Sardines are one of the few ingredients that just sound gross, kind of like anchovies. They bring to mind slimy, icky little fish. But both (while not visually appealing) can be quite delicious if prepared correctly. Anyway, I saw this recipe in Molto Gusto awhile ago and figured we had to try it. You can buy tins of really nice sardines at most gourmet grocery stores (including Whole Foods) nowadays, and I picked up a tin not too long ago without really having any idea what I wanted to do with it. Once I saw this recipe I decided it sounded like the perfect recipe to use those sardines.
The first thing Alex said when he tried the pasta was that it was "good and... interesting." He's right in that it is a very interesting combination of flavors. Who has ever heard of combining fennel, fennel seeds, fennel fronds, orange zest, sardines and bread crumbs? The second thing he said (which I also agreed with) was that the pasta wasn't as flavorful as we had thought it would be. With that amount of fennel in it, I really expected some serious anise flavor, but the fennel flavor was really mild. Perhaps if I had added the optional fennel pollen, it would have seriously upped the level of anise flavor? I don't know. I also didn't think that you could taste the sardines as much as I wanted to. Perhaps the fault is due to the fact that we used whole wheat spaghetti, which I find requires more aggressive seasoning and more in your face flavors to really make it shine. I thought that the fennel (which I actually worried would be overpowering) and the sardines would provide tons of flavor, but the flavor combination was more subtle than I had envisioned. Once thing that I did love about the recipe was the addition of the fresh bread crumbs, toasted in evoo. Generally I am far too lazy to bother making fresh bread crumbs, making due with panko or Progresso Italian-flavored bread crumbs, but in this case I think that fresh bread crumbs were well worth the effort.
Recipe after the jump!
Spaghetti con la Sarde
By Mario Batali & Mark Ladner
6 oz. good quality canned sardines from Spain
1 large fennel bulb, cut into a 1/4-inch dice
6 tbsp evoo
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 lb. spaghetti (we were out of regular spaghetti so we used whole wheat spaghetti)
1 tsp fennel pollen (optional - we omitted it)
2 tsp minced/grated orange zest
1/2 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs, fried in evoo until golden-brown
Trim the fennel bulb, and reserve fronds. Halve and core the fennel and cut into 1/4-inch dice. Chop enough reserved fronds to make 1/4 cup fronds for garnish. Coarsely chop the sardines.
Bring 6 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Add 3 tbsp kosher salt.
Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup evoo in another large pot over medium heat. Add the fennel seeds and cook, stirring regularly, until fragrant and lightly toasted, about 1 minute. Add the fennel and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sardines and cook, stirring occasionally, until just opaque throughout, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Cook pasta in boiling water until just al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup pasta water.
Add the pasta and 1/4 cup pasta water to the sardine and fennel mixture. Stir and toss over medium heat until the pasta is well coated. Add more reserved pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Stir in the remaining 2 tbsp evoo. Stir in half of the fennel fronds, half of the fennel pollen (if using), half of the orange zest, and half of the bread crumbs.