Recipe: Whole Grain Spaghetti with Anchovies, Onions, and White Wine
You know how certain dishes can seem so incredibly intriguing even before you taste them? That was definitely the case for me with this Venetian pasta. Its sauce is made almost exclusively from softened onions and anchovies (or sometimes sardines—salt-packed, not fresh—instead of anchovies). The idea of slow-cooking onions with anchovies just seemed so right. I could imagine the aroma steaming from the pan. I could picture the melting texture of this concoction clinging to the long skinny pasta as I gave it a toss. The dish came out just as I imagined it would. Not so true for all fantasies.
In the Venice region, this absolutely delicious sauce is usually served with buckwheat or whole wheat bigoli, a long pasta with a hollow down the middle, something like a thickish bucatini. It’s such a traditional dish it’s referred to simply as “bigoli in salsa.” To me it is one of the best cold-weather pastas, effortless but with big rewards. Isn’t that what we all ideally want?
I added bay leaf and thyme to achieve a fuller flavor. Some recipes I consulted called for white wine, some didn’t, but if I can include wine I do, so in it went. It also seemed like a good idea to use Vidalia onions, since they release so much sweetness, a good play against the saltiness of the anchovies. And choose salt-packed anchovies if possible, for the best flavor.
Bigoli pasta is not that easy to find around here, and it’s extremely hard to make at home. A good producer is the Venetian company Borella. I can sometimes find it at Todaro Brothers in Manhattan, but I’ve also seen it for sale on Amazon. I couldn’t manage to procure a bag of bigoli this week, so I used a whole-grain spaghetti by Racconto, a mix of whole wheat, buckwheat, and farro. It was very good, although the texture is different. Bigoli is thicker and a bit softer. But what you definitely want here is a dark, wheaty-tasting long pasta to wrap around the clinging, deeply flavored sauce.
And here’s a little trip to Venice via photos and musica:
Whole Grain Spaghetti with Anchovies, Onions, and White Wine
(Serves 5 as a first course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 large sweet onions, such as Vidalia
10 salt packed anchovies, filleted, soaked in water to remove excess salt, and chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup dry white wine
6 large sprigs of thyme, the leaves chopped
1 pound buckwheat or whole grain bigoli or spaghetti
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
In a large skillet, heat ⅓ cup of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onions, the anchovies, and the bay leaf. Let sauté until the onions start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add a bit of black pepper and the white wine, and let the wine reduce by half. Now pour in about ½ cup of warm water, cover the skillet, turn the heat down a bit, and simmer until the onions are very soft and the sauce looks somewhat creamy, about 30 minutes.
When the sauce is just about ready, set up a pot of pasta cooking water, add a generous amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the spaghetti or bigoli.
Add the thyme to the sauce, and taste for seasoning, adding a little salt if needed.
When the spaghetti or bigoli is al dente, drain it and tip it into a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the sauce, a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, a few more grindings of black pepper, and the parsley. Give it all a good toss. Serve hot.