Breadcrumbs are called Pangrattato (grated bread) in Italian.
Mollica is the soft part of the bread with crusts removed but in the culinary world both pangrattato and mollica have acquired new significances and have been enhanced. Both refer to breadcrumbs lightly toasted in in olive oil, herbs and seasonings and variations include anything from garlic, red pepper flakes, pine nuts, anchovies, lemon zest , cinnamon or nutmeg, salt and a little sugar.
Mollica or pangrattato adds texture, fragrance and complex flavours and is usually used as a stuffing or topping, especially for pasta in Calabria, Puglia and Sicily. For example, Pasta con le Sarde and Sarde a Beccafico are two Sicilian recipes that use enhanced breadcrumbs:
When I make pangrattato I store left overs in a jar in my fridge and use it to enhance other dishes: this time I used it to stuff fennel. For moisture and extra flavour I added a little ricotta and a little grated cheese – pecorino or parmigiano.
Cut the stems off the fennel and remove the toughest and usually damaged outer leaves Cut the fennel into quarters.
Cook the fennel in salted water, bay leaves salt and lemon juice for about 10 minutes until it is slightly softened. Remove it from the liquid and cool.
Make the filling: Work the ricotta in a bowl with a fork, mix in the pangrattato and grated cheese.
Prise open the leaves of the fennel and stuff with the pangrattato stuffing.
Place the quarters into a baking bowl that allows them to stay compact and upright (like when you are cooking stuffed artichokes).
Drizzle olive oil on top (or a little butter) and bake at 180 – 190°C for about 15 minutes
Italy is a Catholic country and on Good Friday most Italians eat fish. Pasta con le Sarde is made with bucatini (thick long tubes of pasta) and the main ingredients are sardines (buy fillets for ease), wild fennel (or fennel bulbs) pine nuts, saffron and topped by fried breadcrumbs.
as you can see I have made this dish at other times.
Muslim Arabs took control of North Africa from the Byzantines and Berbers and began their second conquest of Sicily in 827 from Mazara, the closest point to the African coast and by 902 they well and truly conquered Sicily. The Muslims, were known as Moors by the Christians and by the time of the Crusades, Muslims were also referred to as Saracens.
The Muslim Arabs, via North Africa ruled Sicily till 1061 A.D.
This recipe can only be Sicilian and is particularly common in Palermo.
The origins of pasta chi sardi (Sicilian) are said to be Arabic. When a band Arab troops first landed in Sicily via North Africa, the Arab cook was instructed to prepare food for the troops. The cook instructed the troops to forage for food. He made do with what they presented – plentiful was the wild fennel and the fish (sardines). To these he added exotic ingredients and flavours of Arabs and North Africans – the saffron, dried fruit and the nuts and so Pasta con le Sarde was born.
At this time of year, just before Easter, many readers look at my blog searching for Easter food ideas. The baked version is fancy enough to present on Easter Sunday – if you are that way inclined.
Pasta con le Sarde can be eaten hot or cold and it can be baked…..made into a tummàla (Sicilian word from the Arabic) – Italian timballo and French timbale – a dish of finely minced meat or fish cooked with other ingredients and encased in rice, pasta or pastry. The dry breadcrumbs are used to line and cover the contents in the baking pan, the long bucatini can be coiled around the pan and the sardine sauce becomes the filling.
The recipe for Pasta con le Sarde is from my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking. This is a slightly modified version of the recipe.
I found very little wild fennel this time of year so I used fennel bulbs – there were a few available at the Queen Victoria Market. Because I only found a very small quantity of wild fennel I added some ground fennel seeds and a splash of Pernod to enhance the fennel taste.
If you can get wild fennel, place it into some cold, salted water (enough to cook the pasta) and boil it for 10-15 minutes (it can be left in the water for longer). The green tinged, fennel-flavoured water is used to cook the pasta — it will flavour and colour the pasta. Reserve some of the tender shoots of wild fennel raw to use in the cooking of the sauce.
Drain the cooked fennel and keep the fennel-flavoured water to cook the pasta. Some of the cooked fennel can be added to the pasta sauce.
The recipe using bulb Fennel
fennel a large bulb of fennel with the green fronds cut finely, a teaspoon of ground fennel seeds or a dash of Pernod
extra virgin olive oil, about ½ cup
onions, 1, finely sliced
anchovies, 4, cut finely
pine nuts, ¾ cup
almonds, ¾ cup, toasted
currants, ¾ cup, or seedless raisins or sultanas soaked in a little water beforehand
saffron, ½ – 1 small teaspoon soaked in a little water beforehand
salt and freshly ground black pepper or chili flakes to taste
coarse breadcrumbs, 100 grams made with day old, quality bread (sourdough/pasta dura) lightly fried in some oil. I added pine nuts (pine- nuts-overkill), grated lemon peel, a little cinnamon and sugar to my breadcrumbs.
