Pasta with sardines is a famous dish of Sicilian cuisine. It’s a very tasty pasta recipe made with simple ingredients such as sardines, wild fennel, raisins and breadcrumbs.
Sardines are a typical “blue fish” that is very common in the Mediterranean sea and in Sicily in particular.
One of the key ingredients in this recipe is wild fennel. Wild fennel is a very common herb in Sicily. It gives a special flavor to pasta with sardines. If you cannot find it, you can substitute it with fennel top and some fennel seeds.
To make pasta with sardines, we traditionally use Spaghettoni (very large spaghetti) or Bucatini.
The addition of saffron and raisins suggests that this dish came from the contamination of Sicilian cuisine with Arab cuisine, which brought these ingredients to our tables.
In this particular recipe, the flavors of the land blend perfectly with those of the sea, as is often the case in Sicilian cuisine.
Making sardine pasta is quite easy. The only “camurrìa” (“hassle” in Sicilian dialect) is the cleaning of the sardines. In fact you have to clean and de-bone them very well. But surely your trusted fishmonger will kindly clean them for you!
You have to make a soffritto with oil and onion and then add the various ingredients one at a time. In this mix, the fresh flavor of the fennel, the sweetness of the raisins and the crunchiness of the almonds, pine nuts and toasted breadcrumbs will blend harmoniously.
At this point, color with saffron and add the fresh sardines, which have a short cooking time.
Obviously, choosing the best and freshest sardines is of paramount importance for the dish to succeed at its best.
Let’s now see how to make this amazing Sicilian recipe step by step: Pasta with Sardines (Pasta con le Sarde).
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How to Make Authentic Sicilian Pasta with Sardines (Pasta con le Sarde)
- Prep Time: 20 Min
- Cook Time: 20 Min
- Serving: 4
- 350 g (3/4 pound) of Spaghettoni (thick spaghetti) or Bucatini
- 250 g (1/2 pound) of sardines, net of scraps
- 200 g (7 oz) of wild fennel. You can substitute wild fennel with fennel tops and a scant teaspoon of fennel seeds. CAREFUL! Use very few fennel seeds because they have a very intense aroma.
- 1 little white onion
- 50 g (about 5 tablespoons) of raisins
- 30 g (about 4 tablespoons) of pine nuts
- 30 g (about 3 tablespoons) of almonds
- 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 0,15 g of saffron powder (1 sachet)
- 150 g (1 1/2 cups) of breadcrumbs
- ground black pepper to taste
- fine salt to taste
Step 1) – To make the sauce for pasta with sardines, first boil the wild fennel. So, when the water boils, toss in the wild fennel – or fennel tops – and cook them over medium heat for 10 minutes.
Once cooked, drain and chop them on a cutting board. Keep aside. Save the boiling water from the fennel.
Step 2) – Soak the raisins in a small bowl of warm water. Keep aside. Then, on a cutting board, chop the onion quite finely and keep aside as well.
Step 3) – Using an electric mixer, chop the almonds. It’s not necessary to grind them into a powder, just chop them coarsely.
Step 4) – Now clean the sardines thoroughly. If your sardines are already cleaned, skip this step.
Remove the head, tail, dorsal fin, guts and center bone.
Finally, rinse them quickly under running water and dry them with paper towels. Arrange them on a plate and keep them aside.
Step 5) – You now have all the ingredients ready. You can start preparing the sardine sauce for the pasta.
In a skillet, sauté the onion in extra virgin olive oil.
Then add chopped fennel (and fennel seeds if you do not have wild fennel), raisins (squeezed out of water), chopped almonds and pine nuts and stir.
Step 6) – Add a ladleful of the fennel cooking water and mix well. Let it cook for about 5 minutes on medium heat.
Then dissolve the saffron in a tiny bit of water and add it to the sauce.
Step 7) – Now add the sardines. If they are large, cut them into pieces, otherwise put them whole.
If necessary, add a little fennel cooking water so that the sardines turn out covered.
Finally, cook for about 5 or 6 minutes over medium heat. The sauce should be quite thick and the sardines not too flaky.
Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Keep aside.
