Full disclosure: the following sardines and pasta recipe is not my own. And I know what you are thinking: “Sardines? Gross!” But have you read the fine print about sardines? Printed on the box of the Wild Planet ones I bought: “Ounce for ounce, sardines provide three times more calcium and phosphorous than milk, more iron than cooked spinach, as much protein as steak, and as much potassium as bananas. These sardines are considered a Best Choice for Sustainability by a consensus of environmental organizations.” My point? A) Sardines are where it’s at, and B) I recently came to appreciate the hidden virtues of sardines in Sicily (which actually led me to Point A… so maybe these are a little out of order, but, whatever… just stay with me).
Chris, Whitney, JT, Burr and myself had been in the car for over an hour. We were headed to the 2000-year-old ruins of Agrigento, and were hungry but couldn’t find a place to eat. JT, desperate for food, pulled the car over in front of a restaurant with a façade that looked like a Long John Silver's with fake anchors, fishnets, and other seafaring paraphernalia.
Hesitatingly, we followed JT inside. The maître d’ put out his cigarette, warmly shook my hand and spoke to me in French. I told him, in French, that I was American. He smiled wide and then greeted us in English. He was large, bald, and missing a front tooth.
“Seet, seet! Anywhair you like,” he grandly stated in his heavily accented English and gestured his hands in a big arch. We looked around: there wasn’t a single person in the joint. With a collective it’s-either-eat-here-or-nothing sigh, the five of us sat down. In non-typical European style, he immediately approached our table and took our drink order. As he served our drinks, he, maybe sensing our urgency (we were in a hurry – the ruins closed early on Sunday), asked to take our order. Pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza… everyone seemed to want a pizza, except me. He tilted his head and patiently waited for my order.
“Uh, uh…,” I stammered as I waded through the menu, trying to translate the words into something that would please my growling stomach.
“Ow about a ‘ouse pasta, meese?” the waiter gently suggested, and seemed to write it down before I answered. And with that, he swished off to the kitchen (to hot box another smoke or place our orders, I wasn’t sure).
“What did you order?” Whitney asked curiously.
“I have no idea,” I said and took a swig of Peroni.
Minutes later he placed in front of me a very small bowl of perfectly toasted and aromatic breadcrumbs. Hmm, interesting… I had ordered breadcrumbs?
Then, with a “Prego, meese,” he put a plate of pasta in front of me. (The Sicilians use the word “prego” for just about everything, so I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant.)
I looked down at what appeared to be spaghetti in a brownish sauce. Crap. I never order pasta in restaurants (anybody can make pasta at home for 1/10th the cost, so why order it?), but I was stuck with it now, so I sprinkled some of the breadcrumbs on top and twirled a bite onto my fork.
I took a bite and wait… what… huh?! It. Was. Amazing. Like nothing I’d ever tasted: rich, complex, yet light and simple… all at the same time. How could spaghetti taste this good? I didn’t set my fork down once until my plate was clean. I got up from the table and went looking for our toothless host; I wanted to hug him it was so good. I found him smoking at the bar, sipping from a ridiculously tiny espresso cup.
“Please, sir, can you please tell me what is in your pasta?” I pleaded.
“Pasta con le Sarde? Prego.” he said, and ushered me to a small, sparse kitchen. A stone pizza oven glowed, and a cook, also smoking, was pulling the heads and bones from small silver fish: sardines. He waved at little prep bowls filled with garlic, raisins, fennel, and pine nuts. After lighting a fresh cigarette he began deftly recreating my lunch.
The cook used fresh sardines (unfortunately, his were most likely Mediterranean, which are declining due to overfishing). Since I don’t want there to be ANY excuses for not trying this recipe, I made my following recreation with tinned sardines (please choose U.S./wild-caught, which are a Best Choice on Seafood Watch).
Warning: The following recipe makes a lot! You might want to adjust for your serving needs or ring up a few friends for a dinner party. Also, always try to fill your shopping basket with organic products and produce. Sure it may cost a touch more, but the resulting taste, vitamins and nutrients are dramatically superior. Even a basic grocery store has organic options, so save the lame excuses for the cops or landlord.
Here’s your shopping list:
[No specialty grocery required.]
Two tins (3.75 oz.) of wild-caught sardines in olive oil
Bulb of fennel (get one that’s about the size of a #3 Camalot)
Box of spaghetti
Small can of tomato paste (or use a convenient tube, like I do)
¼ cup of breadcrumbs
Four cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of pine nuts
2 tablespoons raisins, soaked for a few minutes in boiling water.
5 tablespoons olive oil
Reserved cooking water from pasta
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• Boil fennel bulb (the white part, see photo) for 5-10 minutes until tender all the way through, then roughly chop. Save the water to boil pasta in.
• Sauté garlic in five tablespoon of olive oil on medium-low for three minutes. Don’t burn it!
• Add sardines in their oil to pan with garlic, and gently smash with a wooden spoon until unrecognizable as sardines anymore.
• Add tomato paste and combine.
• Cook on medium-low heat for about 15 minutes (while the pasta boils). If sauce becomes too thick (and it probably will) add some of the boiling pasta water until it reaches desired consistency.
• Add raisins (don’t make fun of me, but I make my own raisins from the 40-year-old grape vines growing in our front yard), chopped fennel, pine nuts, and some of the wispy green tops (called fronds) from your fennel.
• Garnish with olives and breadcrumbs.
[Adding pasta water to sauce to thin it, raisins soaking in hot water, and what your fennel bulb should look like after it is cooked.]
[Here’s what it should kinda look like.]
As you can see [in the photo at the top], I made more than enough for JT and myself so I delivered a couple of helpings to my next-door neighbors. A few minutes after I left their house, I received a text: “Yum!! Is this the recipe from Epicurious with fennel and saffron?” She had obviously been using “the Google.”
I texted back, “No, it’s from a chain-smoking, toothless Sicilian man”
Check out all the recipe posts from our blog for more stories and inspiration.