PASTA CON LE SARDE (SARDINES)

Pasta Con Le Sarde (sardines) can only be a Sicilian dish.

Sardines are plentiful, so is the wild fennel (it is seasonal), and most Sicilians eat pasta in some form, every day.

The flavours and ingredients of pine nuts, saffron and currants are said to have been introduced by the Arabs.

Breadcrumbs toasted in a fry pan with a little bit of olive oil are popular in Sicily as a topping or dressing – called muddica/ mollica/pan grattato, it is sprinkled on pasta instead of grated cheese, and some vegetable dishes like Parmigiana di Melanzane (eggplants), Caponata, fried peppers (Peperonata), and Sfincione (a type of regional pizza) .

And I make Pasta Con Le Sarde when I know I can impress friends, those who appreciate being impressed.

Accept that not everyone likes sardines or fancy the idea of wild fennel. The photo below shows how some bunches of wild fennel are sold in Sicilian markets.

Over the years I don’t just toast the breadcrumbs in the frypan (made bread that’s several days old); I  also add a little cinnamon, a tiny bit of sugar and grated lemon peel. The lemon flavour really makes this pasta topping even more special. Sometimes I also add pine nuts to the pan.

Bucatini is the pasta I prefer – it’s slightly larger than spaghetti, long and hollow, like a tube.

But last time I made Pasta Con Le Sarde, I did use spaghetti. You can see how many pine nuts I sprinkled on top before folding them into the pasta. In a traditional dish there would be fewer.

Most of the time my Pasta Con Le Sarde looks like pretty ordinary, but still tastes magnificent. Sometimes I also add chopped, roasted almonds. Looking at this photo below can see that not all the almonds were chopped!

It is sometimes difficult to find wild fennel that is healthy looking or in season, so  sometimes I do add a fresh fennel bulb.

Below the photo shows fennel and onion sauté-ing (if there is such a word!)

This is followed by the addition of saffron, wild fennel and currants.

If I can get sufficient wild fennel I use it in the boiling water to flavour the pasta. The stalks from fresh fennel also work. Simply cook the stalks or wild fennel in the water and remove them before adding the pasta to cook.

Although Sardines are easy to clean, sardines are also sold as fillets.

I have written about Pasta Con Le Sarde before.

PASTA CON LE SARDE, Iconic Sicilian made easy

PASTA CON LE SARDE, an iconic Sicilian recipe from Palermo. Cooked at Slow Food Festival Melbourne

PASTA CON SARDE; the baked version, Palermo, Sicily

WILD FENNEL and photos

PASTA WITH BREADCRUMBS, anchovies and fennel (Pasta cca muddica)

From my book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking.

PASTA CON LE SARDE, Iconic Sicilian made easy

An important ingredient for making Pasta con le sarde is wild fennel. The season for wild fennel has well and truly passed and all you will find at this time of year are stalky plants, yellow flowers/ seed pods and no green fronds.

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What we call Florentine fennel is also going out of season and you will find  for sale specimens with very small stunted bulbs. If you are lucky, your greengrocer may sell them with long stalks and fronds attached – perfect to use as a substitute for wild fennel and I certainly would not go near these stunted specimens otherwise.

Sardine fillets are easy to find. I use the paper that my fishmonger has wrapped the sardines to wipe dry the fish.

Remove the small dorsal spine from the fillets. Once again the paper comes in handy to wipe fishy fingers.

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Prepare the ingredients:

Sardine fillets, chopped spring onions, the softer green fonds of the fennel, saffron soaking in a little water, currants soaking in a little water, fennel bulb cut finely, toasted pine nuts and chopped toasted almonds, salt and ground black pepper (or ground chili).

The preferred pasta shape are bucatini, but spaghetti or casarecce are good also.

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You will also need some breadcrumbs (made from good quality day- old bread) toasted in a pan with a little oil. Add a bit of sugar, some cinnamon and grated lemon peel. toss it around in the pan so that the sugar melts and the flavours are mixed. This is the topping for the pasta. I have seen this referred to as pan grattato – this would not be my preferred tag – in Italian pan grattato is the term for plain breadcrumbs, but I accept that over time the terminology has evolved. The traditional Sicilian breadcrumb topping would not have had/ does not have the cinnamon or grated lemon peel.

