Last fall, I took a seafood pasta class at the Mermaid’s Garden shop in Prospect Heights. I often don’t combine pasta and fish (outside of the linguine with clams variety), but I was introduced to several delicious iterations that I would have never been part of my repertoire before. We sampled udon with clams, cod and potato ravioli and fish tagine. But one of my favorites was the classic pasta con sarde, a traditional Sicilian pasta dish featuring sardines.
Pasta con sarde is representative of the history of Sicily, combining both native ingredients with Arab influences. The dish features sardines and fennel, abundant in the area, with pine nuts, golden raisins and a pinch of saffron, which would have been brought to the island with the arrival of the Arabs in the 9th century.
Some say that the Arab General Eufemio ordered his kitchen staff to make a dish to appease his troops and this was the result – a dish that combined their new territory with flavors from home.
Centuries later, many consider this a national dish of Sicily, but even so, it can be contentious in it’s preparation. On the western side of the island, recipes would consist of a white wine base whereas on other coast, many include tomatoes (as my recipe below does). I am a fan of either to be honest!
But, for my preparation of this dish today, I had a beautiful mackerel filet that I chose to substitute for canned sardines. The mackerel paired wonderfully with these flavors… those nice licorice notes from the fennel; the sweetness from the golden raisins; the hint of heat from the chili flakes. There’s sweet and sour notes that play beautifully together. It’s a hearty pasta, quick and easy to whip up on a weeknight, and even great served cold for leftovers.
- 1 lb spaghetti or bucatini
- 1 lb mackerel filet or 1 can sardines
- 1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
- ½ cup fennel, sliced thinly
- ½ cup yellow onion, sliced thinly
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 pinch red chile flakes
- 1 pinch saffron
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ¼ cup golden raisins
- ¼ cup pine nuts
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Combine the wine, currants and saffron in a small bowl and set aside.
- Remove the skin from the mackerel filet, if using, and cut the fish into bite sized pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté in a pan over medium heat until cooked through. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a sauté pan. Add the garlic, fennel and onion and cook until soft and fragrant (3-5 minutes). Add the pine nuts and cook for one minute. Push all of the vegetables to the side of the pan. Put the tomato paste into a dry spot in the pan and cook until it turns a rust color (1-2 minutes).
- Add the chile flakes, wine, saffron and currants to the pan. (The sauce can be made ahead up to this point).
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add the pasta. Cook the pasta for one minute less than the package directions suggest. Be sure to reserve a few cups of pasta water.
- While the pasta is cooking warm the sauce and gently fold in the mackerel or sardines. Add a splash of pasta water if the sauce becomes too dry.
- Add the cooked pasta and stir to combine for about a minute. Serve with the fried breadcrumbs on the side.