Pasta Con Le Sarde
A classic pasta dish with sweet and deeply savoury flavours that reflect the
influence of the Arabs who ruled Sicily more than a thousand years ago.
The dish is normally made with wild fennel greens, gathered by the roadside,
but fennel bulb, fronds, seeds and pollen (if you have it) make a reasonable
The dish is topped with crisp fennel breadcrumbs, known in Sicily as
'poor man's Parmesan' , and used instead of grated cheese. The crumbs
soak up the oily juices and add contrasting crunch to the silky pasta.
dry white wine 125ml
raisins or golden sultanas 50g
saffron three good pinches
fennel bulb with fronds 1 medium, weighing about 350g
onion 1 large, weighing about 225g
whole sardines 5-6 large (defrosted if frozen)
extra-virgin olive oil 3 tbsp, plus extra for serving
fennel pollen (optional) ½ tsp
anchovy fillets 4, oil-packed
pine nuts 25g, toasted
bucatini or tagliatelle 350g
sea salt 1 heaped tbsp, plus extra for seasoning
freshly ground black pepper
fennel breadcrumbs (see below)
lemon segments to garnish
1) Gently heat the wine in a small saucepan. Add the raisins and saffron, and set aside.
2) Trim the fronds from the fennel bulb. Finely chop half the fronds, and leave the rest whole. Set aside. Remove the root and any blemished layers.
Slice the bulb lengthways into quarters and remove the core. Dice the flesh, and set aside.
3) Slice the onion in half lengthways. Lay each half flat and slice into small dice.
4) Next prepare the sardines (or ask your fishmonger to fillet them). Scrape away the scales under running water. Cut off the head, then slice the belly open and remove the guts. Rinse under running water. With the cut side upwards, gently open out the body like a book. Carefully pull out the spine. Cut off the fins and any bony bits. Pat dry, then cut each fish into quarters and set aside.
5) Bring a very large pot of water to the boil – about 3½ litres – for the pasta.
6) Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a wide high-sided pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the chopped fennel, the onion and the fennel pollen if you are using it. Gently fry, stirring, for about 8 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft but not browned.
7) Add the anchovy fillets and stir for 1 minute until dissolved.
8) Add the raisins, saffron and wine. Cook for 1–2 minutes until the wine has reduced a little.
9) Add the sardines, pine nuts and chopped fennel fronds. Gently fry for about 2 minutes, stirring carefully now and again (try not to break up the sardines) or until the sardines are just cooked through. Remove the pan from the heat.
10) Tip the pasta in the boiling water, adding the heaped tablespoon of sea salt. Bring back to the boil and cook for 8–10 minutes until al dente – tender but with some bite. Drain in a colander set over a large bowl. Reserve about 300ml of the cooking water.
11) Add the pasta to the sardine mixture, along with a small ladleful of the reserved pasta water. Stir and gently toss over medium-high heat, until the pasta is mixed with the sauce. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
12) Tip into a warm serving dish. Top with a generous handful of fennel crumbs. Garnish with the reserved fennel fronds, another slug of olive oil, and a few lemon segments. Serve right away.
For the fennel breadcrumbs
Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add 1 tablespoon of crushed fennel seeds and cook until fragrant – about 20 seconds.
Add 75g coarse stale breadcrumbs and fry for 3–4 minutes, tossing until dark golden and crisp.
Remove from the heat. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.