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 live in an apartment in Melbourne and have a balcony where I can only grow herbs. Fortunately I am very close to the Queen Victoria Market – it is my stamping ground. I am able to buy bulb fennel and bunches of leafy fennel (fronds attached) at one of my favourite stalls: B Shed, Stall 61- 63) in the Queen Victoria Market.
The stall is owned by Gus and Carmel and they grow some of their produce. Gus is Calabrese. He knows that I cook Sicilian food and I like to use this type of fennel for my Sicilian Pasta con le sarde that includes wild fennel as one of the ingredients. It is frequently used in Sicilian food to add a particular aniseed taste to many dishes.
We are not able to buy bunches of wild fennel (finucchiu sarvaggiu in Sicilian) in Australia and not everybody can go out and forage for it – you will recognise the plants by the strong aniseed smell and taste, strong green colour and fine fern like fronds. I collect the soft, young shoots of this plant, recognised by their lighter colour. This fennel is unlike the Florentine fennel and has no bulb. Because of its strong smell and taste, animals and insects tend not to eat it, so it can be prolific. I always ensure that the plant looks healthy before I collect it, after all it is a weed and it could have been sprayed. If I were to grow wild fennel in my garden I would collect the seeds (yellow flower heads) which when dry develop into seeds and plant them.
But for those of you who cannot get wild fennel there is some salvation. At the end of the fennel season the fennel plant produces some flat bulbs, which never mature.
Gus has given me his recipe for one of his favourite pasta recipes. It is cooked with anchovies, fennel fronds and topped with fried breadcrumbs. He tells me it is Calabrese (from Calabria). I say that it is Sicilian and in fact in Sicilian it is called ‘Pasta cca muddica’.
But Gus forgets that he has already given me this recipe, he gives it to me every year when I buy the immature bunches of fennel from him.
What I do not tell Gus is that in some parts of Sicily they add grated lemon peel and in the Aeolian islands they add capers and in Siracusa green olives. There are also versions where it is made without the fennel. Simple, but all good.
Many associate eating soups mostly in winter, but this is not the case in my household. Although the soups I prepare in summer may not be as hearty as my winter ones, they will often contain pulses.
I enjoy eating chickpeas, borlotti, cannellini beans or lentils in soups but I also enjoy them as salads.
And this is what brings me (yet again) to writing about wild fennel – I find a bowl of any of the above pulses presented in their broth and flavoured with wild fennel very refreshing. The extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top of the soup when it is presented to the table, makes the soup even more aromatic.
I never eat soup piping hot (Australia inherited this custom from the English) and in summer I present my soup cooler still.
This wild fennel plant and several other large bushes of wild fennel grow not very far from where I live, (in the centre of Melbourne). And this is where I do a little foraging. These plants are very robust and persistent and supply me with either foliage or seeds during the year (I know I need to be very careful about not picking plants that have been sprayed).
There are no seeds on this plant yet, but as the weather gets hotter there will be bright yellow flower heads which then will turn into dry, hard, brown seeds in late summer – I will be back to collect these and together with some dry oregano, chilli flakes and extra virgin olive oil, I will marinate this year’s black olives which are still in their brine.
The softer, younger foliage is also excellent used as a herb, raw in salads or when cooking fish.
Unlike the commercial bulb fennel, wild fennel does not have a bulb – the young shoots are used. In the photo below you can see the shoots within the larger foliage – they are the denser looking part of the two sprigs below; usually they are a lighter colour. When I collect the fennel, to keep the young shoots fresh I also collect the larger stem, where they are embedded. I find the stalks and the more mature, green fronds too tough to eat and the flavour too intense.
It is necessary to soak the beans (or chickpeas) overnight, and although it is said that the lentils will not need soaking, I like to soak them for about an hour beforehand. Some cooks discard the soaking water – it is a common belief that changing the water will help to reduce the flatulence suffered when eating pulses. Also reputed to help is the addition of a pinch of fennel seeds (other countries use dill and caraway) therefore adding fresh fennel to this soup should function in the same way.
For this soup, I am using chickpeas.
carrots, 2, left whole
garlic, 2- 3 cloves, squashed
wild fennel, 3-5 young shoots, left whole
salt, to taste
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup (or more to taste)
Soak chickpeas in cold water overnight – they will swell so it is important to put them in plenty of water.
Drain the water and change it (optional) Place sufficient water to cover the pulses and add carrots, a little extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves and fennel (this will be the broth).
