Sicilian Pasta: A celebration of fennel, seafood, and pine nuts

Real Italian Food: Hyper-local, super-fresh, insanely delicious

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The Italians are way ahead of us. Mediterranean diet? Of course. Simpler, unfussy recipes? Got it. Small plates? They invented them.

And now that the weather is finally getting better here in the US for most of us, let me remind you of the joys Italians have been wallowing in for centuries: Dining outside.

They do all this great eating in a sequence that at first seems overwhelming. Antipasto? Pasta? Primi piatti? Contorno? What are all these words? What do they mean? And do I have to choose them all?

Relax. Antipasto just means “eat this before the pasta”. Pasta means … uh, pasta. But the portions you get in Italy are typically pretty small, because their pastas are so fresh and delicious and perfect you really don’t need much to start speaking tongues and dancing with people next to you. And the pasta often is followed by the main dishes (which is what primi piatti means), which will be equally stupendous, so you really won’t want to load up on your pasta. Really.

That’s just the way Italians do it.

And you can bet that the ingredients are fresh, having been grown within just a few miles of where they were picked, cooked, and presented. Hyperlocal. Super-fresh.

This is why I wanted to share this Sicilian dish. While several cuisine types in Italy use fennel pollen (especially in the Lazio region around Rome), fennel and fennel pollen are favorites in Sicily, a big island off the foot of the boot, and just a short ferry trip from the mainland. Known now for its blood oranges, and occasionally for its still-simmering volcano, Mount Etna, Sicily has terrific, delicious simple food. I’ve enjoyed the sunset in Sicily. Can’t wait to go back.

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Fennel pollen.

A genius ingredient loved by Italians from Sicily to Rome.

This dish pulls together fennel, fennel seed, and fennel pollen, and layers in delicious, healthy, light seafood: best quality sardines and a few anchovies for a bit of flavor depth. The combination goes down beautifully, and is fun to make.

You can add more anchovy if you like, to give it a bit more unctuousness, and even a bit more olive oil. You can add more or less of the fennel pollen. And while red pepper flakes are a common ingredient in the recipe, I’d say, add it in proportion to your use of the oil and anchovy, because red pepper flake is their perfect partner.

If you want to get a head start on eating well, eating healthy, and figuring out what you’re going to fix for your family and friends this Spring, this is it, baby.



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Pasta with sardines, fennel, pine nuts and breadcrumbs

Ingredients

  • 2 packed cups mixed greens of fresh fennel fronds and fennel seeds, with fronds taken from 1 bushy fennel bulb top (NOTE: Reserve 1/4 cup for a beautiful garnish)

  • 6 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 whole fennel bulb, rough end trimmed, cut into rings and then diced

  • 4 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped

  • Coarse kosher or sea salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • Red pepper flakes to taste

  • Two 4-ounce cans boneless sardines packed in olive oil, preferably Italian, French or Portuguese —or 12 fresh sardines (see my note below)

  • 5 anchovy fillets (best quality, stored in water)

  • 6 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted until just browning in a dry skillet (pay attention … the margin for error here is narrow!)

  • 1 T fennel seed, toasted in a dry skillet

  • 1/4 tsp fennel pollen

  • 1 -1/2 cups day old bread, cubed and toasted.

  • 1/2 pound bucatini (or spaghetti or even angel hair pasta, if you prefer, but bucatini is classic)

Fennel pollen, fennel fronts, fennel bulb, and fennel seeds, all on the left. Why? Because depth of flavor. The fennel pollen is buttery and aromatic. The fennel bulb is rich and like anise — a perfect marriage with sardine and anchovy. And that orange peel … I remember digging my thumbs into the flesh of a freshly picked Blood Orange in Sicily, where they’re from. Sweet, lovely, juicy orange. It’s the flavor of Sicily.

Fennel pollen, fennel fronts, fennel bulb, and fennel seeds, all on the left. Why? Because depth of flavor. The fennel pollen is buttery and aromatic. The fennel bulb is rich and like anise — a perfect marriage with sardine and anchovy. And that orange peel … I remember digging my thumbs into the flesh of a freshly picked Blood Orange in Sicily, where they’re from. Sweet, lovely, juicy orange. It’s the flavor of Sicily.

Procedure

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

  2. Cook pasta until al dente according to package instructions, about 8 minutes.

  3. Add sliced fennel, garlic, and salt to a EuroCAST sauté pan; season with pepper.

  4. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the funnel is soft and light golden, 9 to 10 minutes.

  5. Add anchovies, and sardines and fennel seed, pinenuts and fennel fronds.

  6. Meanwhile, when read, drain pasta, reserving about 1/4 cup cooking liquid, which has some lovely starch in it.

  7. Add pasta to mixture in pan along with enough cooking water to coat; toss to combine.

  8. Taste for seasoning and adjust. This is where more or less fennel pollen comes in, and your anchovy/oil choice gets re-architected with red pepper flake.

  9. Divide among four serving plates.

  10. Garnish with bread crumbs, remaining fennel fronds and sprinkle each place with a wee bit of fennel pollen.

About the fish

Sardines and anchovies in many households might be exotic. Not in mine. First, they add a ton of flavor without being overly fishy. (Yes, you read that right. Sardines, you may be surprised to know, are remarkably fresh tasting. And anchovies may be a bit richer and more intense, with a lovely umami flavor and a heavier brine. But umami is widely considered the magical flavor most chefs strive for, and brine is, well, just a hint of salt.)

Secondly, because these two charming swimmers are at the bottom of the ocean-dwelling food chain, they are by far the healthiest fish you can find in the Mediterranean sea, the legendary body of water that delivers some of the healthiest cuisines in the world.

And so we come to the sardine question: Fresh or canned? My recipe mentions the option of 12 fresh sardines. Fresh sardines are the best. They’ve not been pre-cooked, like canned sardines are, so they tend to stay firm. This gives the dish more bite and substance (and is more authentic to what you’d actually eat if you came with me to Sicily). Canned sardines can melt almost completely away, and what doesn’t quite melt away might be a bit drier, having now been cooked twice. (In which case, a bit more oil, please.) It’s all a balancing act.

But whatever you do, get the best sardines you can find, whether in a can or wrapped fresh in butcher paper.

Sardines and anchovies, with pine nuts and orange zest … these are all inspired by what you see growing and swimming in the inky waters of the Mediterranean as you twirl around in a green, grassy field near Palermo.

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Paul WardComment