Bucatini with sardines and fennel

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Bucatini with sardines is traditional Italian dish, originated from Sicily. Pasta con le sarde is presented with toasted breadcrumbs as a topping, in the same way that grated cheese is used. Originally the breadcrumbs may have been a substitute for cheese for the poor. In some versions of this dish the cooked ingredients are arranged in layers in a baking dish, topped with breadcrumbs and then baked – the breadcrumbs form a crust.

Ingredients:

500g bucatini
700g sardines
150g fennel, stalks and foliage (wild is preferable, but if unavailable, a large bulb of fennel with the fronds, cut into quarters and a teaspoon of fennel seeds to strengthen the flavour)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely sliced
4 anchovies, finely sliced
1 cup pine nuts
1 cup almonds, toasted and chopped (optional)
¾ cup currants or seedless raisins or sultanas
1 small tsp saffron
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4-5 tbsp toasted breadcrumbs

Preparation:

Place the wild fennel into cold, salted water and boil for 10-15 minutes (it can be left in the water for longer). The green tinged, fennel-flavoured water will be used to cook the pasta – it will flavour and colour the pasta. Save a little to use raw.

If using bulb fennel, cut it into quarters and reserve the green fronds to use raw in cooking the fish. Add fennel seeds and boil until tender. Drain the cooked fennel in colander, and then gently squeeze out the water. Chop the fennel roughly, this will be added to the sauce later. Discard the seeds and keep the fennel-flavoured water to cook the pasta.

Cut about two thirds of the sardine fillets into thick pieces. The whole fillets of fish go on top of the pasta and are used to provide visual impact. Heat oil in shallow wide pan and sauté the onions over medium heat until golden.

Add pine nuts, raisins and almonds (optional). Toss gently. Add the sliced sardines, salt and pepper and the uncooked fennel. Cook on gentle heat for about 5-10 minutes, stirring gently. Add the anchovies (try to remove any bones if there are any) and as they cook, crush them with back of spoon to dissolve into a paste. Add the cooked chopped fennel and the saffron dissolved in a little warm water and continue to stir and cook gently.

Boil bucatini in the fennel water until al dente. Fry the whole fillets of sardines in a separate frying pan, keeping them intact. Remove them from the pan and put aside. Drain the pasta.

Combine the pasta and the fish sauce (use one of the saucepans you have used for cooking). Leave the pasta for 5-10 minutes to incorporate the flavours and to preserve some warmth.

When ready to serve, tip the pasta and fish mixture into a serving bowl, arranging the whole fillets on top and dress the whole dish with the toasted breadcrumbs.