Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe for pasta con le sarde โ€“ pasta with sardines, anchovies, fennel, raisins and pine nuts | food

I remember one night a famous American art critic came into Locanda to eat. This guy looked at the menu and then said, โ€œYou know, I have just come back from Sicily and I loved the pasta they made with the sarde.โ€ I went back into the kitchen and said to Rino, my head chef, who is from Sciacca, on the south coast of Sicily, โ€œWe have to cook this pasta for him.โ€ We had some perfect sardines, beautiful sultanas, and I had just come back from Sicily myself, so I had brought some of the wild fennel that grows so freely.

We cooked the pasta for him, and every single year since he has sent me a card at Christmas, saying, โ€œThat pasta with the sarde was the best I ever had.โ€

This is a dish that sums up Sicily for me: the Arab combination of sultanas, nuts and saffron (I think it needs lots) shows the history of the island, yet the ingredients themselves have been indigenous there since classical times. In Palermo, they make the dish in the same way but pile the pasta into an ovenproof dish, with the breadcrumbs on top, and bake it in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes at around 150C fan/gas mark 3.

There is another version of the dish that is typical of the other aspect of Sicilian cooking, which is all about making do with what you have โ€ฆ it is known as pasta con le sarde a mare, which means โ€œpasta with sardines that are in the seaโ€ โ€“ in other words, they had the pine nuts, sultanas, breadcrumbs and all the other ingredients to make the dish, but they didn’t have any sardines, so they made it anyway, just without the fish!

If you can’t find any wild fennel, use a teaspoon of fennel seeds instead. Soak them, whole, in just a little water โ€“ only enough to cover them โ€“ for a couple of hours, and add them instead of the wild fennel.

Serves 4
salted anchovies 3, or 6 anchovy fillets in oil
breadcrumbs 100g
extra virgin olive oil 120ml
onion 1 medium, chopped
white wine 50ml
‘strattu (Sicilian tomato paste) 2 tbsp or 1ยฝ tbsp tomato puree
fresh sardine fillets 8
sultans 30g
pine nuts 30g
saffron a good pinch (about 20 threads)
wild fennel 3 sprigs, finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds, soaked in a little water
sea โ€‹โ€‹salt and freshly ground black pepper
pasta 200g, such as bucatini

If using salted anchovies, rinse and dry them. Run your thumb gently along the backbone to release it, and you should be able to pull it out easily. If using anchovies in oil, drain them.

Toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan over a medium heat, until they are quite a dark golden brown. Take care not to burn them.

Heat half the extra virgin olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Sautรฉ until softened but not coloured, then add the anchovy fillets, stirring them until they โ€œmeltโ€. Add the wine and bubble up to let it evaporate, then add the ‘strattu or puree and bring back to the boil, adding just enough water to give a sauce consistency. Add the sardine fillets, sultanas, pine nuts, saffron and chopped fennel or soaked seeds. Taste and season if necessary, stir gently, and cook for 10 minutes.

Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt, then put in the pasta and cook for about a minute less than the time given on the packet, so that it is al dente. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water.

Toss the pasta with the sardine sauce and the rest of the olive oil, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce, and sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs.

From Made in Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli (HarperCollins, ยฃ30)

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