It has been a while since DonQui Oaty returned from Sicily. Back in his home paddock he has continued to experiment with some of the foods he discovered while he was away, doing his best to recreate them in his own kitchen.
One of the most interesting and unusual dishes he came across in Sicily was pasta con le sarde or pasta with sardines. Probably dating back to the Arab conquest of the 8th century, it is unlike any pasta dish DonQui has ever tasted. Saffron, raisins, pine nuts, almonds and wild fennel bring the tastes of North Africa and the Middle East to merge with Sicilian cooking.
What follows is DonQui’s version of the ancient recipe. He is rather pleased that it turned out as good as what he had sampled in Sicily.
Ingredients for 2 people
1 small onion, finely chopped;
2-3 anchovy filets, cut into pieces
2-3 sardines (ideally fresh), filleted and cut into pieces
a bunch of fresh wild fennel tops (or a tablespoon of dry wild fennel)
a good pinch of saffron strands lightly pulverised with a pestle and soaked in a little boiling water
a glass of dry white wine
a handful of currants or sultanas soaked in water for 20-30 minutes (currants are traditional)
a handful of toasted pine nuts
a level tablespoon of ground almonds
a teaspoon of tomato purée (tomato paste) dissolved in a little water (optional and not traditional)
water to dilute
salt and pepper to taste
a handful of toasted breadcrumbs
150g dried bucatini, linguine or spaghetti
Wild fennel (finocchio selvatico) is not easy to come by outside Sicily and it is quite different from cultivated fennel. DonQui uses some dried finocchio selvatico he brought back from his travels. He understands that a reasonable substitute can be made from dill along with ground fennel seeds.
Fresh sardines are best. They are not in season at the moment so DonQui uses tinned sardines preserved in oil as a reasonable substitute.
Pour boiling water over the saffron and the sultanas or currants and let them sit for 15-30 minutes. This allows the dried fruit to re-hydrate. It also brings out the saffron flavour and colour from the strands.
Gently toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan on medium heat until they turn golden.
Fry the onions in oil until they soften and begin to colour.
Add the sardine and anchovy pieces and continue to gently fry. The fish will break up and begin to dissolve (approximately 3-5 minutes on a low-medium heat)
Turn up the heat and add the wine, letting it boil off until reduced by about half.
Then add the fennel and the saffron (with its soaking water). Cover and simmer gently for about 10 minutes.
Strain the sultanas/currents from their soaking water and add them to the sauce along with the ground almonds, diluted tomato purée, and half the pine kernels. The almonds and tomato purée will thicken and bind the sauce. Add a bit of water to dilute as needed.
Bring the sauce back up to a gentle boil and simmer for about 5-10 minutes uncovered to allow the flavours to come together. Stir frequently to avoid scorching, adding more water if needed to dilute. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper according to taste.
Meanwhile prepare the pasta in salted boiling water until done (about 12 minutes) then strain. If you have a good supply of wild fennel add some to the pasta water.
Tip the strained pasta into the pan with the sauce and mix it together well. Add a dash of the pasta cooking water to dilute and keep everything moist.
Turn into a serving dish, sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs and remaining toasted pine nuts. Then serve.
In some parts of Sicily the final dish with the breadcrumb topping is put into a hot oven for a few minutes to crisp up. DonQui has not tried it this way yet so cannot say if it is an improvement or not.
The result is an astounding combination of flavours which DonQui highly recommends.
Duchess was quite taken a-back on first tasting but the more her tastebuds became accustomed to the flavours the more she liked it. She thought capers might be an interesting addition and although they are not a traditional ingredient, she may well be right.
A little extra virgin olive oil served on the side makes an excellent addition. A little drizzle seems to bind the flavours beautifully. Do not be tempted to add any cheese — it would clash horribly with the taste.
A crisp southern Italian white wine makes an excellent accompaniment. DonQui chooses the Gambino Winery’s Tifeo bianco, made from Carricante and Catarrato grapes grown on the slopes of Mt Etna. It is a perfect match.