My sister Michele visited me this week in L.A. for my official IBM retirement party. We thought hard about what to cook together. We’re focused on Sicily at the moment and discussed that nothing but nothing is more Sicilian than pasta con le sarde. Fennel and sardines are so plentiful in Sicily that this dish jumps right out of nature. And when combined with the sweet and sour flavors imported by the Arabs around 900 A.D., you get that classic Sicilian flavor palette. While this dish is ubiquitous in Sicily, it is not without controversy (as is all Italian food). On the western side of the island near Palermo, it is made as written here. On the eastern portion of the island, near Messina and Taormina, it is made with tomatoes. I’m sure family fights have broken out over this simple difference.
Makes 4 servings.
Ingredients and Directions:
- 1 pound fresh sardines, cleaned – see note 1
- Extra virgin oil olive
- 2 anchovies packed in olive oil, drained
- 1 medium-to-large head of fennel, thinly sliced
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1/2 cup raisins – plumped by soaking in hot water for 15 minutes
- 1/4 cup white wine
- Pinch saffron
- 1 pound bucatini pasta (or spaghetti)
- 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
- Breadcrumbs, toasted – see note 2
Note 1: Sardines — first off, you can use canned sardines if you can’t find fresh ones or don’t want to clean them. This would be the time to buy higher-quality sardines. Use 2 or 3 4-ounce cans instead of 1 pound fresh sardines. Drain the oil and chop as indicated.
If you use fresh sardines, cleaning them is messy but easy. Follow these steps:
- Cut off the heads and fins but not the tails
- Remove the scales (they rub off with your fingers)
- Slit the body down the belly, remove and discard the guts and rinse under cold water
- Holding the fish in your hand, belly up, run your finger down the inside of the belly to open like a book
- Remove the backbone with your other hand breaking it at the tail
- Rinse again
Note 2: Breadcrumbs, toasted – Simply toast breadcrumb in a small skillet pan over medium flame stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove to a bowl when browned (important to remove from skillet). Alternatively, add a little olive oil to the pan over medium heat. Add some anchovies and chopped garlic. Stir until the anchovies dissolve. Add breadcrumbs and still until the breadcrumbs toast and become a dark golden brown.
- Reserve 2 whole cleaned sardines (4 filets) for garnish and rough chop the remaining sardines. If using canned sardines, skip the garnish.
- In a small non-stick skillet, warm one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Fry the reserved sardines on both sides until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Separate the two sardines (if using fresh sardines) into 4 fillets for the garnish.
- Heat the white wine (in a small bowl in a microwave for 30 seconds works great) and add the pinch of saffron. Leave to steep for 15 minutes.
- In a large skillet pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the fennel until golden brown. Remove to a bowl and reserve.
- Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and add the anchovies. Stir around with a wooden spoon until the anchovies have dissolved. Add the onions to the pan and saute until translucent.
- Add the reserved caramelized fennel. Drain the raisins thoroughly and add as well. Also add the wine with the saffron.
- Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to combine well, and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.
- Cook the pasta to 1 minute less then the package directions.
- Drain but reserve some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the pan with the sardine mixture.
- Over medium heat, slowly stir the sardine mixture and pasta with a wooden spoon for 1 minute to let the pasta absorb the sauce’s flavor. Add a little pasta water if the mixture becomes too dry.
- Serve the pasta in bowls and top with the breadcrumbs and a reserved sardine fillet (if using fresh sardines). You can also drizzle a little high-quality olive oil over the pasta just before serving.