My daughter Nicola and I were talking about Sicily last night. A friend of hers is moving there and Nicola plans to visit next Spring. It got us talking about our own wonderful trip to Sicily 11 years ago and so, after supper, I suggested we watch my DVD of Sicily Unpacked – one of my all-time favourite TV series which was shown last year. One thing leads to another … as I watched Giorgio Locatelli makes a Pasta con le Sarde for him and Andrew Graham-Dixon to share, I remembered the book on Sicilian cooking my friends Rona and David had given me for my recent birthday (along with some Sicilian olives and dried peperoncini they’d bought on their recent holiday in Sicily). There is a a photo of Pasta con le Sarde on the front cover.
Thus I was inspired to cook the dish for supper tonight and I took myself along to the local fishmonger this morning where I bought fresh sardines, butterflied and de-boned. What I love about Sicilian cooking – and this dish perfectly sums up what makes it different from the cooking of mainland Italy – is the Arabic influence. You might find fresh sardines cooked in any part of Italy but it is the addition of sultanas (or raisins), pine nuts and saffron that gives Pasta con le Sarde that exotic richness that is so much part of Sicilian cuisine. Once I got started on getting my ingredients together to cook, I remembered that I also had Giorgio Locatelli’s book, Made in Sicily, and decided to check his recipe out. I ended up doing a combination of the two books. I hope it remains authentic – I think it does. But I shall have to check with Fabio – my Italian teacher – who comes from Palermo! One supposedly ‘essential’ ingredient is wild fennel but there wasn’t much chance of finding that in Twickenham today. Giorgio suggests using fennel seeds instead but the other book uses a fennel bulb – and I did that. Giorgio also adds ‘strattu – a sun-dried tomato paste – and so I added some too. The first thing to do is prepare the fennel. (I was cooking for just myself and adjusted ingredients accordingly, but you could probably stretch the sauce to two servings.)
Keep the fronds to chop and add to the sauce. Cut 1/2 small fennel bulb into large pieces and boil in plenty of salted water for just a couple of minutes, then remove but keep the water. One important part of cooking Pasta con le Sarde is cooking the pasta in the fennel water. Now finely chop a small onion and add to a large pan with some olive oil. Fry gently until softening and then add 2 chopped anchovy in oil fillets. Anchovies are used a lot in Italian pasta dishes to bring depth but surprisingly, given their strong flavour, they don’t make the sauce fishy (although in this case, the sardines will!). Break the anchovies down with a spoon; they dissolve into the sauce. Add a good glug of white wine or dry vermouth and let it bubble and thicken. Then add a tablespoon sun-dried (or ordinary) tomato paste. At this point you may want to add a little of the fennel water to loosen the sauce. Add the sardine fillets (I’d bought 4 small sardines), 1 tablespoon sultanas or raisins, 1 tablespoon pine nuts, a good pinch of saffron and the fennel fronds and cooked bulb, finely chopped. Stir. Taste and season (remember the anchovies will be quite salty.)
Then let bubble away for about 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked and the sauce thickening. Meanwhile cook the pasta in the fennel water. Traditionally Bucatini – hollow spaghetti – is used in the dish but I used linguine. Also brown some fresh breadcrumbs in a little olive oil. Make sure they don’t burn.
When the sauce is ready and the pasta cooked, combine them in the pan, adding a little more of the fennel/pasta water if necessary.
Then transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top. I served with a simple green salad on the side. For those who think grated Parmesan goes with every pasta dish – absolutely do not add cheese to this dish. (In fact, in general, don’t add cheese to a fish pasta dish.)
It was a gorgeous dish. I love sardines, but I’d never had sardines cooked in this way before with all the richness of spices and nuts and sultanas. You get a kind of sweet and sour effect but of the most sophisticated kind. I’m going to have to look through these books again and cook more Sicilian recipes.