Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pasta con le Sarde (the traditional pasta of Sicily)

Sicily is one of my favorite places. And has one of my favorite cultures. This people group has been co-opted, invaded, and used by pretty much every ancient culture that managed to get itself to the Mediterranean. 

There were Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, Normans, Arabs.... And each one of these groups left its stamp on the food. If you've ever had Sicilian food before, you know that it's definitely its own cuisine. (And if you lump it in with Italian - then you've obviously never actually eaten Sicilian food.)

I have spent quite a bit of time in the mountainous regions, the small fishing towns, the "large towns" of Palermo, Messina, Catania. And I never have eaten better. 

When I spent a month in Aci Trezza in the summer of 2007, I finally managed to get a real feel of the place. Trundling down to the butcher every day to get something to cook. Heading over to the green grocer to find out what was in season. And the all important fish market, with the proud catches hanging in the window. 

The town square was lined with restaurants, all cooking what was caught that morning. Mmmmmmm.

This is a dish I saw on multiple menus, but was typically too chicken to order. The thought of sardines - and anchovies! - sent my American sensibilities a twitter. 

But I'm older and wiser. And have a man who is man enough to open up the tins for me... 

I was brave enough to take a photo of them. But Mr. S did all the opening, getting them out, and much of the stirring. I'm such a wimp.

But now that I've actually tasted this dish - I have found myself much more brave! Perhaps I'll be able to open them next time. Perhaps. Getting them out of the tins might still require a bit of help...

The finished dish is so beautiful, I would suggest serving it at a dinner party. If your friends have open minds. Or at least buy yourself a nice bottle of wine to go with it. 

Start the whole dish off right by placing a pinch of saffron in a bit of water. Just let it sit. You'll use it later. 

Now with the fennel. Put a 1/2 bulb - chopped in half - in a large pot of water. Add some fennel seeds too if you want to bump up the fennel flavor. 

Boil the fennel for 10 minutes or so. Then remove the bulbs and roughly chop it up. Keep the water - you'll use it to boil the pasta!

Grate up the onion and garlic.

Using the largest saute pan you have, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil and start sauteeing the onion/garlic mix. Once it turns translucent (a few minutes later) add the anchovies. 

*At this point, you should toss the pasta in the fennel water to cook. Probably for 8-9 minutes, so there's a fair amount of tooth left to it.*

Work the anchovies in with a spoon, breaking them up so there's pretty much integrated. Now it's time for the pine nuts, raisins, and fennel. 

After that's had a minute to cook, add in the sardines. Chunk them up with a spoon, so that they are in the size of pieces you prefer (we pretty much pulverized ours). 

Add in the saffron water and white wine. 

Toss in the slightly undercooked pasta so it can finish cooking in the sauce. Cook for 3-4 minutes. 

Serve with bread crumbs on top and the greens of the fennel. 

Now, that's a true Sicilian specialty!

Pasta con le Sarde
Serves 3-4
Adapted from my new favorite place to find Sicilian recipes - All Things Sicilian & More 

1 3 oz tin anchovy filets in oil
1 tin sardines (6-8)
1/2 box spaghetti
1/2 bulb fennel (reserve the fronds for garnish)
1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
1/2 a medium onion
1 large garlic clove
1/2 c. golden raisins
1/2 c. pine nuts
health pinch of saffron (about a tsp)
1/3 c. dry white wine
Panko breadcrumbs, toasted

Place the pinch of saffron in 1/3 c. of warm water. Allow to sit. Put a large pot of water on the stove (enough to cook the pasta). Chop the fennel in half, cutting out the hard center, and put in the cold water. Add fennel seeds if you want to deepen the fennel flavor more. Bring the fennel to a boil and cook for 10 minutes, until soft. Scoop out the fennel. Reserve the water for cooking the pasta. Chop the fennel roughly.

Grate the onion and garlic. In a wide saute pan, cook the onion and garlic in a bit of olive oil until translucent. Add in in the anchovies, using your wooden spoon to break them up and work them into the sauce. (Toss the spaghetti in the fennel water to cook at this point) Add the pine nuts, raisins, and chopped fennel. Cook for a minute or so. Add in the sardines. Use the wooden spoon to break them up a bit. Add in the saffron water (saffron included) and the white wine.

The pasta should be about done. You want it al dente, still with a bit of tooth to it. Drain the pasta and toss into the pan with the sauce. Toss together and then allow to cook, untouched for 3-4 minutes. This finishes the pasta and lets it soak up all the delicious sauce. 

Serve with toasted bread crumbs on top, and a few fennel fronds for color.

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