Bring the pulses to the boil. Cook the pulses until soft but preferably still whole. If using lentils they will cook quickly, but the other pulses may take 20– 30 mins. Add salt to taste.
Remove the carrot and some of the fennel. Cut up the fennel that you choose to eat and return it to the soup. Cool to desired temperature.
Ladle into bowls. Add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and serve.
Other recipes using wild fennel can be found in previous posts.
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.
This is a photo of mature broad beans taken in the Palermo Market. If you were keen, you would extract the beans from the pods, dry them and store them. Now days you would buy them dry.
‘You must try the maccu,’ urged my host as we perused the menu in a small restaurant in the back blocks of Palermo. ‘It’s one of our local specialities.’ A wide, shallow bowl was filled with a drab beige puree enlivened by a spiral of olive oil. I tasted it and in an instant understood that this was minestra di fave, the puree of broad beans that had sustained people throughout the Mediterranean in the 14th and 15th centuries, a dish familiar to me from many culinary manuscripts. The taste was pure, elemental, almost mono-dimensional, but enhanced with the timelessness of tradition. With every spoonful I was connected to civilisations past, from medieval to Roman and even back as far as ancient Greek and Egyptian. And when I harvest my broad beans each spring, the echo of this experience returns.
Barbara Santich, author and culinary historian.
From article in The Australian Weekend magazine: Unexpected delights, compiled by John Lethlean and Necia Wilden, August 03, 2009
I am always thrilled to read anything by Barbara Santich. Her writing is always rich in detail, well researched and a pleasure to read.
Maccu, is a traditional Sicilian very thick soup and in most parts of Sicily it is made of dried fave (broad beans). It is mostly cooked over the winter months and as Barbara informs us , it has been a staple dish for the contadini (peasants) since ancient times.
In some parts of Sicily it is also a celebratory dish cooked at the start of spring. Spring in Sicily has a particular significance for me because March19 was my father’s name day. It is the Feast of San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph); this feast also coincides with the spring solstice and in many parts of Sicily maccu is particularly eaten on this day.
Maccu is a recipe with spring sentiments of renewal, use up the old, celebrate the new. To make maccu, the dried beans of the last season are used before the new harvest begins in spring. Broken spaghetti and any assortment of left over, dry pasta shapes are also added to the soup and particularly in the days when pasta was sold loose, there used to be quite a few pasta casualties. Many of the religious celebrations have pagan origins; the feast of Saint Joseph in the Catholic religion is at the end of Lent, a time traditionally used for fasting, both in the religious sense and over the lean winter season.
Dried fave (broad beans) are the main ingredient. They are light brown and smooth and shaped a little like lima beans. And because they have a very tough skin, they need to be soaked and peeled before cooking. As you would expect, there are local variations in the recipes. In some parts of Sicily a mixture of pulses are used – lentils, beans, chickpeas and some recipes include dried chestnuts. The greater selection of pulses is found in Il grande maccu of San Giuseppe, the grandest soup of them all. Wild fennel is added to most versions – it adds colour and taste. Those of us who do not have this, can use fennel seeds and a few fennel fronds; a little green leaf vegetable like cime di rape, chicory or silver beet (Sicilans would use the wild beets) will also add the green colour. Some recipes include a little chopped celery, others have dried tomatoes (they would be kept under oil over the cold months).
I realize that it is not March, but in Australia we are looking forward to spring which starts in September and writing about maccu now seems appropriate.
This is a recipe for a very simple maccu.
dry broad beans, 500 g (use a variety of other dried pulses if you wish)
wild fennel, one bunch ( or fennel seeds, crushed, 2 teaspoons and fresh fennel fronds)
onion, 1, cut finely
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
extra virgin olive oil
Soak the dried broad beans overnight.
Drain them and peel the outer skin off the broad beans.
Cover the legumes with an ample amount of water, add fennel seeds and cook the soup slowly. After about 40 minutes add the onion, fennel (and some small amounts of chopped greens if you wish). Continue to simmer for another 30 minutes. To prevent the pulses from remaining hard, add the seasoning after the pulses are cooked. If you wish to add pasta, add more water, bring to the boil and cook the pasta in the maccu.
Drizzle with generous amounts of extra virgin olive oil and serve (I do this at the table and on individual portions).
In some parts of Sicily, left over maccu is also eaten cold (the pulses solidify).
In the feauture photo the maccu is served with Lolli, a type of hand-made pasta still customary today in the Modica area. I ate this in Trattoria a Punta Ro Vinu in Modica.
