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Pasta with Sardines

No recipe image available.No self-respecting Sicilian cook is without a recipe for this dish. If Sicily were a country, this would be top contender for the national dish. Until recently, fresh sardines were virtually nonexistent in fish markets outside the shores of the Mediterranean, you had to rely on canned ones. Now you should be able to obtain medium-size fresh sardines from your fish market, but you may have to special order them in advance. This dish is also made with perciatelli, a thick, hollow spaghetti shape that is similar to bucatini, which means "the little hollow ones."

Recipe Ingredients:

1/2 pound fresh medium sardines, filleted
9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 sprig fresh oregano, leaves only
5 fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons golden raisins
3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 medium bulb fresh fennel, stem portions on top trimmed off*
1 pound perciatelli
1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
Freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese

Cooking Directions:

  1. Cut the sardine fillets into 1-inch pieces. Place 6 tablespoons of the olive oil along with the garlic in a large saucepan over medium heat and sauté until the garlic is lightly golden brown. Add the sardines and continue to sauté, stirring until they form a paste, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. Add the tomato paste along with 3 3/4 cups water to the saucepan, bringing the mixture to a boil. Add the oregano, basil, raisins, and pine nuts, lower the heat, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer the mixture until it is thick, about 45 minutes.
  3. As you begin to cook the sauce, place a large pot of water with a teaspoon of salt over high heat. Bring to a boil, then place the fennel bulb in it and cook for 45 minutes. Lower the heat and simmer until the fennel is tender. Remove the fennel, dice it, and add it to the sauce.
  4. Keep the fennel water boiling in the pot and cook the pasta in it. Drain well and remove to a warm serving platter.
  5. While you're cooking the pasta, place the remaining olive oil in a pan over medium heat and sauté the breadcrumbs until golden brown, lightly seasoning them with a little salt and pepper.
  6. Toss the pasta with the sauce, sprinkle it with the breadcrumbs, and serve with the cheese on the side.

Makes 4 servings.

*When shopping for fennel, look for the shorter, rounder bulbs rather than the slender, long ones (which means the plant was overgrown). The squat, firm bulbs have the true fresh fennel texture and flavor.