Dear Eric: I understand that the Sicilians prepare a sardine pasta dish. I wonder if you would be kind enough to provide a recipe. I assume that the requirement would be for fresh (perhaps frozen) fish as opposed to the tinned product.
Dear Jay: The recipe you are asking for is one of the most intriguing ways to flavour pasta and a trademark dish of Sicily, particularly the province of Palermo.
That island’s cuisine has, of course, been influenced by mainland Italy, and pasta is popular. Since it’s an island, it’s not surprising that seafood is also popular, as are foods harvested from the wild, such as fennel.
Sicilian cuisine has equally been influenced by its long history of being occupied by a host of peoples, including Greeks, Romans, Spaniards and Arabs. The latter group introduced a range of foods, including raisins and saffron.
At some point, someone decided all those ingredients would make a tasty combination — namely seafood in the form of sardines, pasta, raisins (or currants), fennel and saffron and a few other items, such as onions, pine nuts, anchovies and olive oil.
The resulting dish, which takes several steps to prepare, was pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines. Of course, with all those other ingredients, it’s much more complex than that.
The pine nuts and olive oil add richness, while the sautéed onions and raisins add sweetness, balancing the saltiness and brininess of the anchovies and sardines.
The fennel is cooked in water, and later combined with the pasta. The pasta is cooked in the water the fennel was cooked in, giving it a hint of the fennel’s licorice-like taste.
I viewed at least 10 recipes for pasta con le sarde and the ingredients used were always similar, but the technique and ingredient amounts were never exactly the same — not surprising, considering how many households and eateries in Sicily for eons have made their own special version of the dish.
For example, in some cases, cooked sardines were used only as a garnish (topping) for the pasta, while in other cases, the fish was broken up and tossed with pasta.
In some recipes, the pasta was served right after being tossed with the sauce, while in others, it was topped with breadcrumbs and baked a while.
Below is my version of the dish, which I crafted based on information garnered from the recipes I reviewed. In those recipes, fresh sardines are most often called for, but some did use quality canned sardines, which is what I used because I couldn’t find fresh or frozen sardines.
A brand I would recommend is Raincoast Trading Sardines, which are sustainably caught off California. To learn where to buy this product, go to raincoasttrading.com. Another product I like is Matiz Gallego Sardines, sold at Italian delis and fine food stores. To learn more, go to matizespana.com.
Sicilian-Style Pasta with Sardines
This is my version of an intriguing pasta dish well-known in Sicily. Add some good bread and Italian white wine, such as soave or rosé and enjoy.
Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus soaking time
Cooking time: About 30 minutes
Makes: Four main-course servings
1/2 cup raisins or currants
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 (4.2 oz./120 gram) cans sardines
1 medium fennel bulb (about 350 grams)
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/8 tsp saffron threads, crumbled
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 anchovies fillets, coarsely chopped
375 grams spaghetti or bucatini (see Note)
2 Tbsp dry breadcrumbs
• salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Place the raisins in a small bowl, cover with hot water and let stand and plump up one hour. Drain raisins well and set aside.
Place pine nuts in small non-stick skillet set over medium heat. Cook and swirl the pine nuts until they are lightly toasted, then remove from the heat and set aside.
Open the sardines and drain the liquid. Carefully cut each sardine in half and remove bones. Slice each half piece of sardine in half widthwise. Set the pieces of sardine on a plate and reserve until needed.
Trim off any fronds (feathery leaves) and stalks from the top of the fennel bulb. Discard the tough stalks. Chop some of the fronds until you have about 1 Tbsp and place them in a small bowl and refrigerate until needed.
Cut the fennel bulb into 1Ú4-inch slices. Now cut each slice into small cubes. Place the fennel in a large pot with six litres of lightly salted water. Add the lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then lower heat until the water is simmering. Cook the fennel 15 minutes, or until quite tender.
Set a fine strainer over a second pot. Pour the fennel and cooking liquid through the sieve into the pot. Place the cooked fennel in a bowl. Reserve the fennel-cooking water.
Place 11Ú4 cups of the hot fennel cooking water in a small bowl. Add the saffron and let steep in the liquid until needed for the pasta.
Place the fennel cooking water back on the stove and bring to a simmer.
While that occurs, place the 1Ú4 cup olive oil in a large skillet (mine was 12 inches wide) and set over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, about four to five minutes.
While the onions cook, place the spaghetti or bucatini in the pot with the simmering fennel-cooking liquid and cook until tender, about eight to 10 minutes.
When the onions are tender, add the anchovies to the skillet and cook until almost dissolved into the onion, and the colour of the onion turns lightly golden, about two to three minutes.
Add the cooked fennel, raisins, pine nuts, saffron and its liquid, and half the sardines to the skillet. Stir and coarsely break up the sardines with a fork. Bring to a simmer, and simmer two to three minutes.
When cooked, drain the pasta, add it, salt, pepper and chopped fennel fronds to the skillet, and toss to combine. Sprinkle the top of the pasta with breadcrumbs, and arrange remaining pieces of sardine on top of the pasta. Cover pan, turn off the heat and let the sardines you’ve set on top of the pasta warm through a few minutes.
Uncover pasta and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Set the skillet of pasta on the table and serve from there into heated pasta bowls.
Note: Bucatini is thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running through the centre. You’ll find it at Italian-style delis selling a wide variety of pasta.
Eric Akis, author of the Everyone Can Cook series, answers your culinary questions in his Sunday columns. Send your questions by email or write to: Ask Eric, Times Colonist, 2621 Douglas St., Victoria B.C., V8T 4M2. Eric’s columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
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