Pasta con le sarde

Frankpasta, primi piatti, Sicilia40 Comments

Pasta con le sarde

One of Sicily’s signature dishes, pasta con le sarde, or Pasta with Sardines, is also one of my personal favorites. I was lucky enough to enjoy it on its home turf a few years back, during a trip for a family wedding. Unfortunately, replicating this classic back here at home isn’t easy. Its eponymous star ingredient, fresh sardines, are hard to find Stateside, while another key ingredient, wild fennel (known in Italian as finocchietto) is basically impossible to find, unless you want to try foraging along the California coast.

But there is a cheater’s version of pasta con le sarde using canned sardines and cultivated fennel, both of which you can find in just about any supermarket in the land. Having experienced the original dish in Sicily, I can confirm that, while it might not quite capture the unique flavors of the original, this version comes pretty close. And in any event, it’s delicious in its own right.

For anyone who might be put off by the sardines, which have a reputation for having a strong “fishy” flavor, I’d give them another chance. In this recipe, the sardines are modulated perfectly by the fennel’s sweet anise, and scented with typically Sicilian flavorings—raisins, pine nuts and saffron—to form a kind of non-saucy pasta sauce which Italians call a condimento. It’s a unique flavor combination you won’t want to miss.

Ingredients

  • 500g (1 lb) bucatini
  • Salt

For the condimento:

  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 fennel bulbs, just the stems and fronds
  • 4-6 anchovy fillets
  • 3 or 4 small (4 oz/124g) cans of sardines packed in olive oil
  • A handful of raisins soaked in warm water
  • A handful of pine nuts
  • A few threads of saffron, soaked in warm water
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

For the topping (optional):

  • 100g (1 cup) breadcrumbs
  • Olive oil

Directions

Boil the fennel stems and fronds in large pot of well salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer the fennel out of the pot with a slotted spoon, drain in a colander and let cool. Then chop the fennel and set aside for later use. (NB: Do not discard the cooking water!)

While the fennel is cooking, sauté the breadcrumbs in olive oil over gentle heat, stirring so the breadcrumbs are all coated in the oil, until they turn a golden brown. Turn off the heat and set aside until needed.

In a large sauté pan or braiser, sauté the onions in olive oil until they are translucent. Add the anchovies and let them melt into the onions. Then mix in the chopped fennel and sauté for a minute or two. Then add the saffron with its liquid, along with the raisins and pine nuts. Simmer everything for a minute or two longer to let the flavors meld. Taste and season with salt if it needs it. Finally, add the sardines and give everything a gentle stir, letting the sardine fillets break up but not disintegrate. Lower the heat as far as it will go to keep this condimento warm.

Meanwhile, add the bucatini to the same pot where you had boiled the fennel. Cook until al dente.

When the pasta has cooked, transfer it to the pan with the condimento and toss everything together gently.

Serve, topped with a sprinkling of the breadcrumbs.

Pasta con le sarde

Notes

Most recipes for pasta con le sarde tell you to use the bulb of the fennel along with its fronds, rather than the stems. But actual finocchietto has no bulb, only thin stems and fronds, so you’re changing the texture quite a bit by using the bulb. And the flavor, too, as the bulb is very mild as compared with the intense anise flavor of finocchietto. Fennel stems, if you’ve ever tried them, have a stronger taste, so a combination of stems and fronds better mimics the taste and texture of the original. Plus, you can keep the bulb for other uses, whether raw in a salad or cooked, say in a gratin or sformato.

As for the sardines, do make sure they’re packed in olive oil. If you’re lucky enough to find fresh sardines at your local fishmonger, by all means go for them. You’ll need to clean them, of course, which means you’ll need more fresh sardines to account for the discarded heads, tails and bone, perhaps half again as much as the pasta by weight. Although sardines are a bit larger, the method is very much like cleaning fresh anchovies, illustrated in this post.

Variations

There are many, many variations. In their lovely book, La Cucina Siciliana di Sangivecchio, Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene tell us that “[t]he woman in every Sicilian house has her own way of preparing Bucatini on le Sarde, one of the island’s most famous and best appreciated pasta dishes. If two Sicilian women discuss their special version, each will insist ‘Mine is better’.”

