This Variation on Sicilian-Style Pasta Sports a Tangy Tomato Sauce
When was the last time you used sardines in a dish? For a lot of us, the answer may be “never.”
Sardines don’t get much respect in the US. Which is too bad, because they’re inexpensive, abundant, and widely available (although most often in canned form). But many people shy away from them because of their distinct “fishy” flavor.
If that’s you, don’t worry. Sardines have been eaten in Mediterranean countries for thousands of years, so cooks there have figured out how to handle these little beauties. No place is more Mediterranean than Sicily — and one of its signature dishes is pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines). In Sicily, cooks usually combine the pasta with fennel, raisins, and saffron, and these ingredients help mellow the flavor of the sardines.
March 19th (Tuesday) is Saint Joseph’s Day, a widely celebrated saint’s day around the world. Many people consider St. Joseph to be the patron saint of Sicily (according to legend, prayers to St. Joseph helped prevent a famine there during the Middle Ages). Because St. Joseph’s Day falls during Lent, the festive foods are meatless.
What better way to celebrate one of Sicily’s special holidays than by making their signature (meatless) dish? You’ve heard the phrase (made memorable in Alka-Seltzer ads), “try it, you’ll like it.” When it comes to this dish, it’s true.
Recipe: Pasta with Sardines and Fennel
Traditionally, pasta con le sarde is made with fresh sardines and the fronds (not the bulb) from wild fennel. Raisins, pine nuts, saffron, and often anchovies are added to the dish, and it’s garnished with bread crumbs (to represent sawdust — St. Joseph was thought to be a carpenter). Some versions include tomato, though most don’t. The traditional pasta used in this dish is a thick hollow spaghetti (in Sicily this is called u pirciatu, which is hard to find in the US; bucatini or perciatelli are basically the same thing, and easier to find). Regular spaghetti is a typical substitute.
My recipe isn’t traditional, for several reasons. First, in the US it’s difficult to find fresh sardines or wild fennel fronds (although wild fennel grows in California, and fresh sardines are becoming more abundant at fish mongers). I use the fronds and bulb of domestic fennel, and canned sardines. Second, while the traditional recipe is good, I think it’s even better with more tomato added — enough to create a tomato-based sauce. This requires a more substantial pasta shape, IMO, so I substitute a tubular pasta like penne. Last, I omit the anchovies and pine nuts from my recipe. They get a bit lost with the inclusion of tomato, so I don’t bother with them.
My recipe is derived from various sources, but I leaned most heavily on Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. If you prefer a tomato-less recipe, I suggest checking out one that Paula Wolfert published in the December 5, 1985 New York Times Magazine (her recipe includes just a bit of sun-dried tomato, but that’s optional).
This recipe serves 4 to 5. Active time is about 15 minutes, total time 30 minutes (or more, if you want to cook the tomato sauce longer). Leftovers keep for a day or two in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- ½ cup raisins
- ~2 cups total of fennel fronds, thin fennel stalks, and chopped fennel bulb (about 1 large fennel bulb with plenty of leafy fronds; exact quantity not important)
- 1 medium onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 - 2 tablespoons pure olive oil (the cheap stuff)
- salt to taste (you’ll use more salt for the pasta water; see below)
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- big pinch of crumbled saffron threads dissolved in ½ cup lukewarm water (about ½ teaspoon; you can substitute powdered saffron, but the flavor isn’t nearly as good)
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomato
- 1 pound tubular pasta or spaghetti
- salt for pasta water
- ~4 to 8 ounces canned sardines packed in olive oil (1 or 2 cans; start with 1 can if you think you’re sardine-averse, although 2 cans would be the typical amount)
- ~ ½ cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted for garnish (see Notes for how to make)
- Place the raisins in a small saucepan with enough water to just cover. Bring to a light boil, then remove from heat and allow to steep (this freshens and plumps them).
- Rinse the fennel and remove the stalks and green tops. Roughly chop the green fuzzy fronds and the smaller stalks; discard the big, woody stalks. Set aside. Using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, slice off the root end of the bulb. Cut or peel off the outer part of the bulb if it’s tough. Cut the fennel bulb into quarters lengthwise, and then cut into thin slices across the width. You want about 2 cups of fennel total (including fronds, smaller stalks, and bulb), but as long as you’re in the ball park, the exact quantity isn’t important. You may want to reserve some fennel fronds as an additional garnish.
- Peel the onion and cut into dice of ½ inch or so.
- Peel the garlic and slice thinly or mince finely.
- Place a medium-sized skillet (or sauce pan large enough to sauté the onion and fennel) on medium heat on the stove top. Heat for two minutes or so, then add the oil. When the oil is hot (it will shimmer), add the fennel bulb (but not the chopped green tops and smaller stalks), onion, and garlic. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Sauté until the onion begins to soften, but doesn’t brown (about 5 minutes or so).
- While the fennel-and-onion mix is cooking, take a big pinch of saffron threads, crumble, and add to ½ cup lukewarm water.
