Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pasta con le Sarde (Departing Sicily)





Pasta con le Sarde

        After four rough, colorful and dolorous days in Sicily, it seemed wrong to depart without stopping for a traditional meal, so I decided to research recipes for the famous (and wonderful) Pasta con le Sarde and to select one to share.  

                The following item is borrowed (with gratitude) from Sicilian Cooking Plus.

        Wild fennel, saffron, currants, fresh sardines, olive oil, anchovy, onion, breadcrumbs, pine nuts and perciatelli, my very favorite pasta.  Pasta con le Sarde is fascinating to read and think about, enjoyable to cook and marvelous to eat.

         Recently, we took our first vacation in a very long time. Imagining a trip back to the ancient/modern Mediterranean between Europe and Africa, seeing the photos of La Rocca in Cephalu, the streets of Palermo and the alleys and countryside around Corleone, and reading about Sicily's history makes me want to take my next vacation there.  But I don't want to be kidnapped!



Wild fennel growing by a road

Pasta with Wild Fennels and Sardines (“Pasta con Sarde” – “Pasta chi Sardi”)

          The Pasta con Sarde is a traditional Sicilian dish that is made all over the island, using the same ingredients and differing in the various ways it is prepared. It is mostly often cooked from February to the end of May, because the wild fennels are tender and abundant in this period and the sardines are fished in large quantities.

           In Palermo this dish is called Pasta di San Giuseppe and it is a tradition to cook the Pasta con Sarde on March 19, when Saint Joseph is celebrated.

           Somehow the ancient custom to prepare special food to offer to the gods has been passed on to present time with a variation that instead of the pagan priest receiving the food, we eat and enjoy them with our family and friends.

           The legend relates that due to an exceptional drought, Saint Joseph was begged to cause rain so the crops would grow and avoid that people would die of famine. When the rain came, to thank the Saint, a feast day was dedicated for his celebration and the ceremonious “Tavola di San Giuseppe”, Saint’s Joseph Table, was instituted.

San Giuseppe Church, Taormina, Sicily

           The tavola consisted of a collection of food harvested around March 19. If it was set outside, in the court yard it was open to anybody or if it was set inside the house, it was limited to family and friends. If San Joseph was asked a favor and he granted it, the gratitude was shown by promising to repeat the Tavola celebration for a certain number of years.

            The food on the table varies from town to town, but the bread of Saint Joseph and the pasta with wild fennels, salted or fresh sardines and breadcrumbs, are unfailingly on hand, along with assorted fried vegetables in pastetta, caponatina, fruits and vegetables in season. Usually no meat dishes are offered but the table is full of desserts according to the local production.


           Again, unfailingly on hand the sfingi di San Giuseppe along with bucciddati, pastries and cookies.

            The Pasta con Sarde is made up with the local, ordinary and available ingredients. The unconventional blend of different flavors and aromas, the color and smell of saffron makes this exceptional pasta a favorite dish among the gourmets and food lovers.

Serves 4

  • 1 lb wild fennels
  • 10 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 large onions, finely diced
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 ½ lb. fresh sardines
  • 5 salted anchovies fillets rinsed
  • Tip of a teaspoon of saffron diluted in 3 tablespoons of water for the sauce  
  • ½ cup of currants or raisins soaked in hot water
  • 1/3 cup of pine nuts
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 lb. perciatelli or bucatini pasta
  • Tip of a teaspoon of saffron diluted in 3 tablespoons of water for the pasta 


The Fennels

Clean fennels by removing and discarding the roots and any discolored fronds. Rinse a few times and set aside.

Bring a large pot with 5 quarts of lightly salted water to a boil, add fennels and cook, keeping pot at a medium heat for 15 minutes or until fennels are very tender. Scoop out the boiled fennels with a slatted spoon and when they are cooled, chop them very fine. Save the fennel water for cooking the pasta.

Frantoia (Sicily) Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

The Onions

Over a medium flame, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 3 quart saucepan.

Add diced onions, sauté until onions are golden, about 7 minutes.
The Breadcrumbs

In a 10 inch skillet, over a medium flame, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil add 2 tablespoons of sautéed onions and breadcrumbs. Keep stirring until crumbs are light brown.

Place in a container and set aside. In some parts of Sicily onions are substituted with sugar.

Pine Nuts

The Sardines

Remove the head and place the sardines in a basin with cold water. Using your finger or a teaspoon, remove scales and discard interior. Open it and insert your finger under the bone to remove it.

Set aside and when finished rinse fish and place in a colander.

Pat dry the sardines with paper towels.

In a 10 inch skillet, over a medium flame, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil, add 2 tablespoons of the sautéed onions and the sardines.

Sautee the fish briefly, add ½ cup of the reserved water from the fennels, cook for an additional 3 minutes, and set aside.


The Sauce

Over a medium flame, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 4 quart saucepan.

Add remaining onions, the salted anchovies and stir with a wooden spoon. Continue cooking until anchovies are almost melted, about 2 minutes.

Add chopped fennels, increase heat to high and cook for about 3 minutes.

Add the diluted saffron, currant, pine nuts, and ½ of the sautéed fresh sardines, salt and pepper to taste. Lower the flame and simmer for about 25 minutes.


The Pasta

Cook pasta according to package directions, reducing recommended cooking time by 2 minutes. 

Drain pasta well and put back in pot. Mix in remaining saffron.

Toss in ½ of the sauce and 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs.

Mix for 2 minutes on low heat or until pasta and sauce are well combined.

Serving Suggestions

Plate individual portions of pasta, add a spoonful of sauce, some of the sardines and onions, and sprinkle each plate with breadcrumbs.

Serve immediately.


1.  From Sicilian Cooking Plus:  "If wild fennels are not available use the green foliage of bulb fennel."

2.  From Patience Gray, Honey From A Weed:  "Fresh sardines and gleaming anchovies provided the fundament of Mediterranean fish markets, both in terms of quantity and modest price.  (Their numbers have declined in recent years, which is reflected in their price.)  When they were abundant, they were 'too cheap' to be found in restaurants; one had to penetrate into a vini or an osteria for working men to find them.  You enter a crowded bar, thread your way through the vociferous male company and seek refuge in a farther room where the cloth covered tables promise restoration.  Here sardines or anchovies are served, which have been cleaned, dried, shaken in flour and rapidly deep-fried and sprinkled in salt; served with hunks of bread in a basket, a bottle of wine vinegar being plonked on the table, and a quarto di vino (1/4 litre of rough red wine).  At the fishmongers the sardine is recognized by its blue-green sheen, its large papery scales, and 'stubby' appearance.  The anchovy, more slender, more pointed nose, blue-black its back and silvery its sides, has smaller, far more fragile scales. If sardines and anchovies don't positively shine, don't buy them.

3. From Patience Gray 2:  "To return to more frugal themes: Byron to Trelawnery '. . .you scorn my lenten fare, but come back soon, I will despatch my salad and sardines and then we will discuss a bottle of hock and talk over matters ...' 

4. For more sardines, see Here.

Temple of Diana, La Rocca, Cephalu, Sicily

Sardines in Sicily

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