The breadcrumb topping, for one thing, doesn’t figure in all recipes. In some recipes you set aside some or all of the sardines (fresh, of course) for frying in olive oil. You then top each portion of the finished dish with the sardines. (Wanda Tornabene says this is the “old fashioned Sicilian way” her grandmother made it.) In some recipes, you add some tomato purée or concentrate to the condimento, often just a spoonful or two for color.

A particularly common version of pasta con le sarde, typical of Palermo, is baked in the oven. For this version, you alternate layers of pasta and condimento in a baking dish. In some versions, you fry the sardines separately and layer them along with the pasta and condimento. The layered dish is topped with breadcrumbs and baked in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for 15-20 minutes, then left to rest before serving. This baked version is often served at room temperature, which makes it a very practical make-ahead dish. (It was this version, in fact, that I enjoyed in Sicily, during my visit there in 2019.)

While bucatini is the typical pasta for making this dish, you will find some recipes with other long pastas like spaghettoni or even short ones like ziti.

Origins

The story goes that pasta con le sarde was invented by the cook to the 9th century general Eufemio da Messina, while da Messina was on campaign in the area of Siracusa, a city on the eastern shore of Sicily. (Other sources place the action on the other end of the island, in the town of Mazara del Vallo, near Trapani on the western shore.) Faced with the challenge of feeding a hungry army under wartime conditions, the cook took what he could scavage from the sea (sardines) and the land (wild fennel) to dress pasta, making this, accordingly to some, the first ‘surf and turf’ dish of all time.

Pasta con le sarde

Sicilian Pasta with Sardines

Ingredients

  • 500g 1 lb bucatini
  • salt

For the condimento

  • 1 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 fennel bulbs just the stems and fronds
  • 4-6 anchovy fillets
  • 3 or 4 small (4 oz/124g) cans of sardines packed in olive oil 
  • A handful of raisins soaked in warm water
  • A handful of pine nuts
  • A few threads of saffron soaked in warm water
  • olive oil
  • salt

For topping (optional)

  • 100g 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • olive oil

Instructions

  • Boil the fennel stems and fronds in large pot of well salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer the fennel out of the pot with a slotted spoon, drain in a colander and let cool. Then chop the fennel and set aside for later use. (NB: Do not discard the cooking water!)
  • While the fennel is cooking, sauté the breadcrumbs in olive oil over gentle heat, stirring so the breadcrumbs are all coated in the oil, until they turn a golden brown. Turn off the heat and set aside until needed. 
  • In a large sauté pan or braiser, sauté the onions in olive oil until they are translucent. Add the anchovies and let them melt into the onions. Then mix in the chopped fennel and sauté for a minute or two. Then add the saffron with its liquid, along with the raisins and pine nuts. Simmer everything for a minute or two longer to let the flavors meld. Taste and season with salt if it needs it. Finally, add the sardines and give everything a gentle stir, letting the sardine fillets break up but not disintegrate. Lower the heat as far as it will go to keep this condimento warm. 
  • Meanwhile, add the bucatini to the same pot where you had boiled the fennel. Cook until al dente
  • When the pasta has cooked, transfer it to the pan with the condimento and toss everything together gently. 
  • Serve, topped with a sprinkling of the breadcrumbs. 

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40 Comments on “Pasta con le sarde”

  1. I must admit I have never tried this pasta before, quite embarrassing since I’ve been to Sicily numerous times. And back here at home, I guess it’s because I know it’s difficult to find fresh sardines in my area and forget about the finocchietto! But I’m quite intrigued by this ‘cheaters’ version as you call it and will have to give it a try. Thanks for sharing another amazing recipe Frank!

  2. Well first of all, I am super jealous that you just took a trip to Sicily! I trust that you had an amazing time with family…and I know the food was spectacular! Second – wild fennel. I had no idea that was a thing! I’ve only cooked with fennel on occasion, so this was an interesting post. Finally, the recipe itself. This sounds fantastic! Yet another example of where Italians have relied on simple, local ingredients to create an amazing recipe!

    1. So true, David! I love fennel by the way, although I mostly eat it raw, I do like it cooked, too. The funny thing is, we used to have wild fennel in our garden back in Italy, and I hardly ever took advantage! Only later did I learn about how it could be used in cookery…

  3. I had never thought to sub canned sardines! Also in my area, it’s impossible to find fresh sardines so I’ve never attempted pasta con le sarde. Definitely going to try with canned sardines!

