Ten days in Palermo with other food lovers and a kitchen! I stayed with my cousins for ten rainy days, which meant staying inside and lots of cooking. I have three generations of cousins there, and all are as fanatic about food as I am. We spent the rainy days in the kitchen as they excitedly shared recipes with me. Many debates family battles were waged over the stove and at the dining table about the correct way of making certain Sicilian dishes.
Pasta con le sarde (Pasta with sardines) is one of those dishes that brought about a great debate. You can find this dish all over Sicily, but in Palermo toasted breadcrumbs finish it. To make it truly Palermitano, they told me I MUST use the breadcrumbs. Sicily has been conquered almost as many times as Berlusconi has made one of his famous verbal blunders, and the pine nuts and sultanas add flavors from its Middle Eastern conquerors. Wild fennel is native to Sicily. (It looks more like a dark green celery than the bulb we're used to seeing, and the licorice flavor is subtle yet intense.) I liked the version I had with tomatoes and have added a little bit of the the "new world" to the recipe below.
Palermo is a city set between mountains and the sea, with arabic influences still evident in the buildings and at the local street markets. Pasta con le Sarde brings together flavors of land and sea, native and Arabic; it is Palermo on a plate.
Pasta con Le Sarde (Pasta with Sardines)
(adapted from La Cucina Siciliana di Mare by Alba Allotta)
1 1/2 pounds fresh sardines
1 bulb of fennel (or 1 pound wild fennel, if you can find it)
About 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 anchovies in oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
1/4 cup sultanas
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 teaspon saffron threads
1 pound of bucatini (hollow spaghetti) or spaghetti
Optional: 2/3 cup breadcrumbs toasted in 3-4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Cut off the heads of the sardines, bone, rinse, then roughly chop them.
Clean the fennel and remove the hard outer parts. Reserve a few fronds for decoration. Boil the fennel in salted water until it is fork tender. Remove it from the water, retaining the water for the pasta. Finely dice the fennel.
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the onions and sweat them until they are translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the anchovies, letting them dissolve into the onion mixture. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the sultanas and sardines, and stir together. Add the wine and cook on high heat until the alcohol has evaporated. Lower the heat to simmer and cook for about 20 minutes. Add the pine nuts for the last 5 minutes of cooking.
Meanwhile add the saffron to the fennel water, and cook the pasta in the boiling saffron and fennel water until it is al dente.
Add the pasta to the sauce, mix together and let the flavors meld for 5 minutes. (If you are using the toasted breadcrumbs, sprinkle them over the top and put under a broiler for 3-5 minutes, until lightly browned.) Top with the reserved fennel fronds and serve. Buon Appetito!