I had been tasting Sicily for years. It was salty and sweet. Simple and filling. Exotic, yet comforting. Lemony. Briney. Earthy. Sea-y.
Years before ever visiting the island below the boot, I was bumbling through Europe with my rucksack and met a Sicilian traveler in Dublin. I twisted his arm (read: offered to pay for dinner fixings) until he agreed to show me how to make a Sicilian national dish. Despite being a cheeky young thing, this guy knew his way around a kitchen. The result was, of course, sensational.
Very few dishes stand the test of time with me. This is one of them. I picked up a little cookbook in Sicily when I went there as the final destination of the mum-and-daughter trip (Vienna-Rome-Sicily.) The book has a simplified version of this, titled, "Bucatini Pasta with Sardines Left in the Sea." I can't really work out how, if you leave the sardines in the sea, they can get into the pasta. But they do, and in just the right amount. If you're a bit fickle around tiny tinned fish, do not fear this dish. The flavours do sound a bit, well, odd together (especially if you are one of those anti-raisin folks.) Yet it's passed the taste test on a variety of my impromptu dinning companions. It's a great last minute hit. Of course, that is, if you are like me and regularly keep bits like saffron and fennel seeds in the cupboard.
On the way home from work, pop into a shop, grab yourself a nice big bulb of fresh fennel, a bottle of a dry white, and you are on your way to something special (especially if there is some lemoncello in your booze-cupboard, just waiting for this dish to be made so it can be your perfect dessert wine.) I swear, Sicilian lemons are what dreams are made of. They permeate nearly every dish to add just the perfect amount of brightness on the palate.
Last month, we spent an idyllic few days exploring just the northwestern part of the island. Here, the food displays prominent Arabic influences: saffron, raisins, pine nuts, couscous, and citrus (oh, those blood oranges!) Why, even looking over the city rooftops, I had a sudden feeling of Déja Vu, and felt I'd been whisked away back to Morocco. Given that I'm a sucker for North African cuisine, my stomach dictated we stick to the western part. Towards the East, I've heard the food has a significant Greek flair to it. Olives, capers, and pistachios are to be found. Luckily, the sweetened-ricotta stuffed cannoli and a vast terrain of gelatos and granitas can be discovered all over Sicily.
The city of Marsala makes and excellent base for exploring the northwest - good food, hiking, snorkeling, and best of all...people! We met some of the most welcoming people in this area. At the guesthouse Arkos Casa Vacanze, a small but stunning oasis of hospitality and vegetation, I ate. I mean, I ate like it was going out of style. 'Mamma Maria' cooked up amazing dinners for the guests, and her son Gregorio had such enthusiasm for the gardens he's developed. I could have had a full meal just grazing in that garden! Pictured above is their pasta with an almond-basil pesto. And next to it is the Sicilian oregano variety. It is the coolest little plant ever!
Sicily left me nourished, in so many ways. I hope this dish can provide some semblance of nourishment to others. There is such a unique and delicate balance of flavours, and it is so easy (and wallet-friendly) to make. The sardine flavour is lifted by the fennel and lemon. The raisins bring a bit of tangy sweetness, brought to earth by the saffron. Be sure to use a dry white wine, as a sweeter one would not work at all.
And if you haven't already, throw some Paolo Conte on your grooveshark/pandora/whatever and you've got the perfect Italian cooking music.
Continue to Recipe...
1/2 cup dry white wine
pinch of saffron
1/2 cup raisins/currants
1/4 cup olive oil
1 med-large fennel
1 large onion
1 Tb fennel seeds
1 lb spaghetti or penne (traditional is bucatini/perciatelli...if you can find one of them, I'd recommend trying. They are thicker, long, hollowed-out spaghetti noodles)
1 can sardines
1/2 cup raw unsalted toasted cashews (or pine nuts/walnuts/almonds)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1) Break off and reserve the fronds of the fennel for garnish. Start the pasta water boiling. In a bowl, stir the saffron threads into the wine, then stir in the raisins and let soak until the pasta is ready for them.
2) Slice up the fennel and onion into wedges. In a pan over low heat the oil and toss in the fennel, onion, fennel seeds and salt/pepper. Slowly cook until quite soft and golden (10-15 minutes.)
3) Start cooking the pasta.
4) Add the drained sardines into the fennel mix, and mash with the back of a fork to blend in. Add in the wine/raisins and simmer for a couple of mins. Stir in the toasted nuts. Drain the pasta, and combine everything together, sprinkle the breadcrumbs on and mix a bit. Serve with lemon wedges.