Recipe: My Pasta Colle Sarde
One of the Southern Italian dishes that most intrigue people, my readers for sure, is pasta colle sarde (pasta with sardines), that exotic, elegant dish from Sicily. The first time I tasted it was in Palermo, and all I can say is its flavor had no reference point for me. Nothing I recalled eating had tasted remotely like it. I fell in love. I was hooked.
When made in the classic manner, pasta colle sarde is a blend of cucina povera ingredients like wild fennel and the humble sardine, nice enough, but also raisins, pine nuts, and saffron, some of Sicily’s top-shelf ingredients. It is a dish of genius, a blending of Sicily’s poor and noble cooking, punctuated with Arab touches. Almost every time I’ve eaten it, in Sicily or here, it’s been made with bucatini. That is the classic pasta for it. Fresh sardines, not canned ones, are a given. They are what gives the sauce its distinct, vibrant taste. No garlic or tomatoes have ever been present in the classic versions I’ve sampled. And the pasta is always topped with toasted breadcrumbs. What a work of art.
I knew I had to make this pasta at home in New York, but when I set out on my first try, roadblocks kept popping up. There was no wild fennel in Manhattan. On the West Coast it grows freely along highways. I can now find it intermittently at the Greenmarket, but not reliably. There were no fresh sardines back then on my first attempt, which was about 15 years ago, I’d say. I tried using canned. That was a grave mistake. It made the dish taste fishy and oily and, well, just like canned sardines. No vibrancy there. A few years later I started seeing sardines imported from Portugal in my markets, so things changed. I could begin to capture the taste. Much better. Good even.
The use of wild fennel is something I’ve had a hard time getting comfortable with anyway. I’ve been served versions of pasta colle sarde in Sicily that seemed to incorporate cups and cups of boiled-down wild fennel, making the dish look like a soggy mass of lawn clippings. I don’t get that, but I’ve been served it that way on enough occasions that I guess it’s somewhat standard. When I find the wild stuff, I use much less, and that works for me. The version I offer for you here doesn’t use the wild. I know purists will say not to even attempt the dish without it, but I’ve found that if I blend ground fennel seeds, bulb fennel fronds, and a tiny, tiny amount of dill, I’ll get a flavor that feels right to me. The dill, although an herb almost unknown in Southern Italy, adds that slight bitterness you find in wild but not bulb fennel fronds.
Another challenge with this dish is that since it is made with very little real liquid and finished with breadcrumbs, it can wind up really dry. But don’t worry. I’m here with a solution to that and a few other problems you could run into when trying it yourself.
Most important, when you see really fresh sardines in your market, buy them, change course, and just know that tonight, whatever you had planned, you are instead making pasta colle sarde.
Here’s how I do it.
First, a word about how to prep the sardines for this dish. You can always ask your fish seller to do it for you, but I swear it’s surprisingly easy to do yourself. First, open the sardine up on the underside with a small knife and pull out its insides with your fingers. Cut off its head. Rinse the sardine under cool water while rubbing away all its scales (they slip off easily). Next, for this dish, you need to remove the backbone. To do so lay the fish open, skin side down, and flatten it with your fingers. You’ll be able to feel the backbone jutting out. Lift it out at the head end with your fingers. Most of the tiny side bones should come up with it (but it’s no big deal if a few remain; they’re tiny and full of calcium). Now pull the entire backbone up and toward the tail end. Snap it off at the tail. Separate the sardine with a small knife, along the backbone, into two fillets.
My Pasta Colle Sarde
(Serves 4 as a main course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
About ¾ cup homemade dry breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
½ teaspoon sugar
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
1 large spring onion, cut into small dice
4 anchovy fillets, minced
A small palm full of fennel seeds, ground to a powder
12 to 15 sardines (about 2 pounds), boned and filleted (see my advice above)
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup raisins soaked in ½ cup dry Marsala
About 15 saffron threads, dried if moist and then ground to a powder and put in ½ cup warm chicken broth (or a very light fish broth)
1 pound bucatini
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
About ½ cup well-chopped bulb fennel fronds
6 large dill sprigs, chopped
In a medium skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the breadcrumbs, and sauté them, stirring them around, until they’re crisp and just turning golden, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat. Add a little salt, the sugar, and the nutmeg. Pour it all into a little bowl, and set aside.
Bring a large pot of pasta cooking water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onion, and let it soften for a minute. Add the anchovies, the ground fennel seeds, and all but about 6 of the sardine fillets. Sauté all these ingredients together while mashing up the sardines, until everything is soft and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Season with a little salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Add the raisins with their Marsala soaking liquid and the saffron-flavored chicken broth.
Drop the bucatini into the pot of boiling water.
Turn the heat under the sardine sauce down a bit, and let it simmer for about 2 or 3 minutes. Then turn off the heat.
In a small skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Season the reserved sardine fillets in a little salt, and then dredge them in flour, shaking off any excess. When the oil is hot, add the fillets, and very quickly sauté them on one side. Give them a flip, and quickly sauté their other side. Take them from the skillet.
When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water, and put the bucatini in a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the sardine sauce, the pine nuts, the fennel fronds, and the dill. Add 1/4 cup of fresh olive oil and a splash of the pasta cooking water. Give it all a good toss. Check for seasoning, and add more salt or black pepper if needed. Top with the sautéed sardine fillets and a sprinkling of the breadcrumbs. Serve right away, passing the remaining breadcrumbs at the table.