I have just purchased this beautiful print of a Murray cod. It is a dry-point etching, by Clare Whitney, a Melbourne based printmaker and painter.
Murray cod is raised in fish farms and is rare in the wild, but this was not always so.
John Oxley, an explorer of the Murray-Darling basin in inland New South Wales wrote in his journal in 1817:
If however the country itself is poor, the river is rich in the most excellent fish, procurable in the utmost abundance.
Murray cod is Australia’s iconic, freshwater fish, once found naturally thorough-out most of the Murray-Darling River System. It is a native fish, which features strongly both in Aboriginal mythology and Australian folklore, though it is called by different names. It provided food to Aboriginal Australians and early settlers, but later suffered a significant decline due to overfishing and environmental degradation. In the 1950s, annual catches were still above 150,000 tonnes and Australians were proud of this fish – in 1954, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were presented with Murray cod at a State Banquet at Parliament House on their first visit to Australia.
There are many tales told by anglers, who are reputed to have caught enormous fish. Unfortunately, these stories may be true. Murray cod can live for up to a century, grow more than a metre long and weigh more than 100kg (the biggest on record was 1.8m long, weighed 114kg and was over 100 years old).
The major problem the cod face today is the inconsistent supply of water in the Murray-Darling River system, partly due to the prolonged drought and exacerbated by the amount of water taken from the river (regulated by locks, removed for irrigation), which has altered the river flow and the shape of the river. This has resulted in changes of habitat and adverse conditions for breeding.
The introduction of redfin perch in the 1950’s (carnivorous predators and competitors), followed by the European carp, and the use of toxic chemicals from farming practices have all compounded the impact on the stocks of Murray cod.
Although different states operated on different premises and priorities some positive strategies were initiated and have been supported by the Australian Government since the early 1980’s to help the cod recover. These include: improved fisheries and environmental management and protection of stocks through fishing regulations; imposed closed seasons for fishing; breeding and release of hatchery-reared fingerlings.
While these approaches have contributed to some increases in numbers in certain parts of the river system, the drought (some are calling it the worst in 1,000 years) is now adding further stresses.
Murray cod is being successfully grown in pond culture and tank-based re-circulating systems and is regaining the status it deserves as a superb tasting fish. It is difficult to purchase, although it seems to be available in certain restaurants (in Melbourne).
Murray cod is particularly appetizing– baked, pan fried, poached or steamed.
Murray Cod Dreaming
The Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray have a Dreamtime legend about Ponde, the great Murray cod that helped form the Murray River and the waterways all the way down to Lake Alexandrina (in the south East of Adelaide in South Australia). Ponde was chased by one of the men from the Ngarrindjeri tribe, but Ponde was so big and fast that when he swam, he carved out the existing little river into a very large waterway known as the River Murray, complete with cliffs and bends. The persuer’s brother- in-law also joined in the chase and when he caught him in Lake Alexandrina he cut Ponde into little pieces.
These became the different fish – mulloway, mullet, bream and others, once plentiful in the Coorong (The Coorong is a unique, long shallow pool of salty water, stretching for over 100 kilometres from the Murray mouth up to Lakes Albert and Alexandrina. – unique for its beauty, its isolation and once, for its abundance of fish and bird life).
RECIPE: PESCE IN PADELLA (Pan fried fish)
Food cooked in padella, (‘n or `na padedda in Sicilian) is cooked in a fry pan. This is generally the culinary term used for sautéed, shallow frying or pan-frying.
The method is relatively fast and the medium to high heat required is easily controlled. It suits almost any whole fish (river or sea), fillets or cutlets. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish and whether you prefer the fish to be cooked through. I often find that when I use my heavy based frypan instead of my non- stick pan, the cooking is faster, the fish is crisper and the juices left in the pan are more caramelized and tasty.
The original recipe is for river trout (Trout is caught in the Manghisi River near Noto, which is not far from Ragusa). It is cooked with wild fennel, green and black olives and very thin slices of lemon. Fresh thyme is also a strong flavouring and can be (probably needs to be) substituted for the fennel. I have also used fresh dill (more Greek than Italian).
Do buy good quality olives to get the real intended flavour!! Need I also say that there is ‘good salt’ and that ‘freshly ground pepper’ is best.
This method of cooking fish can be used to cook either whole small fish or any fillets or cutlets.
Murray cod is difficult to get – ask your fish vendor.
Suitable fish: red mullet, mullet, sand whiting, flathead and garfish, trevally, kingfish and albacore tuna.
