Sardines are easily my favorite fish, and I’ve yet to find a pasta dish using sardines that comes close to this Sicilian classic. The smell of the fennel and the sardines cooking, simmering together along with tomatoes and raisins, is hypnotic. Because it demands fresh sardines, this dish should not be premeditated, but rather the natural result of happening upon glistening, gorgeous, plump fish at the market, so perfect and shiny that you blush and feel compelled to remark on their beauty.
When they look like that, this is what you do.
- 4 fillets salt or oil-packed anchovies
- 2 to 3 slices day-old bread, anything except whole-wheat or brioche
- 1/2 cup fennel fronds, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/4 cup Pernod or passito di zibibbo (optional)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1/4 cup olive oil (the best you can afford)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 large ripe tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded and diced
- 2 branches wild fennel or 1 teaspoon of fennel pollen or 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
- 10 fillets fresh sardines
- 1 pound dried pasta, preferably bucatini, linguine or spaghetti
- If you’re using salt-packed or oil-poached anchovies, rinse them, then soak them for 20 to 30 minutes, changing the water once halfway through. Drain them, remove and discard their backbones, and set the anchovies aside.
- Toast the bread in a toaster or a preheated 350°F oven until it’s golden brown. When they have cooled a bit, put the toasted slices in a food processor and pulse to make fine crumbs. You’ll need 3/4 cup.
- Add half of the fennel fronds and all of the parsley to the crumbs and pulse a few times to combine them well. Set aside.
- Soak the raisins in the Pernod for 30 minutes to 1 hour (or warm water if youprefer to not use Pernod) in a small bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside in a warm spot.
- On a cutting board, chop the anchovy fillets with the minced garlic, then take the flat part of a chef’s knife and smear the ingredients into the board, scraping across the board as you smear. Scoop up the paste with the knife, form it into a blob, and repeat the smearing and scraping until you have a smooth paste.
- Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the pine nuts to the dry pan and toast, tossing often (or else they’ll burn!), just until they begin to release their aroma and color slightly, about 3 minutes. Spill them onto a plate to cool. Once they’ve cooled, give them a coarse chop.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it until it tastes like the ocean.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a straight-sided sauté pan over medium heat.
Add the anchovy-garlic paste and cook, stirring often, until you smell the garlic, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste, stirring to combine and coat the other ingredients, then add the diced tomato, remaining fennel fronds, and 1/4 cup water. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, to blend the flavors and thicken the sauce slightly, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the wild fennel or fennel pollen and the sardine fillets. Use a fork to roughly mash the fillets into the sauce, leaving the pieces in chunks.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water for 1 minute less than the package instructs. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Drain the raisins (sip on the infused Pernod if you are feeling frisky), give them a coarse chop, and add them to the pasta along with the pine nuts. Toss it all together.
Divide the pasta among four big bowls. Sprinkle each with the herbed breadcrumbs and eat now.
More recipes from Zakary Pelaccio at Food Republic:
And don't forget to check out his column, Alimentary Canal.