During a trip to Sicily with my wife a few years ago, sampling the local cuisine was a major pleasure of the visit. Even though Alitalia airlines lost our luggage and we never retrieved it until we returned to the Rome airport (it was in the lost baggage room), that was a minor distraction during our week there as we traveled around the island starting in Palermo.
I still remember some of the amazing food we ate there. Snacks like Arancinette all’Olmo (small fried rice-balls), Panelle (chick-pea fritters) and Sfingiuni (a pizza-like bread made with anchovy fillets, chives and tuma, a soft cheese). Antipasta like Insalata all’Eoliana (a salad of tomatoes, onions, capers, garlic, anchovies, toasted bread) and Aubergine Caponata (a pungent dip made of eggplant, tomatoes, celery, green olives, capers, onion). And all kinds of sensational pastas – spaghetti con i piselli e mentuccia (pasta with green peas and mint), pennette con la buccia di limone (pasta with lemon zest), spaghetti al Nero di Seppia (pasta with cuttlefish ink sauce). Olive oil, of course, is an ingredient in almost everything.
We had wonderful meals all over the island with memorable eating experiences in Taormina, Caltagirone and Sciacca but the one dish that still stands out is Pasta con le Sarde which I experienced in Palermo. Combining a fresh, salty sea flavor with a mixture of sweet and tart ingredients, this pasta dish tantalized my taste buds and I wanted to figure out how to make it when I returned to Atlanta. We live close to the Dekalb Farmers Market so most of the ingredients are available though I had to improvise in a few areas; wild fennel and raisins from Sicily weren’t an option so I had to use domestic equivalents. And the sardines weren’t from the Tyrrhenian Sea but the Atlantic though the latter is still preferable to canned sardines.
So here are the ingredients I used and the steps I took (freely adapting from Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking) to reproduce what I first had in Palermo. Although it couldn’t match that first experience, the flavor was close enough to make me feel I was back in Sicily when I closed my eyes.
What you will need for Pasta con le Sarde alls Palermitana:
1 pound fresh sardines
2 cups of leafy fronds from a fennel bulb
1/2 cup unfiltered extra virgin olive oil from Italy
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 anchovy fillets, chopped (canned is fine)
1 fresh tomato, diced
1 cup pine nuts
1 cup black raisins (soaked in several changes of water, then chopped)
1 teaspoon saffron threads (dissolved in 1 cup water)
1 pound bucatini pasta
1 1/2 cup unflavored toasted bread crumbs
Fresh ground black pepper & sea salt
If you are at all squeamish about cleaning fish, then this recipe is not for you. Start with the sardine preparation. Take one and remove its head with your fingers, pulling it slowly but firmly away from the body. The head should snap off fairly easily and pull away the intestines with it (don’t be surprised to see an ample amount of sardine blood drain from the fish). Grab the center back fin and pull it toward the neck, tearing the flesh open in a line. Insert your thumbnail into the opening and run it down the length of the fish, gutting the body. Remove the spine from the fish, pulling it toward the tail fin which should tear off with the spine. The sardine should now be open and completely flat. Rinse the sardine under cold water, removing any stray bones or any remaining portion of the intestines. Lay the rinsed sardine on a slanted cutting board so it can drain. Repeat the process with the remaining fish.
Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pasta pot. Add a few pinches of salt and submerge the 2 cups of fennel fronds. Cook for ten minutes and remove with a slotted spoon. Turn off the heat but do not discard the water (you will cook the pasta in it later). Let the greens cool, gently squeeze the water out and finely chop up the fronds.
Chop up the onion and the anchovies. Add the olive oil to a large sauté pan. Turn up to medium heat and add the onion and the anchovies. Stir occasionally while mashing up the anchovies with a spoon. When the onion begins to turn translucent, add the chopped fennel and cook for about 6 minutes.
Push the cooked onion, anchovies and fennel to the sides of the sauté pan and add as many sardines as you can fit into the pan, flat down. Cook 4-5 seconds on each side and then push the sautéed sardines to the sides of the pan and repeat the process with the remaining sardines.
When all of the sardines have been sautéed, add in the pine nuts, the chopped raisins, the water with the dissolved saffron and the diced tomato. At the same time, bring the pasta water to a boil. Cook the sauce at medium heat until the water in the pan has evaporated completely. Salt and pepper to taste, turn off the heat and cover. By this point, the sardines and all of the ingredients will have cooked down into a hearty sauce.
Cook the bucatini in the boiling pasta water. When it is tender but still firm, drain the pasta and put in a warm serving bowl. Pour the sardine sauce over the bucatini and toss thoroughly. Add the toasted breadcrumbs and toss again and allow to settle a minute or two before serving.
Serve the pasta with a chilled Sicilian white wine (Recommended are 2010 Tasca d’Almerita Leone d’Almerita or 2010 Caravaglio Isola di Salina Malvasia Secca) and a crisp salad of Italian chicory, Belgian endive and baby spinach, served with a balsamic vinaigrette. For dessert, consider something light like hazelnut sorbet or zabaglione (a traditional Italian custard made with egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine) with fresh strawberries.