Sardines and spaghetti is not an Italian American food that I recall. While sardines made an appearance in the canned form and usually with slices of crispy Italian bread, I don’t remember fresh sardines. Yet, as I walk along the stalls of Philadelphia’s 9th Street, fresh sardines are a common offering. Did my grandparents use fresh sardines and, if they did, what became of the recipe? Would not a recipe for sardines and pasta belong to the goal of preserving the Italian American Kitchen?
My first source was my cook book collection. I immediately went to David Pasternack’s “The Young Man and the Sea.” I immediately found an entry for this lost dish Pasternack suggested sardines and fennel served with whole wheat pasta. Then I turned to Clifford A. Wright’s epic “A Mediterranean Feast.” Low and behold, there again was the almost identical recipe. Pastnernack and Wright indicate that their recipes came from the Venice region and both called for whole wheat pasta called “bigoli.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigoli
Well, I don’t like whole wheat pasta. To me, it simply lacks all the luscious “liscio” of semolina pasta from Torre Annunziata such as is made by Setaro. It seemed to me that these fresh sardines would swim just as well in any hefty pasta. I began thinking of something more like buccatini.
My next area of inquiry was Google.it. Google.it offered pages of recipes for pasta with sardines, “pasta con le sarde.” Sure enough, my instincts were correct. No small number of the Italian recipes proposed bucatini as the preferred pasta. Several of these recipes suggested fennel and some recipes included raisins, a Sicilian favorite.
Researching the Italian American recipe.
Page after page, website after website I began to formulate a recipe of my own. Clearly, recipes for sardines and pasta are as numerous as the persons who make this dish. I realized that whatever ingredients I decided to include were just as valid as anything I might find online or in a book. The essential was that I keep to those Italian foods available to the people of the time. True, my recipe would not be a reproduction of an Italian American recipe that I grew up with. After all, I do not remember having fresh sardines with pasta. Nonetheless, somewhere in the past, sardines with pasta, “pasta con le sarde,” must have been a significant dish to people who lived along the coast from Naples and Salerno to Sicily. Sardines were plentiful and so inexpensive. How this dish vanished from the Italian American kitchen I don’t yet know. The disappearance of th is fish seems strange when considering the importance of mussels or clams or crabs or squid as an accompaniment for spaghetti. Why did sardines vanish?
The recipe that follows can certainly be altered or adjusted. I am making this dish in winter, so I am using fennel, finocchio, because we had it for Christmas and New Year. Contrary to the traditional Italian American Kitchen the tomato component is not the heavy Italian American sauce. I don’t want to overwhelm the fennel and the other ingredients. So, in my recipe if used only a few crushed whole tomatoes. Then, in the Sicilian tradition I added some raisins to the finish. Some sites on Google Italy finish this dish with bread crumbs, but I went so far as to garnish with some grated pecorino Romano. Cheese on fish is often a major offense since most fish are so mild, but sardines are a bit different. Looking again to Google Italy many sites now find the use of cheese with certain fish dishes as acceptable. I can assure you that some pecorino Romano sprinkled over the sardines, fennel and raisins sends your taste spinning with happiness.
A Note on the sardines
Many fish sellers will not clean sardines. They are too small. For cleaned sardines you would have to buy them package frozen. Frozen sardine are often found in Asian stores. I bought my sardines whole and cleaned them myself. Cleaning sardines is easy but a little messy.
Hold the sardine by the tail and scrape along the fish with a sharp knife to remove the scales. Do this in deep sink. The scales fly everywhere and stick to everything.
Move the scaled fish to a cutting board.
With a sharp knife cut off the top fin (dorsal) and the bottom fins.
Slit the sardine open from the vent to the gills.
Remover the guts.
Cut off the head.
Spread the fish open.
Cut off the tail.
Set aside the filets.
What you need
Sautee pan or wok
Several sardines- preferably fresh, cleaned.
Pasta - bucatini or other full bodied type
Tomatoes, fresh crushed or Cento San Marzano
Red pepper to taste
Pecorino Romano - grated
other fragrances or spices like capers or parsley
The Mise en place - getting everything together