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The larger fennel fronds and stalks are used to flavour the water for the cooking of the pasta. Place them into salted cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for at least 10 minutes – you can leave the fennel in water as long as you like. The greenery  can easily be fished out with tongs before the pasta goes into the boiling water to cook.

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And  then it is a very simple matter of cooking the ingredients.

Sauté  the spring onion in some extra virgin olive oil.  Add the fennel and chopped fronds and sauté them some more.

Depending on the quality of the fennel (degree of succulence) you may need to add a splash of water or white wine, cover it and continue to cook it for a few minutes more.

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Add salt and pepper and put the sautéed vegetables aside.

Cook the pasta.

Fry the sardines in a little extra virgin olive oil  – they will cook very quickly and begin to break up. Combine the sardines with the cooked fennel, add saffron and  drained currants and mix to amalgamate the flavours. Add the almonds and pine nuts.

Dress the cooked pasta with the sardine sauce.

Put the dressed pasta in a serving platter and sprinkle liberally with the toasted breadcrumbs  – these add flavour and crunch to the dish.

For a more conventional Sicilian Pasta con le Sarde:

PASTA CON LE SARDE, an iconic Sicilian recipe from Palermo. Cooked at Slow Food Festival Melbourne

PASTA CON SARDE – the baked version, Palermo, Sicily

PASTA WITH BREADCRUMBS, anchovies and fennel (Pasta cca muddica)

PASTA CON FINOCCHIO (Pasta and fennel – preferably wild)

PASTA CON LE SARDE, an iconic Sicilian recipe from Palermo. Cooked at Slow Food Festival Melbourne

Slow Fish Festival: Save Our Seafood

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To those of you who attended the successful event at Spotswood – Kingsville, Slow Fish Festival: Save Our Seafood.

As promised, here is an update of the recipe Pasta con le Sarde I cooked at this event.

There are already two posts about this recipe:

PASTA CON LE SARDE (Pasta with sardines, from Palermo, made with fennel, pine nuts and currants)

PASTA CON SARDE – the baked version, Palermo, Sicily

Here are some useful photographs to compliment the recipes:

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Wild fennel plant.

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Wild fennel shoots.

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Packing wild fennel for the winter season – used to flavour the pasta water.

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Extra flavour with sachet of fennel seeds. It can be removed when you also remove the boiled wild fennel.

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Wild fennel sold in bunches at Catania Market.

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You will need a plate to serve it. This is an Alessi Plate ( not THE Alessi, the Sicilian Alessi) They use old stencils, colours and images from the past to decorate their plates.

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Recipe in Sicilian Seafood Cooking, Tim White from Books For Cooks (Melbourne) may have a couple of this book left for sale.

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Timballo, made with left over Pasta con Sarde

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Reference was made to  Il Gattopardo – The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampadusa. Film made by Visconti, an historical epic, based on Lampedusa’s novel.

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PASTA CON SARDE – the baked version, Palermo, Sicily

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.

Wild fennel

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

  • bucatini, 500g
  • sardines, 500g
  • 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.

LINKS:
WILD FENNEL, link with photos
PASTA WITH ANCHOVIES , wild fennel and breadcrumbs recipe
EASTER IN SICILY
SCACCE, Focaccia stuffed bread

 

 

PASTA WITH BREADCRUMBS, anchovies and fennel (Pasta cca muddica)

pasta with baby fennel

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.

 

baby fennel

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.

For recipe see:Pasta con Finocchio

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.
Very Good.

CHICKPEAS SOUP WITH WILD FENNEL (Minestra di ceci con finocchio, erba selvatica)

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.

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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.

INGREDIENTS
chickpeas, 400g
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)
PROCESSES
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.
See

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PASTA CON FINOCCHIO (Pasta and fennel – preferably wild)

 

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No it is not wild fennel, it just looks like it.

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.

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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.

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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 bread crubs: 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 Italian is pane 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.

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MACCU (a thick, broad bean soup, made at the end of winter to celebrate spring)

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.

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‘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.

INGREDIENTS
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

PROCESSES
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.

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PESCE IN PADELLA (Pan fried fish, MURRAY COD)

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.

Fish plate_2057The 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.
Aquaculture
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).

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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.

Suitable fish
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 .

INGREDIENTS
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

Fennel-side-by-side-300x282
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)

PROCESSES
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 and photos

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. 

She writes:
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.

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