roasted tomatoes or perhaps a can of cannellini beans. Instead of butter, I add truffled olive oil. It reminds of my creative top ramen days in college, ha!

  • EB

    Wonderful! There really is something so gratifying about making a lovely dish out of “nothing.” I find that pantry cooking is good for the creative cooking juices!

  • Mmm this pasta sounds good!! I definitely have a go-to pantry dish. It’s anchovy pasta (yet another pasta dish!) While my spaghetti/linguini is cooking I saute the anchovies with chili flakes and onion if I have some. I toss it all together with some parmesan or any hard cheese in the fridge and top with an over easy egg.

    It’s one of my favorite things to make and I always make sure I have the ingredients on hand for when I’m short on veggies/meat.

  • Clotilde, I also love the Elle placard section and like you, prefer the fresh ingredients. The laugh is, my pantry is pretty much stocked with things I think I’m going to use and I end up discovering them months later (read years, embarrassingly!)
    The major culprits are the producers’ markets and I end up buying things like giant tins of cèpes and snail pâté etc. Seemed great at the tasting on the day with some wine…
    My husband loves sardines and buys good ones at épiceries but I never use them – until now I’ve seen your post! High time I made this pasta dish: he’d love it!

  • Caroline

    This is similar to a sauce I make out of pantry staples, except mine uses anchovies and tuna. I get mad when I have a lot of fresh vegetables but my girlfriend still wants me to make it. :)

  • The typical situation is when I come back after travelling for weeks – I usually eat pasta aglio olio e peperoncino with lots of olive oil and chilli. I also make vegetarian chilli quite often if I have a bit more time, just from dried beans, lentils and spices. It is nourishing like fresh food but the only fresh ingredient is onion. It’s funny, pantry cooking usually happens when I actually crave fresh, nutrient food.

  • Natalie

    Puttanesca is my favourite pantry dish because it is so simple yet the flavour combination is so heavenly. A close second, if I have more time, is baked shrimp with feta. Not entirely a ‘pantry’ meal, but we usually have shrimp in the freezer and vacuum-packed feta in the fridge, and aside from that all you need is yellow onions, garlic, white wine, fresh or canned tomatoes, and fresh or dried basil. And the results are mind-blowing.

  • Ces

    Love your website! The ingredients you use are staples in my kitchen as well; lots of pasta, anchovies, tomatoes. This looks delicious!

  • Pascale

    I tried the recipe last Friday : it is so quick but so tasty ! Definitely for my list of all-times-favourites (all the recipes I try are voted keep or throw away :-)!

    • I’m so pleased to hear it, Pascale, thanks for reporting back!

  • Kathryn

    One of my pantry staples is sauteed onion & garlic with two cans of diced tomatoes, a can of chickpeas and a swirl of pesto or some fresh basil. Very yummy over couscous or by itself.

  • For the tomato coulis, I used Pomi strained tomatoes. The recipe is great. I’ve also made this with tuna packed in olive oil instead of sardines.

  • Helen

    Pantry Staple:Garlic & Onions finely chopped and fried. Add a can of Tuna, a sachet of tomato concentrate and a container of UHT (Longlife cream), toss in cooked pasta and top with finely chopped parsley.(If I have fresh ingredients I will add Broccoli or Mushrooms or Both)

  • TaraM

    I tried this meal when I got back from vacation and there was nothing in the fridge (and at 11pm after a long flight, I was not going food-shopping :) ). It was excellent!

    My normal “pantry meal” is usually a bean and rice salad, cold in the summer (althought that does require onion, lime and cilantro) and served warm in the winter. But this recipe was much faster!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Tara, and thanks for sharing your own pantry meal!

  • Catherine

    I am visiting Paris for a week and wonder whether there is a particular brand of sardines that you recommend, so I could hunt them down while I am here. Thank you, by the way, for all the good, useful information I have gleaned from C&Z.

    • I can’t say that I have a particular sardine recommendation, but I get the “Phare d’Eckmühl” brand at the organic store (picture above). They’re fished of the coast of Brittany and MSC-approved.

  • Catherine

    Thanks! (I love your city. Not very original of me, I know.)

  • thomas

    My favorite pantry recipe is an approximately Indian potato/tomato dish that works on its own, as part of an Indian meal, or with European-style cooked meats. The recipe isn’t authentically Indian, but actual people from India have indicated that it works ok.

    Fry cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, in a little oil until the mustard starts to pop. Add finely chopped ginger and garlic, and stir frantically for a minute or so. Add chopped tinned tomatoes and small potatoes (German Butterball are perfect; anything with flavour is good) and cook covered over low heat until it be enough. Uncover and cook until the sauce is thick and sticks to the potatoes. Adjust the seasoning with lime or lemon juice (or vinegar, at a pinch). Serve hot or cool. If you happen to have fresh coriander leaves, add them as a garnish. If you happen to have fresh fenugreek leaves, this doesn’t qualify as a pantry dish any more but add them.

    The acidity and osmolarity of this are enough to discourage most bacteria, so it’s a good choice for picnics and potlucks, especially as it’s also vegan, nut-free, gluten-free, low in fat, and potentially kosher and halal.

    • That sounds really good, Thomas, thanks for sharing!

      I’m not familiar with the term “osmolarity” and when I looked up the chemistry definition I wasn’t sure how it related to food. Would you mind explaining? Thanks!

  • Dina

    I could probably try this with some anchovies since that is what I have. It won’t be as substantial as it is with sardines, but oh well…. And maybe some home-made gnocchi, from the freezer, since I ran out of pasta. Can you tell I am planning on adapting this to fit the current state of my pantry? :) Thank you :)

    • I love it, that’s exactly what real cooking is about! You start with sardine spaghetti and end up with anchovy gnocchi following your intuition and the contents of your pantry. :)

  • Kathy Manelis

    Ok….just a tad fishy. However, if one is using sardines, that would be the flavor of choice…;-) Husband felt similarly.

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