Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe for pasta con le sarde – pasta with sardines, anchovies, fennel, raisins and pine nuts | Food

l remember that one evening a famous American art critic came to dinner in Locanda. This man looked at the menu and then said, “You know, I just got back from Sicily and I loved the pasta they made with the sarde.” I went back to the kitchen and said to Rino, my chef, who is from Sciacca, on the south coast of Sicily, “We have to cook this pasta for him.” We had some perfect sardines, beautiful sultanas, and I had just returned from Sicily myself, so I brought some of the wild fennel that grows so freely.

We cooked the pasta for him, and since he sent me a card every Christmas, he said, “That pasta with the sarde was the best I’ve ever had.”

This is one dish that sums up Sicily for me: the Arabic combination of sultanas, nuts and saffron (I think it needs a lot) shows the history of the island, but the ingredients themselves have been indigenous there since classical antiquity. In Palermo they make the dish in the same way, but stack the pasta in a baking dish, with the breadcrumbs on top, and bake it in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes at about 150C fan/gas mark 3.

There is another version of the dish that is typical of the other aspect of Sicilian cuisine, which revolves around making do with what you have… it is known as pasta con le sarde a mare, meaning “pasta with sardines cooked in the sea” – in other words, they had the pine nuts, sultanas, breadcrumbs and all the other ingredients to make the dish, but they had no sardines, so they made it anyway, just without the fish!

If you can’t find wild fennel, use a teaspoon of fennel seeds. Soak them, whole, in a little water – just enough to cover them – for a few hours, adding them in place of the wild fennel.

Serves 4
salted anchovies 3 or 6 anchovy fillets in oil
bread-crumbs 100g
extra virgin olive oil 120ml
onion 1 medium, chopped
White wine 50ml
‘strattu (Sicilian tomato paste) 2 tbsp or 1½ tbsp tomato paste
fresh sardine fillets 8
sultanas 30g
pine nuts 30g
saffron a generous pinch (about 20 strands)
wild fennel 3 sprigs, finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, soaked in a little water
sea ​​salt and freshly ground black pepper
pasta 200g, such as bucatini

If using salted anchovies, rinse and dry them. Run your thumb gently along the spine to loosen it, and you should be able to pull it out easily. If you are using anchovies in oil, drain them.

Toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan over medium heat until they are quite a dark golden brown. Be careful not to burn them.

Heat half of the extra virgin olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Sauté until soft but not colored, then add the anchovy fillets and stir until they “melt”. Add the wine and let it bubble to evaporate, then add the ‘strattu’ or puree and bring back to a boil, adding just enough water to get a sauce consistency. Add the sardine fillets, sultanas, pine nuts, saffron and chopped fennel or soaked seeds. Taste and season if necessary, stir gently and cook for 10 minutes.

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add salt, then add the pasta and cook for about a minute less than the time stated on the package so that it is al dente. Drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid.

Mix the pasta with the sardine sauce and the rest of the olive oil, add a little of the pasta cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce and sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs.

From Made in Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli (HarperCollins, £30)

The Observer aims to publish recipes for sustainable fish. View reviews in your area: UK; Australia; U.S