Recipe: Pasta with Sardines & Fennel (Pasta con le Sarde)

Patrick and I are huge fans of canned seafood, so our kitchen shelves are stocked full of our favorite sardines, mackerel, sprats, and oysters. Over two years ago, I was browsing through sardine recipes and stumbled upon a recipe for pasta con le sarde, a specialty dish from Palermo that's also considered to be the national dish of Sicily.  

Pasta con le sarde has an unusual, harmonious combination of flavors and textures that make it irresistible: the strong fishy taste of oily sardines, the cleansing and bright flavor of fennel, the sweetness of the currants, plus buttery pine nuts and crunchy toasted bread crumbs. While many pasta dishes use grated cheese, pasta con le sarde uses toasted breadcrumbs as a topping. There's speculation that breadcrumbs may have been the poor people's substitute for cheese. 

This is one of our favorite pasta dishes that we've made countless times. It can be eaten hot or cold, so leftovers make a nice treat. It's even better the next day when the flavors have time to soak into the pasta. 

We modified the original recipe to our preferences and hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Pasta with Sardines & Fennel (Pasta con le Sarde)

Recipe adapted from Laurie Constantino
Serves 4

THE INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cups currants
  • 3/4 cup dry vermouth
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 cup panko, toasted
  • 2 cans sardines in olive oil
  • 2 medium fennel bulbs, including 1/4 cup of fronds
  • 1 large diced yellow onion, 1/4” dice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. fennel seeds, crushed
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 lb. spaghetti

THE DIRECTIONS

  1. Mix currants and dry vermouth in small bowl. Set aside.
  2. Toast pine nuts in dry frying pan over medium heat, watching carefully to make sure they don’t burn. Put pine nuts in bowl large enough to hold cooked pasta.
  3. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil to frying pan, and brown panko in oil, stirring frequently, until breadcrumbs are lightly toasted. Set aside.
  4. Open sardines, drain off oil, put sardines in small bowl, and break them in bite sized pieces with a fork. Add half the sardines to bowl with toasted pine nuts, and set aside remaining half of sardines.
  5. Cut stalks off fennel bulb, cut bulb in half, remove hard core, and dice fennel bulb into 1/4” dice. Reserve 1/4 cup of green fronds from fennel stalks and chop them. Discard fennel stalks.
  6. Sauté onions, fennel bulb and fronds, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, salt, and freshly ground black pepper in 1/4 cup olive oil until fennel is tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in vermouth, currants, reserved sardines, and remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed.
  7. While cooking onions and fennel, boil pasta in salted water until it’s al dente.
  8. Drain pasta. Add pasta and hot sardine fennel-onion mixture to the bowl with large bowl with the pine nuts and sardines. Toss well. Add toasted bread crumbs and toss again. 

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