Murray cod (farmed) and barramundi (grown in a fully closed system of aquaculture or accredited, line wild-caught, snapper if line caught (better choice).
Snapper, blue-eye travalla and mackerel are from the (think twice) category.
See previous post: Where I buy my sustainable fish. Categories from Australia’s Sustainable Seafood guide- www.amcs.org.au .
fish, 1 serve per person (350g each)
green olives, 5 per fish portion, stoned and sliced
black olives or caper berries, 5 per fish portion, stoned and sliced
extra virgin olive oil, 1-2 large tablespoon per fish
salt, pepper or chilli flakes to taste
lemon, 1 slice per fish, sliced thinly, and then quartered
saffron, a pinch – soak in about a tablespoon of water at least 10mins before cooking
herbs: thyme, dill or fennel, to taste
Wild fennel is used in Sicily. Alternatively use:
• The green feathery part found at the top of the cultivated bulb fennel.
• Bulb fennel cut vertically and very thinly sliced.
• Some crushed fennel seeds (½ teaspoon)
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and pan fry the fish, add a little salt. and pepper.
Remove the fish.
Use the same fry pan. If using fresh fennel sauté it till caramelized and then add
olives, saffron, herbs and lemon slices and heat through.
Return the fish to the pan and toss it around in the hot ingredients for 1 minute and serve.
Wild fennel is frequently used in Sicilian food to add a particular aniseed taste to many dishes. It can be cooked (see recipes for Pasta con le sarde and Ministra di finocchio e patate ) or added raw like any chopped herb, for example as in an olive or an octopus salad. The seeds are also used, for example scattered on bread before baking or to flavour marinades and preserves.
These photos of wild fennel were kindly sent to me by one of my readers who lives in Philadelphia.
She has travelled to Sicily several times and has also attended cooking classes there. She is aware about the differences in flavour between wild fennel and the bulb fennel. Since coming back from Sicily she has found a good source for wild fennel seeds and they are sprouting well in her North American garden in an apartment complex.
The gentleman in the blue work suit is holding wild fennel. We picked lots of it. My understanding is that you never eat it raw and that the “frilly” part at the top has tons of flavor unlike the typical fennel I find here with the large bulb where the frilly part has almost no flavor at all.
I don’t think wild fennel has any bulb at all. It appears if anything, more like celery in that it is a simple stalk except with the frilly parts at the top.
I sent three recipes to SBS and this was one of them. All have been published on the website
One of my recipes, Sarde a beccafico was selected as part of the food series My Family Feast and cooked by Sean Connolly (chef). You can see it making it online during the broadcast of the series.
You cannot go to Sicily and not eat pasta con le sarde.There are many regional variations of pasta sauces made with sardines, all called by the same name, but the most famous is anancient, traditional dish from Palermo. The pasta can be eaten hot or cold (at room temperature).
I like the way Sicilians often skip between the sweet and savoury tastes – the sour and/or salty is often combined with the sweet and what makes this dish unique is the unusual combination of textures and strong fragrant tastes: the strong taste of the oily sardines, the cleansing flavour of the fennel, the sweetness of the raisins and the delicate aromatic taste of the pine nuts.
Pasta con le sarde is presented with toasted breadcrumbs as a topping, in the same way that grated cheese is used.
Originally the breadcrumbs may have been a substitute for cheese for the poor. In some versions of this dish the cooked ingredients are arranged in layers in a baking dish, topped with breadcrumbs and then baked – the breadcrumbs form a crust.
Unfortunately we are not able to buy bunches of wild fennel (finucchiu sarvaggiu in Sicilian) in Australia, but we do have the wild fennel that grows in neglected areas such as on the side of the road, vacant land and along banks of waterways. In Sicily it can be bought in small bunches. In Australia you will recognise it by its strong aniseed smell and taste, strong green colour and fine fern like fronds. I collect the soft, young shoots of this plant, recognised by their lighter colour. This fennel is unlike the Florentine fennel and has no bulb. Because of its strong smell and taste, animals and insects tend not to eat it, so it can be prolific. I always ensure that the plant looks healthy before I collect it, after all it is a weed and it could have been sprayed.
Fresh bulb fennel can replace the wild fennel, but the taste will not be as strong. If you are using bulb fennel try to buy bulbs with some of the green fronds still attached. I usually buy more than one fennel at a time and save the green fronds to use as a herb in cooking and I enhance the taste by using fennel seeds as well.
