Still Life with Sardines, by Abad.
Recipe below: Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare
There used to be Sicilian restaurant called Siracusa in downtown Manhattan that closed about ten years ago, and I still think about its ricotta gelato and the escarole torta. They also made a traditional pasta con le sarde (a waiter once told me the chef talked to the fish). It was the only place in town I could get it, and there were times back then when I really needed it, as I still do now. It was put together with devotion, all the flavors—saffron, fennel, raisins, pine nuts—in place. The purveyors even managed to track down wild fennel. Some nights the dish was great, some good, others not so good. It all depended on the freshness of the sardines.
There are only a handful of eating places in New York now that advertise themselves as Sicilian. Cacio e Vino in the East Village is one. They make a great caponata served with panelle, the fried chickpea pancakes that are traditional to the island. I also love their pasta with cuttlefish ink, with its shiny, slick look. When a recent craving for pasta con le sarde hit me, I went back to this cozy place and ordered a bowl. In fact, I went back three times in two weeks to taste it. They know what they’re doing, even down to the scattering of breadcrumbs and the al dente bucatini. On my first try the sardines were quite fresh, and all the flavors came together in a sweet and savory way. I could taste the saffron, an expensive touch restaurants often leave out. Another time the same dish had a fishy, oily taste, probably the difference between just delivered and day-old (or two-day-old) sardines. That’s the fragility of these little fish.
Many food people will tell you that you can’t transport authenticity. I don’t find that to be true in New York. With the ingredients we have access to, and a dedicated, often native-born chef, I’ve had dishes that were almost identical in taste, and certainly in spirit, to ones I’d had in Italy. But I’ve found that New York’s sardines can make or break a dish. I see them all the time now in my markets, but they’re never as fresh as what I’ve had in Palermo. The oil-packed fish goes off quickly, so if you don’t catch its freshness fast, it’s not going to sing to you. It quickly turns to garbage. The sardines I see in my markets either come from Portugal or are brought down from Rhode Island (that’s what the fish sellers tell me, so I believe them). So these fish have already been on some journey by the time they reach the market, and it’s hard to say what class they traveled. It could have been coach, or even steerage. What I do now is call my fish shop and ask when the sardines will arrive (at Citarella it’s often Thursday). That way I can at least get them at their best.
When I have a need to cook up a batch of pasta con le sarde but my market says to wait for a better opportunity, I turn to Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare, where the sardines are left in the sea. It’s a real cucina povera dish and a good one. It has all the flavors of pasta con sarde, but with one big ingredient missing. Here’s my version of this traditional pasta. In the past I always made it with salt-packed anchovies, for a fresher feel, but now I prefer good quality oil-packed ones. Their flavor is deeper and muskier, a taste that I now feel blends better with all the exotic Spanish-Arab flavorings the dish has going.
Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare
(Serves 3 as a first course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
½ teaspoon sugar
¾ pound bucatini
1 large Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
1 medium fennel bulb, cut into small dice, plus its fronds, lightly chopped (find one with a lot of fronds, if you can)
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
12 good quality oil-packed anchovies, roughly chopped (I like Agostino Recco)
⅓ cup golden raisins, soaked in ⅓ cup dry vermouth
A big pinch of saffron, dried, ground, and soaked in about ¼ cup hot water
⅓ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
Coarsely ground black pepper
About 5 or 6 large dill sprigs, chopped
Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, add the breadcrumbs, and sauté until just turning golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Add salt and the sugar, and stir it in. Pour the crumbs into a small bowl, and set aside.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a good amount of salt, and drop in the bucatini.
Pour about 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and the fennel, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the fennel pollen and the garlic, and sauté a minute longer.
Add the chopped anchovies, stirring them around to warm through.
Add the raisins with their soaking liquid, the saffron water, and the pine nuts. Season with black pepper and a little salt.
When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water, and place it in a warmed pasta bowl.
Add the anchovy sauce along with about 2 tablespoons of fresh olive oil. Add the fennel fronds and dill. Grind in a bit more black pepper, and give it all a toss, adding enough cooking water to help form a light sauce that coats the strands of pasta lightly. Serve right away, with a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs on top of each serving.