Many of you may have more adventurous palates than I do, but hopefully you won't think badly of me that it took me until my late 30's to give sardines a chance. I first had them in Palermo, Sicily on a trip with my family. They were served in a fennel and tomato sauce: heavy fennel and sardines, light tomato. I loved the dish: Pasta con le sarde e finocchio (not to be confused with Pinnochio, which I don't think I'd enjoy as much). Obviously, if you've never tried sardines, I'd recommend a trip to Sicily post-haste...what better way to eat them for the first time?!
But for those of us who won't be venturing to Sicily anytime soon (sob) may I recommend another version? In Sicily, the dish is primarily made with the wild mountain fennel that is ubiquitous to the island...and kind of hard to get here. I just use regular bulb fennel, with the understanding that it's technically a different dish but equally tasty.
I'm proud to say that since our trip, and since my adventurous dive into previously untasted foods, I've been a wild child. I had wood-grilled fresh sardines at a local seafood restaurant (lovely!), I had sweetbreads at a local French-inspired restaurant, and while in San Antonio, I had Tex-Mex versions of pancreas, sweetbreads, and other kinds of offal. None of them were anywhere near as unpleasant as I thought they might be, and some were actually things I'd happily eat again. Watch out world!
Pasta con le sarde e finocchio
(Pasta with Sardines and Fennel)
by Me (my version, anyway)
4-8 oz linguine or fettucine, reserve water*
2-4 tbsp olive oil
1/2 large fennel bulb, stalks cut off and fronds reserved, bulb halved and sliced no more than 1/4 inch thick
1/2 large onion, sliced into thin half moons, no thicker than the fennel
salt (I used about 3 tsp total between pasta water and sauce)
1/4 c dry white wine
1 14 1/2 oz can diced tomatoes, preferably low sodium
pepper to taste
1 (or more) tin(s) of skinless, boneless sardines in water**
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; when at a rolling boil add salt (I used about 2 tsp). Add pasta and cook until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water.
2. While water comes to a boil, heat 2-3 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When oil is warm, add onions and fennel, and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook, stirring, until onions are almost translucent and fennel is softened, about 5 minutes. Add white wine; cook until evaporated, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and pepper and heat through. Add sardines, stir into sauce, breaking them up into desired sizes (I leave a few grape sized chunks in ours).
3. Drain pasta and toss with sauce, adding cooking water until sauce is desired consistency. Mix in 3/4 of the reserved fennel fronds, and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 on top.
*I made the full amount of sauce tonight, but only 4 oz of pasta. We ate a heavy sauce, light pasta dinner. The sauce would easily mix with 8 oz of pasta, and would lightly-but-nicely coat 12 oz. It might be pushing it with a full pound, though.
**I'm still not sure how much Larry loves sardines, so I only used one 4.3 oz tin for our sauce tonight. I have his permission to add another tin next time I make it, and we'll see how it goes. I've tried a few different brands, but my hands' down favorite is the Crown Prince Natural Wild Caught. They're more ecologically friendly than some that are available, and the sardines are meaty and not overly fishy (though being sardines, they are fishy).