    1. I hesitated for a long time, Marcellina, for the same reasons. But then I took the plunge.. and regretted not trying it sooner. Sure, it’s not quite the same. And I suppose if you’ve been used to the original with fresh sardines all your life you might be disappointed. But for me, it’s awfully good all the same. Definitely worth a try!

  4. I just realized that I’ve actually never tried pasta with sardines. With fennel, onions, pine nuts, and anchovy, that must be so hearty and delicious. I am intrigues with the use of raisins, too 🙂

    1. All those flavors are so typical of Sicily, Ben. It’s a great combination, if you ask me. Well worth you’re trying out!

  5. i tried p.con sarde this evening and followed th recipe most carefully and found it filling but not delicious.It is a pessant dish. Were I to cook this dish again I would recommend adding some pepper flakes and garlic to give it more pizazz!! BOZ from Germany

  6. How interesting. I know what you mean about canned sardines. In fact, every time I buy a can, I think twice. But I always wind up loving them! Anyway the combination of sardines and raisins seems interesting, but when you add the fennel, it becomes really interesting! What a cool recipe!

  7. We absolutely loved having this dish when we were in Sicily! I think we had it at least twice a week while we were there. But it was always made with fresh sardines and I was afraid to try it with the tinned version. This gives me great hope, Frank! I also love how you treat the fennel in the making of the dish. I will definitely be trying this very soon. As you know, we are big fans of sardines!

    1. Ha! You’re lucky to be living in a place where you can do that! Back in Rome, we had finocchietto growing wild in front of our house. Those were the days…

  8. Have made similar to this with fresh sardines . . . but these come from the Sydney Fish Market over 100 kms away with passing friends ! Would not have ‘dared’ make this with the tinned variety but shall surely try ! Really like your recipe and shall pass it on in your name . . . oh, I see my beloved fennel bulbs will reach to two dishes as usually the ‘meaty’ part is first in use . . .

  9. Frank, no sardines in the house. How about using a mix of regular anchovies (in the flat little container) and some white Anchovies, known as Bougerones….? I know it’s not Sardines, but?

    1. I’ve often seen fresh anchovies suggested as a substitute for fresh sardines in Italian language recipes. They do have a similar taste. So if the anchovies are fresh, I’d say go for it. But as I understand it, boquerones are usually packed in vinegar, which would really change the taste profile.

  10. I make this often as we all love it! I I don’t boil the fennel–I just slice it into thin pieces and sauté with the onions before adding the anchovies and sardines. The toasted bread crumbs on top are so good mixed in with the pasta

  11. This is definitely a dish I will enjoy. Every single ingredient ranks among my favourites. I am guessing this with will be our Sunday lunch. I made your Garbanzo bean and anchovy salad this week and it was amazing. I expect this to top that.

  12. Such a wonderful dish, and your rendition looks excellent. I’ve made this dish a couple of times (or to be more accurate, a version of it), although yours looks better. Really nice — thanks.

  13. Amazingly, I’ve never eaten that before – I must rectify it this week! You’ve reminded me of a tiny sardine bar in Barcelona (la Plata) that I need to go and photograph. They only sell five dishes; fried sardines, tomato salad, anchovies, sausages and pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil). I think you can order the lot and a carafe of wine for about €10. The first time I went there I think it cost 300 pesetas – about €1.50!

  14. What an interesting combination of flavours, I would have never thought of the combination of raisins and sardines, but I’m dying yo try it. We can get fresh sardines here but I think I’ll try it with the canned version first. Thanks Frank!

    1. Hope you like it, Eva! And you’re lucky to have a convenient source for fresh sardines. I see them on occasion but it’s not a regular thing. 😉

  15. Ah, lovely. A perfect example of a peasant dish – and one that requires foraging! I don’t think I can find either ingredient in Oklahoma! Fortunately I do love my jarred sardines in oil. Great product. And I always enjoy the pine nut and raisin combo. Brilliant.

    1. Thanks so much! Just to be clear, when you say you can’t find either ingredient, I assume you can find the substitutes, right, including fennel? Wouldn’t be quite the same without the fennel to balance out the flavors… though still tasty, no doubt!

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