Cooking for Jesus in Palermo
Have you ever wondered what would you cook for Jesus? I have never thought about it but after tasting this dish, my mind chose the one I would like to share it with. There are no easy words to describe it. The combination of tastes, textures and colors create a result that is simply divine. This is not a common and simple pasta dish, it is something much more; this is “pasta con le sarde”.
Pasta with sardines is a typical Sicilian recipe mostly connected with the city of Palermo. The unique combination of ingredients reflects at best the gastronomic traditions of Sicily that are an amalgamation of Mediterranean and Arabic elements.
The main component of the dish as the name implies are the sardines. These cute fish look small in the eye but are extra large regarding both their nutritional gifts and culinary use. Sardines are excellent source of a wide spectrum of nutrients, among them particularly of calcium. This can be especially useful for women that are not consuming milk products and they have concerns about osteoporosis. In that case and to get most out of them, sardines are advisable to be consumed whole, with the main bone that runs through their body. This bone is perfectly edible and contains most of the calcium pool.
In the kitchen sardines can be best friends with cooks. They require very short time to cook, can be treated in many different ways and combined nicely with plenty of ingredients, even if some people suggest that they should only be grilled.
For this particular recipe both fresh and canned sardines can be used equally well. If you get them fresh (like in the original recipe), you need first to dirty your hands and clean them. If you use canned, select only the ones stored in extra-virgin-olive-oil. This oil has been infused with sardine flavor and should be also used for preparing the sauce.
But the ingredient that is unique and considered the highlight of the recipe is wild fennel (finocchietto selvatico), one of the most symbolic edible products of Sicily. Wild fennel though can be found only in certain parts of Mediterranean. However, it can be substituted with dill that has similar overall appearance and it can be found much easier (I hope the Sicilians are fine with it!). In this case you should use additionally chopped fennel bulbs and/or fennel seeds that are widely available and can incorporate the anise/liquorice taste into the dish, something that dill cannot really do it.
Another particular ingredient of the recipe is pangrattato that translates to grated bread. Pangrattato also known as the poor man’s parmesan, traditionally used to substitute the latter in pasta dishes mainly of the poor Italian south that could not afford to buy the rather expensive cheese of the Italian north. The purpose obviously was not to substitute the parmesan as a cheese but to cheat the eye by having something grated on the dish when it is served.
Even though it is a very basic ingredient, its crunchy character gives an interesting twist to a dish and elevates the whole mouth feeling. Try for instance to serve a basic pasta dish like aglio-e-olio with some pangrattato and you will get a completely new experience. I would not suggest to buy it ready grated but rather to prepare it at home using some old, real bread.
The above in combination with other stuff like raisins, pine nut seeds, saffron, concentrated tomato paste, create a wonderful mix with deep flavors and crunchy textures that come together mysteriously great.
The pasta component of the dish is traditionally of long type with dried bucatini being commonly used. Here, I used the fresh equivalent, typically made in the very south of Italy, also in Sicily, known as maccheroni inferrati. The latter are hand-made and thus they are of much wider and usually shorter tubes than bucatini. To make them you first prepare a typical durum-wheat-semola dough that subsequently you cut into pieces and you roll by hand into thin, snake-like cylinders. Then, you cut smaller cylinders that you wrap parallel around a thin metal wire (a knitting needle can be used), known as ferretto. Subsequently, you roll the ferretto using your hands and at the same time stretching the piece of pasta up to a desired length (typically ≈ 10cm, but can go even longer depending on the skills of the pasta maker). Finally, you carefully pull out the ferretto, releasing the formed maccheroni.
- If you are using fresh sardines clean them by cutting off their heads and open them in a butterfly fashion, removing the intestine bag and optionally the main bone.
- Prepare the pangrattato by chopping some old bread in small pieces using a food processor and then toast shortly in a pan. Usually the crumbs are toasted with some olive oil and even some herbs but I prefer to do it without. When it feels dried, remove it from fire and set it aside.
- Bring water in a pot to boil, season with salt and blanch the wild fennel or dill for few minutes. Remove it from water, chop it down and keep it aside.
- Use a bit of the same hot, flavored water to hydrate the saffron threads and keep the bulk of it to cook later the pasta.
B. Sauce, pasta and finishing
- Chop an onion and some fennel bulb in small pieces and start sautéing in a good amount of extra-virgin-olive-oil (if you have canned sardines, use the oil from the can).
- Add the raisins and the pine nut seeds and keep cooking in medium fire for at least 10min (mild and long cooking in this stage until onion starts caramelize is critical as to enhance the sweet taste of the mix that is the base of the sauce). Some people add also a couple of anchovy fillets that they serve as seasoning agent, instead of using salt.
- When onions are soft and golden add the tomato concentrate and the water with the saffron threads. Add also the chopped wild fennel/dill and keep cooking.
- More or less at this point add the pasta in the pot with the flavored water and cook for 4-5min if fresh or more if dried.
- When pasta is cooking and just a couple of minutes before ready, add the sardines in the sauce (fresh sardines need just 1-2min of cooking).
- Check the pasta for doneness and when al-dente transfer to the pan with the sauce. Cook and mix together for a couple of minutes. If the mix gets dry, add some of the pasta water.
- Serve in a plate, top it with the pangrattato, drizzle some extra olive oil and say hi to Jesus!
* This is a revised version of the original post