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If Sicily had a national dish, pasta con le sarde would be it. It’s a perfect combination of Sicilian cooking techniques with a bit of sweet-and-savory balancing with the flavors of land and sea. Like many great Sicilian pasta dishes, you’ll love that it’s finished with a healthy handful of toasted breadcrumbs!
The recipe changes from town to town and from mamma to mamma. Sometimes with saffron, with almonds or pine nuts, tomato or no tomato, and whether you have access to fresh sardines and wild fennel. There is a popular version that can be made without the fish in a cheeky style of “pasta con le sarde a mare” a pasta with the sardines still in the sea.
Every variation of this plate tells a different story. Sicilians typically make pasta con le sarde with bucatini pasta: a long fatty spaghetti with a hole through the center. Only the sexiest of ladies (in true Sofia Loren style) can perfectly twirl and bite a big mouthful of bucatini without splattering it onto her clothes. You can substitute the bucatini with other popular pastas like busiate or casarecce.
The fresh sardines and even the preserved anchovies in this dish really don’t make it taste fishy; if done right, they just give a subtle kiss from the sea. The family of darker oily fish like mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and blue fish are a dietary source of omega−3 because of the algae or plankton that they eat. So eating pasta con le sarde is actually good for you! Sardines and their super omegas can help fight heart disease, depression and arthritis.
The recipe calls for fresh wild fennel which is very hard to come by if you are not in Sicily, Turkey, Spain, Morocco or maybe Northern California. We’ve included notes to make your own substitutions using fennel seeds and the green fronds from a white fennel bulb. This will not replace those perfect flavors or textures, but we want you to get a little taste. Wild fennel is found growing along the side of the road in the early spring. It gives a sweet subtle anise flavor that can best be described as squisito with an exaggerated kiss of your finger tips. Make sure to try this dish on your next trip to Sicily to experience the unique flavor of finocchietto selvatico and twirl that bucatini like a pro!
RECIPE: Pasta con le Sarde
High-quality extra virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, sliced
1 Tbsp. estratto or the best tomato paste you can find
2 anchovies, filleted/preserved in oil
1/2 cup white wine
1 pinch of saffron threads
1 cup pelati (canned whole peeled tomatoes)
4 fresh sardines, scaled/cleaned and filleted
1 cup tender wild fennel, blanched and chopped*
1/4 cup golden raisins
3 Tbsp. pine nuts
500 g dry bucatini pasta
1/3 cup breadcrumbs (japanese panko or homemade from great bread)
Ground black pepper
*If wild fennel is not available: substitute with 1 cup chopped fennel fronds and 1 tsp. fennel seeds, soaked in warm water.
Toast the breadcrumbs at 375°F with a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar until golden brown. Set aside until the end. Put your pasta pot on to boil since this will take the most time and get a big stockpot of heavily salted water to a rolling boil.
In a sauce pan, sauté the onions, olive oil and preserved anchovy fillets. A little bit of the anchovy oil never hurts anyone either. Sauté over medium-low heat until onions soften and the anchovies melt into the oil. Add the tomato estratto and white wine. Stir to get any browned bits from the onion up off of the bottom of the pan. Dissolve the estratto in the sauce then add a pinch of saffron threads, the wild fennel, tomato pelati and golden raisins. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with black pepper and sea salt. At the end, place the fresh sardines and pine nuts into the sauce. Let the sardines cook gently until they turn white and melt into the sauce. Keep the flame on very low heat or let the sauce rest until the pasta is ready.
Make sure to use enough salt so the pasta water tastes like the sea. The bucatini should be free to float around so don’t make it in too small of a pot either. Cook the dry pasta in the boiling water until al dente. This is very important. Italians (rightly so) are very picky about the amount of time it takes to cook pasta. It’s best if you taste a piece here and there but only use the cooking time on the package as a guide. Stir the pasta while it cooks so it doesn’t stick together. When the pasta is ready, pull out a cup of the cooking liquid and reserve for finishing the sauce. Do not throw out all of the water!
Strain the pasta and immediately mix it into the sauce. Check the seasoning and add a little bit of the pasta water back into the pot to thicken the sauce. The starch from the pasta will help make the sauce creamy. Serve right away and top the plate with the toasted breadcrumb for a little bit of crunch. You typically never put cheese on a fish dish, so the breadcrumbs can be your faux parmigiano.
The Cheeky Chef, Linda Sarris was raised in a big Greek-American family with a Chef grandfather, a fisherman Dad and a kitchen full of women who loved to cook. After a career in book publishing and a secret night-school culinary degree, she ran away to Sicily with a scholarship to work for a farm-to-table cooking school. She has worked as a fishmonger at Eataly, consulted for a restaurant in Romania, cooked for a Tuscan winery and underground supper clubs in New York. With a home base in Brooklyn, Linda works as a private chef and often travels to Italy for freelance jobs like her new project SNACK, a chef’s guide to Sicilian food/wine.