Pasta con le sarde is a traditional Sicilian dish made with pasta – usually bucatini – olive oil, onion, sardines and anchovies. Other popular additions to add more flavor and texture to the dish often include wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins and saffron. When served, the dish can be finished with some grated lemon zest, or toasted breadcrumbs (pangrattato).
I’ve found that most authentic Italian recipes for ‘pasta with sardines’ call for ‘wild fennel’, or ‘finocchietto selvatico‘, which is a feathery, tall-growing wild herb with yellow flowers, rather than ‘Florence fennel’, or what’s usually simply referred to as ‘finocchio’, which are those cultivated bulbous plants we usually think of when we think of ‘fennel’.
Wild fennel is native to the Mediterranean region and I should be able to find it all over Greece, but I doubt I can find it growing ‘in the wild’ over here in the center of Athens, or at least none I would be able to safely consume.
While many Italian cooks will claim that wild fennel is really essential to the dish (and it probably is… I don’t know.), If you can’t find any, you can, of course, substitute the wild fennel for a bunch of fennel tops/fronds, should you be so lucky to find them intact on a fresh enough bulb.
I’m perhaps making it even worse for food-purist with my recipe here where I use both the bulb (caramelized to licorice-scented perfection) and just a few of the fresh fronds (or as many as there are on the bulb) sprinkled over the pasta, instead of wild fennel. I’ve also excluded saffron and toasted breadcrumbs from my recipe here, because I don’t think the dish really needs it* (No offence meant, of course). All I need is the taste of fresh sardines, lots of toasty pine nuts, and a little sweetness coming from raisins and that almost-pungent, caramelised fennel bulb.
*Honestly, I simply didn’t have any and while I don’t think the dish is really missing anything, if you’ve got some already-made toasted breadcrumbs leftover, from say, this recipe here, definitely use them for this dish!
Note: I’d strongly advise you to use fresh sardines for this dish, but should you really not be able to find fresh sardines, this recipe works with canned ones as well. When using canned sardines, omit the 60ml of oil in the recipe below and use the oil from (several) cans of sardines in its place.
Pasta with Sardines and Fennel / Pasta con le Sarde
- 30g raisins, or sultanas
- 100ml dry white wine, or water
- 500g small whole fresh sardines (or about 300g cleaned fillets)
- 1 fennel bulb (about 350g)
- 1 yellow onion
- 60ml olive oil
- 6 oil-packed salted anchovy-fillets from a tin
- 50g pine nuts
- 350g bucatini
- Zest of one lemon
- Salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
- Note: should you be able to find wild fennel, or a bunch of fennel fronds, you will need to substitute the fennel bulb in this recipe with about 150g wild fennel, or fronds. Blanche wild fennel in boiling water for a few minutes, then drain and finely chop and add in step 8.
Method*prep. time includes an estimate of the time it takes to clean whole, fresh sardines. -
- To prepare, soak 40g of raisins in 100ml dry white wine, or water. Optionally, you can lightly toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan over medium heat until they start to brown slightly before using them in this dish. Set raisins and toasted pine nuts aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
- If you have whole sardines, clean them by cutting off the heads behind the gills and fins and slicing open the belly. Slide your thumb, or knife between the two parts to scrape out the guts. With your fingers, or with help of a knife remove the spine and larger bones. Rinse under cold running water to remove the last blood and scraps. Keep cleaned sardines aside on a plate to use later.
- Chop vegetables: Remove the core from the fennel bulb and very finely slice it. If there are any green fronds, keep them aside to use later. Chop the onion as finely as you can.
- Caramelize the fennel: In a large frying pan over high heat, heat up 60ml of olive oil. When the pan is hot, add your thinly sliced fennel. Fry the fennel, stirring frequently, until it starts to brown. You want to aim for a darker brown around the edges to get that nice caramel-y flavor.
- When the fennel has browned turn the heat to medium. Add your very finely diced onion and salted anchovy fillets and continue sautéing until the onion starts to brown and the anchovies disintegrate.
- Add the filleted sardines to the pan and cook for about a minute, or two.
- Pour in the raisins + the wine (or water) they were soaked in and add the (lightly toasted) pine nuts as well. Continue cooking for 5 – 8 minutes on medium heat, depending on the size of your sardines, until the sardines are cooked and start to fall apart slightly.
- In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta and cook pasta according to instructions on the package. Drain pastabut reserve about 150ml of the cooking liquid.
- Taste the sardine-‘sauce’ and add salt and pepper to taste; be careful with the salt, though, because the sauce can already be a little salty from the anchovies.
- Add the drained pasta to the pan with the sardines and caramelized fennel. Grate some lemon zest over the pasta. Stir to combine well (add some of the reserved pasta cooking liquid if the pasta seems too dry).
- Sprinkle some chopped reserved fennel fronds over the pasta and sauce, if using. Serve immediately.