- When the onion is softened, add the chopped fennel greens and smaller stalks, and sauté for a minute or so. Add the red pepper flakes, the raisins (include the water), and the saffron threads (with water). Add the tomato. Bring to a simmer, taste and adjust seasoning, and let simmer for at least 20 minutes (longer if you prefer).
- About 15 minutes before you want to serve the pasta, bring a 4-quart pot of water to boil. Add a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook until the pasta is al dente. Cooking time varies depending on shape; look at the package directions, and start testing 3 or 4 minutes before they suggest (their cooking times are frequently off by a wide margin).
- A minute or two before the pasta is ready, open the sardine can(s) and drain the oil. Add the sardines to the pasta sauce, and stir to incorporate. The more you stir, the more the sardines will break up and “dissolve” into the sauce. You may want to reserve a sardine or two per serving to use as additional garnish.
- When the pasta is ready, remove a cup of water from the pot (you may need it to thin the sauce) and drain the pasta in a colander or strainer. Return the drained pasta to the cooking pot, and (keeping it off the heat) add the sauce. Stir to mix with the pasta; if it’s too thick for your liking, add a bit of the pasta cooking water.
- Serve with a garnish of breadcrumbs. I like to add an additional garnish of some leafy green fennel fronds, and a sardine or two per serving.
- To make bread crumbs, start with a couple slices of good quality bread (preferably a day old) and remove crust. Cut into dice of about ½ inch, place in food processor or blender, and reduce to crumbs. Spread on baking sheet. Place sheet in oven and set temperature at 250 degrees F (you can preheat the oven if you like, but precision isn’t necessary here). Set the timer for 14 minutes. At the 14-minute mark, check the consistency of the bread crumbs; if you want them a bit more toasted, put them back in the oven until done; otherwise, remove. Add a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil, salt to taste, and toss. Set aside until ready to use.
- I prefer to make crumbs from homemade bread. If you don’t have a favorite recipe, you might try our No-Knead Homemade Bread.
- If you want to add pine nuts (or walnuts) to this recipe, add ½ cup or so in Step 7, along with the raisins.
- If you want to add anchovies, add a can (2 ounces) to the fennel and onions at the beginning of Step 7, before you add the other ingredients. Sauté for a minute or two until the anchovies dissolve into the fennel and onion mixture, then add the other ingredients.
- I think olive oil-packed sardines work best in this dish. Try to find sardines that are sourced from the Pacific Ocean. They are abundant and are being fished in a sustainable fashion. By contrast, according to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, Atlantic sardines (which are caught in the Mediterranean) are being depleted.
- The Monterrey Bay Aquarium is located on Cannery Row — so called after a popular 1945 John Steinbeck novel of the same name that was set there. The sardine canneries that once thrived in the area went out of business several decades ago as a result of overfishing in the bay.
More About St. Joseph and His Feast Day
St. Joseph was the spouse of Mary, mother of Jesus. In the gospels, he is described as being a τέκτων (tekton) — a Koine Greek word that is often translated as carpenter. (Koine, the common form of written and spoken Greek used 2,000 years ago, was the language in which the New Testament was written). But “tekton” is actually a fairly general word that means something closer to “artisan” or even “builder.”
Whatever Joseph’s actual profession, most people think of him as a carpenter. And he is a particularly popular object of prayers among Catholic carpenters, craftspeople, engineers, and working people in general — as well as travelers, expectant mothers, and house sellers. That last one might seem surprising. But some people swear that if you bury a small statue of St. Joseph upside down in the front yard of a house that you have on the market, it will sell quickly and at a good price.
St. Joseph’s Feast day (La Festa di San Giuseppe in Italian) is celebrated by Catholics around the world, not just in Sicily. St. Joseph is also the patron saint of Poland and Canada. And his feast day is observed as Father’s Day in some Catholic countries (specifically Spain, Portugal, and Italy). In the US, St. Joseph’s day is popular in New Orleans (a major entry port for Sicilian immigrants in the 19th century), and celebrations are also common in other US cities with large Italian populations. Because the date falls right after St. Patrick’s Day — when wearing green is a popular custom — some people celebrate St. Joseph’s Day by wearing red (another tradition associated with the day). St. Joseph’s Day is also the date when swallows are traditionally believed to return to Mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California, after having flown south for the winter.
As noted above, because St. Joseph’s Day falls during Lent, it’s usually a meatless celebration. Many dishes are traditionally garnished with breadcrumbs (as is our Pasta with Sardines and Fennel) to represent carpenter’s sawdust. Zeppole are also popular menu items. These are deep-fried dough balls about 4 inches in diameter (essentially, they are doughnuts or fritters). They’re usually topped with powdered sugar, and are sometimes filled with a cannoli-type pastry cream or other sweet stuff (such as custard or jelly).
So now you know what you’ll be eating on March 19th: Pasta with Sardines and Fennel, followed by a delightful dessert of Zeppole (or at least a doughnut). And if your house is on the market, you might want to consider burying a statue of St. Joseph in the front yard. You never know.
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