Step 8) – Now toast the breadcrumbs in a frying pan. Heat a 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil in the pan and add the breadcrumbs. Toast over medium heat.
Stir continuously so that the bread does not burn but becomes golden and crispy. This will take about 5 minutes. Keep aside.
Step 9) – Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghettoni – or bucatini – following the cooking time described on the package.
Drain the pasta 2 minutes before the end of cooking time. Place the pasta directly into the pan with the sauce.
Step 10) – Add a drizzle of oil and, if the sardine sauce has thickened too much in the meantime, add some of the fennel cooking water. Cook for 2 minutes over high heat, stirring gently without letting the sardines flake.
Serve the pasta hot with plenty of crunchy breadcrumbs.
Here is your Pasta with sardines, the authentic Sicilian recipe is ready!
How to Store Pasta with Sardines
It’s better to eat pasta with sardines freshly made, hot and with the toasted breadcrumbs still crispy.
In any case, should it be left over, you can store the pasta with sardines tightly closed in a food container and keep it in the refrigerator for up to one day.
How to Reheat Pasta con le Sarde
To reheat leftover pasta with sardines the next day, there are two methods in Sicily.
Pan-fried pasta with sardines: you can pan-fry pasta with sardines with a drizzle of oil.
Baked pasta with sardines: or put the pasta with sardines in an baking pan. Sprinkle with a little breadcrumbs and add a drizzle of oil. Bake at 200°C (390°F) for 10 minutes.
Either way, the pasta will turn out crispy and golden. Although these are methods for not wasting leftovers, the result is really tasty and appetizing!
Pasta with Sardines: Some Variations
Pasta with sardines and wild fennel is a traditional dish from Palermo, but it is also prepared in Messina, Catania, Trapani, Syracuse, and Agrigento.
As is the case with many traditional Italian recipes, each family has its own version and each has its own originality.
However, the basic ingredients are always the same in each variant: fresh sardines, wild fennel, raisins, pine nuts and breadcrumbs.
In general, variations of pasta with sardines fall into two main groups.
Pasta con le sarde “in bianco” (white), that is, without tomato and with saffron, and pasta con le sarde rossa (red), with the addition of tomato.
The latter is more common in the Agrigento areas.
Sometimes both tomato paste and saffron are put in.
In some areas, especially in the Trapani area, it’s also common to add anchovies in oil to the onion soffritto.
Vegetarian Variant: “Pasta con le Sarde a Mare”.
There is also a “vegetarian variant” of pasta with sardines: “Pasta con le Sarde a mare” (in the sea).
This name comes from the sharp irony of the Sicilian people.
It’s a dish belonging to the cucina povera of the past, prepared in times of “lean” in Sicily. When fishermen would return with empty nets.
Thanks to the presence of wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins and stale bread, the flavor is very reminiscent of that of traditional pasta with sardines, only the sardines are not there, rather they are left “a mare” (in tha sea)!!!
Pasta with sardines and wild fennel: Pasta di San Giuseppe
Although it’s possible to cook this recipe year-round, Sicilians consider it a seasonal dish, to be eaten between March and September.
The freshness and territoriality of the two main ingredients (wild fennel and sardines) is crucial.
In the period between March and September, in the Sicilian highlands, the scented wild fennel can be harvested in abundance.
While the sea gives the best fresh sardines, larger and shinier, in great abundance at this time.
For this reason, pasta with sardines is also called “Pasta di San Giuseppe.” It’s the typical dish that Sicilians use to cook on the day of St. Joseph, March 19.
Brief History of Pasta with Sardines
According to some experts, the historical origins of pasta with sardines date back to the time of the military campaign conducted by the Arabs near Syracuse in the early 9th century.
It was an Arab cook in the service of Commander Euphemius of Messina, head of the naval force of the Byzantine Empire, who invented this recipe.
During a military campaign in the Syracuse area, the cook allegedly created pasta with sardines to feed his many troops.
The army was in dire straits, so the cook had to use his inventiveness to succeed in preparing a dish with what nature had to offer.
He used sardines, which were found in great abundance in that stretch of sea, and the flavors of the land, namely wild fennel and pine nuts.
Thus it was from this improvised preparation that pasta with sardines was born.