Slice the fennel into thin slices and cut fronds finely.
Cut about two thirds of the sardine fillets into thick pieces. Reserve whole fillets to go on top and provide visual impact.
Heat oil in shallow wide pan.
Sauté the onions over medium heat until golden. Add the fennel and cook till slightly softened.
Add pine nuts, currants (drained) and almonds. Toss gently until heated.
Add the sliced sardines, salt and pepper or chili. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, stirring gently. Add ground fennel seeds or a splash of Pernod to enhance the fennel taste – I did this because I only found a very small quantity of wild fennel.
Add the anchovies (try to remove any bones if there are any) and as they cook, crush them with back of spoon to dissolve into a paste.
Add saffron (and the soaking water) and continue to stir and cook gently.
Boil bucatini in the fennel water (if you have it) until al dente.
Fry the whole fillets of sardines in a separate frying pan, keeping them intact. Remove them from the pan and put aside.
Drain the pasta.
Mix the pasta with the sauce, sprinkle with some of the breadcrumbs and top with the sardine fillets.
The photos are of left over pasta that I made into a timballo. It was only for my household, nothing fancy and was a way of using leftovers.
Oil a baking tray or an ovenproof dish (traditionally a round shape is used) and sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs to prevent sticking.
Place a layer of the dressed pasta on the breadcrumbs – I coiled the bucatini around the baking pan, then added the sauce (solids- sardines, nuts etc) and placed more coiled bucatini on top.
if you want a deeper crust you will need greater quantities of breadcrumbs.
Cover with more breadcrumbs, sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil, cover with foil and bake in preheated 200°C for approximately 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes. When the dish is baked, the breadcrumbs form a crust.
I have relatives who live in Sicily. My cousins who are still living have sons and daughters who are in their 40’s and 60’s. These younger cousins (even if they are in their 40’s and 60’s) use the internet and read the recipes that I publish on my blog. Some of them sometimes contact me through Facebook and sometimes they suggest variations to particular recipes. I very much appreciate this.
Below are two comments made recently about cooking pasta in the same water that the leafy, winter, green vegetable (called Cime di Rape or Broccoli Rape) have been cooked in. on this occasion Valentina and Stefania contacted me.
Valentina lives in Augusta and is from my mother’s side of the family. Stefania, from my father’s side of the family lives in Ragusa. These young women have never met, but they now know each other through the recipes on my blog.
Here are the variations they have suggested:
Marisa ti do la mia ricetta. Si fanno bollire le cimette ben pulite e si scolano, nell’acqua di cottura si fa cuocere la pasta (di solito orecchiette), nel frattempo si fa rosolare in olio extra vergine d’oliva un paio d ‘acciughe dissalate e le cimette e si fanno saltare in padella x qualche minuto …poi si unisce la pasta et voile’ la pasta è fatta!
Boil the Cime di Rape in the same water that you will cook the pasta (usually orecchiette).
Add the cleaned vegetables to salted boiling water, cook and drain them. Return the vegetable water to the saucepan and use it to cook the pasta.
While the pasta is cooking and the vegetables are draining, heat some extra virgin olive oil in a frypan (large enough to hold the vegetables and the pasta).
Add a couple of finely chopped anchovies, then the green vegetables and sauté them for a few minutes. Add the drained pasta and the pasta is ready.
Oltre alle acciughe (una ogni due persone, se sono grandi) aggiungi spicchi di aglio , peperoncino rosso. Salta la pasta e se vuoi aggiungi pan grattato.
As well as the anchovies (one between two people if they are big ones), add cloves of garlic and red chillies to the hot oil. Add the green vegetables and the cooked pasta (and sauté them for a few minutes to mix the flavours).
Serve the pasta with fried breadcrumbs (that have been toasted in a frypan in a little extra virgin olive oil).
Both Valentina and Stefania cook the pasta in the same water that the vegetables have been cooked in. The same is done when cooking pasta with kohlrabi or cauliflower or broccoli and although I am familiar with this traditional Sicilian method, I prefer to sauté my vegetables raw rather than boiling them (to preserve vitamins and crunch).
