In these days of masked excursions and social distancing the only thing that ought to be packed together like sardines in a can is. . . sardines in a can. Except that now you can invite them out for their own unmasked excursion where they can play with sautéed fennel, pine nuts and currants (oops! some dried fruit snuck in there) in a sauce for bucatini, the whole thing topped off with toasted bread crumbs.
Using fresh sardines in pasta is a venerable Italian tradition. If you Google Pasta con le Sarde you’ll find lots of recipes similar to this, all involving pasta of one kind or another, sardines, fennel, breadcrumbs, tomatoes, lemon and capers, and often pine nuts and saffron – all variations on a much lauded regional specialty of Sicily.
Which brings us to the issue of canned sardines, offered as a substitute in many of the recipes mentioned above when fresh sardines aren’t available. Fish have been canned for as long as there has been canning. In 1810 Frenchman Nicolas Appert won a contract to supply Napoleon’s army with food that wouldn’t spoil during a military campaign. It had taken Appert ten years to perfect a method of preserving fish in glass bottles (we can only imagine the smell), in essence inventing canning and the contract was an opportunity to bring canning into use. Appert’s bottles proved too fragile for the rigors of military life, however, and in one of canning’s first evolutions only a couple of years later French glass bottles yielded the field to English tin cans, and sardines and other fish soon found their way into those cans.
I never ate canned sardines until after I’d first enjoyed the big sardines you find on a Mediterranean grill. I assumed that canned sardines were simply smaller versions of their grilled counterparts. I was wrong, but I’d lived in happy ignorance for decades… until this week.
The FDA, I discovered, allows 21 different kinds of small fish to be called “sardines” once they’re dropped into a can. WTF?! “Sardines” aren’t sardines? They’re herrings! This might have come as something of a shock to me, except that White House briefings about coronavirus have completely cauterized my shock response to evasion and deception.
To be accurate, all of those 21 fish and sardines are related, members of the herring family, clupeidae. In my current state of fried imperturbability I thought, They can’t be that different or I would have noticed by now. That it took this long for the scales to fall from my eyes should tell you how they taste.
Are canned sardines as tasty as fresh sardines? You betcha.
Canning sardines was once a vibrant slice of the American industrial pie, but it has literally vanished since its peak in the 1950s, when there were over 50 canneries operating in Maine alone, all of them staffed by scores of women and a few men, snipping the heads and tails off Atlantic herring and packing them into cans (Prest-o change-o! – you’re all sardines now!). Sardine canning survives in Canada, but the last Maine cannery – the last US sardine cannery – closed in 2010. Today’s canned sardines come from all over, just not here, and for the most part, if they come in a flat oval can, they probably got there because somebody put them there by hand.
Canned sardines from Portugal, France and Italy are often marketed as a gourmet item deserving of as much loyalty and regional pride as any other terroir-associated product like cheese or wine. Before coronavirus began slapping doors shut across the hospitality industry, hip restaurants and bars were offering these tinned delicacies as menu items, at a price steeper than what you find in an ordinary supermarket. A disappointing survey of my own basement larder failed to reveal any Italian or French brands. All of my cans came from Morocco, Poland, Latvia and Thailand, which is what you might expect from the mainstream brands you currently see in the supermarket. I’ve long preferred Italian or Spanish tuna canned in oil, for which I pay a premium, and now I suspect that up-market canned sardines will swim into my future. Of course before I can start seeking them out in person, I’ll have to wait until we’re no longer packed in our houses and apartments like so many sardines. Enjoy.
Note: Feel free to substitute canned tuna or mackerel for sardines if that’s If all you have. Tuna packed in oil is preferable to tuna packed in water, but use what you have.
Bucatini with Sardines, Fennel and Breadcrumbs
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ cup dry breadcrumbs
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small head fennel with fronds if possible
- 4 – 5 shallots or 2 small onions, cut into ¼-inch slices (enough to make about 2 cups)
- ½ teaspoon honey
- 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or to taste. Use less if you don’t like a lot of spice
- 1 teaspoon ground or whole fennel seeds
- 2 small cans sardines in oil, drained and each fish cut into 4 pieces. Save the oil. (Sardine cans come in various sizes. I used 4.4 ounce cans. My friend Anne used 3.75 ounce cans and she felt it was plenty.)
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or lemon juice
- ¾ cup tomato puree
- ½ cup toasted pine nuts
- ¼ cup dry currants or raisins
- 1 pound dry bucatini pasta
- Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add the crumbs and lemon zest and cook until the crumbs are toasty, tossing often, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- Remove the stems from the fennel bulb and the fronds from the steams. Cut the fennel bulb into ¼-inch dice to make 2 cups. Chop the fronds to make ½ cup or so. If you have additional fronds set them aside for a garnish. Save the stems for another use. Perhaps a soup.
- Heat the remaining oil in a large sauté pan over medium low heat. Add the shallots or onions and cook until tender and they start to color, about 8 minutes.
- Increase the heat to medium. Add the remaining garlic and the diced fennel. Season with salt, hot pepper flakes, honey and fennel seeds and cook until the fennel is tender and the onions are golden, about 5 minutes.
- Add the chopped sardines and currants and cook 2 minutes.
- Add the vinegar or lemon juice, tomato puree, chopped fennel fronds, and pine nuts and cook until saucy, adding a few tablespoons of water if needed.
- Add the sardine oil. You can skip this step if you like.
- Season to taste with salt. I found it needed more than I thought. Canned sardines are not necessarily salty.
- Turn off the heat but keep the pan on the stove.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with salt.
- Add the pasta and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally to keep the strands from sticking together.
- Scoop the pasta out of the water directly into the pan with the sauce. Turn the heat to medium and toss to heat through and blend for 2-3 minutes, adding ¼ cup or more pasta cooking water if necessary to make the sauce saucy.
- Serve in warm bowls. Garnish with fennel fronds.
- Offer toasted breadcrumbs on the side. If you put the crumbs on too soon, they will absorb the liquid and get soggy.
This is not the kind of recipe that I would put on a restaurant menu. Much as I love canned sardines, it’s hard to convince our guests, and our staff, that Bucatini with Sardines is what they should order when there’s Pappardelle with Wild Mushrooms, or halibut on the menu. It’s the kind of recipe, along with spaghetti putanesca, that chefs make after a long night on their feet. We always want pasta, we probably have most of the ingredients in the pantry and it only takes 30 minutes or so to make.
After Covid-19 closed my restaurants, I came home with a bushel of ingredients from Trade and Porto. They included a head of fennel, some pine nuts and lots of shallots. A few days before, Ken had done some corona virus shopping and bought all kinds of canned fish. We’re betting – like us – you have a can of sardines, tuna or perhaps mackerel in your cupboard right now, and of course, pasta. It doesn’t have to be bucatini, it could be spaghetti or even a short pasta like penne.
This is a traditional Sicilian recipe and can be as simple as sardines, olive oil, garlic, onions, currants and pine nuts. I love fennel and happened to have it, but if you don’t have it, skip it altogether or use fennel seeds. My friend Anne Fabiny, tested the recipe for me in San Francisco and said she couldn’t taste the fresh fennel and suggested the fennel seeds.
Jody and her partners have converted one of their restaurants, Porto, into a soup kitchen to provide employment and meals to displaced restaurant workers and their families, and to help feed frontline medical workers. To read about it (and make a donation, if you can) go to TRADE PORTO SALONIKI GIVES. The fund is halfway to their goal of $125,000.