Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pasta con sarde

Around Chez Ninj, we love anchovies -- a lot.

If a recipe calls for three anchovies, I'll add at least five. And there is no such thing as "leftover anchovies" in this house, because they make a nice snack all by themselves.

Therefore, you might think it odd that neither of us has ever had sardines before. Little canned fishes seems right up our alley, yes?

I thought it was odd. So I went searching for a sardine recipe.

And I found a doozy: pasta con sarde (yep, Italian for "with sardines").

Sardines (also called pilchards) are small, oily fish from the herring family, rich in calcium and omega-3s. It is historically thought that they received the monniker "sardine" because they used to be so abundant around Sardinia.

Now, everything I read says that fresh sardines are preferable to canned. But I live in a landlocked state, it's the middle of winter and I have yet to find a great local source for unusual fresh seafood, so I went with canned sardines.

Additionally, most recipes I looked at called for a large amount of fresh fennel. Not being a huge fennel fan, I opted to use fennel seed instead, to get the flavor without the bulk. I also found it very interesting that a key component of nearly every recipe for pasta con sarde is raisins, which seem unusual for a tomato-based pasta dish but added a nice flavor and texture.

Another bit of history came from One Perfect Bite (whose recipe served as the basis for mine), who explained why pasta con sarde is often called "St. Joseph's pasta":

The breadcrumbs in the dish are used in place of cheese and at one time they actually served that function for the poor. They also have a symbolic importance for those who observe St. Joseph's Day. As you know, Joseph was a carpenter and the breadcrumbs that crown this dish are used because they resemble the sawdust that would be found on the floor of a carpenter's workshop. Pasta con sarde is also known as St. Joseph's pasta, and in those communities where his feast day is still celebrated, you'll find this pasta on family tables, as well as on symbolic altars set up to feed the poor.

The toasted breadcrumbs really add a nice finish to this dish, giving it a little crunch that a simple sprinkling of cheese would lack. Don't skip them (especially if it's March 19th, which is St. Joseph's Day -- I think he'd be pissed).

The sardines don't quite melt down the way an anchovy does in the hot sauce but they do break down so much that you will think you are eating a nice meaty ragu rather than a "fish sauce."

Do you like sardines? Do you have a favorite dish that includes sardines or anchovies? The Ninj wants to know.

Pasta con Sarde (adapted from One Perfect Bite)

3 cans tinned sardines packed in olive oil (usually 3.75 ounces each)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup white wine
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed or ground (I ground them pretty finely)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 pound dried pasta (I used bucatini -- rigatoni or fettucine would be nice alternatives)
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil

Drain just the oil from each of the sardine tins into a large pot; set the cans aside. Add another tablespoon olive oil and heat over a medium flame. Throw in  the garlic and saute for about a minute. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for about 10 minutes, until slightly thickened. Stir in the raisins, sardines, fennel seed, sugar, salt and pepper and simmer about 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Lastly, add the parsley and oregano and cook for about another 10 minutes.

While the sauce finishes cooking, toss the panko and olive oil in a small pan and toast over low heat, stirring constantly, until beginning to brown lightly. At the same time, cook the pasta and drain.

Toss the sardine sauce with the hot pasta. Sprinkle each serving with a few tablespoons of the toasted breadcrumbs.


  1. Ninja-baby!
    This looks uber-yummy, I'm betting it'll be another smash hit.

    1. Thank you, sir -- let me know if you give it a try!

  2. I was laying in bed the other morning thinking about ways of using sardines that wouldn't come off as gross, and I decided that it would have to be a pasta dish for sure, and then bamo! Here is one that is as far from gross as possible. This looks so darned delicious. I'll be right over for dinner:)

    1. Thanks, Katie -- I'll take "far from gross". ;-) I wonder why sardines got that bad rep in the first place...