Pasta con the sarde or Pasta con la mollica are the only two recipes where I always cook the wild fennel in the water that will be re-used to cook the pasta. It flavours the pasta and also tints it a shade of green.
Both of these pasta dishes are also presented with fried breadcrumbs.
I found this bunch of fennel at one of my favourite stalls in the Queen Victoria market this week. Apart from many other vegetables, I always buy my cime di rape, radicchio, chicory, kale, broadbeans, coloured cauli, violet eggplants – name any of the out of the norm vegetables and this is where I go: to Gus and Carmel’s. I even bought some milkweed this morning. This is where I also buy my vlita – another weed.
At the end of the fennel season (and it is well and truly this in Victoria, Australia) the fennel plant (called Florentine fennel) produces some flat bulbs, which never mature.
My friend Libby who grows fennel in her wonderful garden in the Adelaide Hills first alerted me to these flat bulbs last year – at the time we thought that this would be very suitable to use with pasta con le sarde which includes wild fennel as one of the ingredients. After speaking to her I saw some bunches of these small flat bulbs for sale at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market. And here they were again for sale today. I spoke to the vendor (Gus) who said that rather than wasting them he thought that he could try to sell bunches of them. This fennel may become very marketable – good on you Gus.
Gus is Calabrese. He knows that I like to use this type of fennel for my Sicilian pasta con le sarde, but he told me how he uses the fennel to make a pasta sauce and he uses anchovies.
He slices the whole plant finely (the green fronds and non-developed bulbs) and cooks it all in some boiling water with a little salt. Then he drains it well.
Anchovies are the secret ingredient.
In a large frypan dissolve a few chopped anchovies in some hot extra virgin olive oil (the anchovies are crushed using a wooden or metal spoon until they melt in the oil).
Add the garlic (chilli is optional). Add the cooked fennel and toss it in extra virgin olive oil and flavours. This is your pasta sauce.
Sicilians would select bucatini. Calabresi would like to be Sicilians so they would as well.
Present the pasta dressed with the fennel, topped with toasted breadcrumbs (the alternative to grated cheese not only in Sicily, but obviously also in Calabria).
For breadcrubs: use 1-3 day old white bread (crusty bread, sourdough or pasta dura).
Remove crust, break into pieces, place into a food processor and make into coarse crumbs. They can be crumbled with fingertips or grated. The term for breadcrumbs, in Italianispane grattugiato/ grattato – it means grated bread.
Heat about ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add 1 cup of coarse breadcrumbs (see above). Stir continuously on low temperature until an even, golden brown.
Obviously if you do not have access to someone who has fennel growing in their garden, or to wild fennel, or to Gus and Carmel’s stall you may need to use bulb fennel with as much green frond as you can get. Nearly as good, but not quite!!
I also bought this garlic at the same time- not bad.
Sicily is an island, and a Catholic one at that, where the people were obliged to fast and abstain — refrain from eating meat — on certain days, mainly Lent and on Fridays.Catholics are no longer required not to eat meat on Fridays but Sicilians eat a lot of fish.
One very popular fish is the sardine, still relatively cheap in Sicily and easily available. The photograph was taken in the Palermo market in December 2008. At that time 4 euros were about $8.00 Australian.
For example you cannot go to Sicily and not eat Pasta con le sarde.There are many regional variations of this sauce, often called by the same name, but the most famous is from Palermo made with wild fennel, pine nuts, saffron and currants.
Sardines are perfect on a BBQ, and baked, but Sicilians also like them crude (raw) e conzate (and dressed), crude e condite in Italian. Although they are called raw, they are cooked by the lemon juice in the marinade.
Sardines are sustainable, and a good choice if you are concerned about the environment. Marinaded sardines make a great antipasto and lose that strong fishy taste that those people-who-do-not- like sardines hate.
When I first came to Australia we were unable to buy sardines, now they have become very popular (similar to squid, both were used for bait!).
The sardines must be fresh, freshly cleaned and filleted with no head, central spine or innards. Begin your preparations one day ahead.
sardines, 1-3 per person
lemons, juice of 3-4
garlic, 3 cloves, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
parsley and fresh oregano, ¾ cup, cut finely.
Arrange the fish in one layer on a plate or wide vessel and pour the juice of the lemons on top (this lemon juice will be discarded).
Seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3-6 hours. They are ready when they have turned almost white.
Drain the juice well. I use a colander and then quickly dry the fish on a paper towel.
Arrange the fillets in a single layer on a large plate.
Sprinkle the fish with herbs, garlic and salt and pepper.
Dress with the extra virgin olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate again for about an hour until ready to serve.