The addition of almonds is a local variation and is optional – it brings another layer of taste and texture to the dish. If you choose not to use the almonds, use double the quantity of pine nuts (see recipe).
The origins of pasta chi sardi (Sicilian) are said to be Arabic. In one story, an Arab cook was instructed to prepare food for the Arab troops when they first landed in Sicily. The cook panicked when he was confronted by a large number of people to feed, so the troops were instructed to forage for food. He made do with what they presented – wild herbs (the fennel) and the fish (sardines) to which he added Arabic flavourings, the saffron, dried fruit and the nuts.
I remember coming back to Australia and cooking this dish for friends after eating it in a restaurant in Palermo (Sicily) called L’ingrasciata (In Sicilian it means The dirty one!), and how much all of my guests enjoyed it. I have continued to cook pasta con le sarde over the years, especially since sardines are plentiful, sustainable and now widely available in Australia.
Pasta con le sarde is fairly substantial, and although in Sicily it would be presented as a first course (primo), in AustraliaI am happy to present it as a main (secondo) and I use greater quantities of fish. I follow the pasta course with a green salad as a separate course, but I never serve pasta and salad together. Part of me remains Italian to the core – in Italy a salad is a contorno (a side dish) and an accompaniment to a main course. Pasta, risotto and soup – which are all primi, cannot be accompanied by a side dish.
Traditionally the sauce is made with sardines that arebutterflied (i.e. remove the backbone), or as the Italians say, aperti come un libro (opened like a book). I buy fillets to save time.
fennel, wild is preferable, stalks and foliage, about 200g. If not, a large bulb of fennel with the fronds, cut into quarters and a teaspoon of fennel seeds to strengthen the flavour
extra virgin olive oil, about 1 cup
onions, 2, finely sliced
anchovies, 4, cut finely
pine nuts, 1 cup
almonds, 1 cup, toasted and chopped (optional)
currants, ¾ cup, or seedless raisins or sultanas
saffron, ½-1 small teaspoon
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
breadcrumbs, 4–5 tablespoons
Cook the fennel
The wild fennel is put into cold, salted water (to give maximum flavour to the water) and boiled for 10-15 minutes (it can be left in the water for longer). The green tinged, fennel-flavoured water will be used to cook the pasta – it will flavour and colour the pasta. The boiled fennel is added as an ingredient in the sauce. Reserve some wild fennel to use in the cooking the fish.
If using the bulb fennel, wash and cut the bulb fennel into quarters but reserve the green fronds to use raw in the cooking the fish. Add fennel seeds and boil until tender.
Drain the cooked fennel in colander, and then gently squeeze out the water. Discard the seeds and keep the fennel-flavoured water to cook the pasta.
Chop the fennel roughly, this will be added to the sauce later.
Cut about two thirds of the sardine fillets into thick pieces. The whole fillets go on top and are used to provide visual impact.
Heat oil in shallow wide pan, suitable for making the pasta sauce and to include the pasta once it is cooked.
Sauté the onions over medium heat until golden.
Add pine nuts, raisins and almonds (optional). Toss gently.
Add the sliced sardines, salt and pepper and the uncooked fennel. Cook on gentle heat for about 5-10 minutes, stirring gently.
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 the cooked chopped fennel and the saffron dissolved in a little warm water and continue to stir and cook gently.
Boil bucatini in the fennel water 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.
At this stage the pasta can be assembled and presented, or baked.
Place the pasta into the saucepan in which you have cooked the fish sauce.
Leave the pasta in the saucepan for 5-10 minutes to incorporate the flavours and to preserve some warmth.
Gently fold in the whole sardines.
When ready to serve, tip the pasta and fish mixture into a serving bowl, arranging the whole fillets or butterflied sardines on top and dress the whole dish with the toasted breadcrumbs.
If you are baking the pasta:
Oil a baking tray or an ovenproof dish and sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs to prevent sticking (it is not necessary that they be browned in oil, just browned in the oven).
Place a layer of pasta on the breadcrumbs, top with some of the fish sauce and some whole fillets of sardines. Form another layer and ensure that some of the whole fillets are kept for the top.
Cover with fresh breadcrumbs and sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil and bake in preheated 200C oven for approximately 10 minutes. A teaspoon of sugar can also be sprinkled on top of the breadcrumbs – this, with the oil will help the bread form a crust, adding yet another contrasting taste and a different texture.
SBS website withSarde a beccafico – part of the food series My Family Feast and cooked by Sean Connolly (chef):