This pasta dish isn’t for everyone, and I realize it might be low on the popularity totem pole. I absolutely love it and if you like seafood and sardines, this is a dish for you. If, on the other hand, the idea of putting seafood and pasta together makes your skin crawl, I’d skip it.
A quick general note on pasta weights. If you buy pasta that’s imported from Italy, chances are it’ll come in the 500 grams (half a kilo) package. So don’t be thrown off by that – half a kilo is close enough to 1 pound and it won’t make a difference. I know some of you will ask me if this is a dish that can be made with canned sardines. The answer is both: yes and no. Yes, of course, you can swap in a fish of your choice (you can even do a good oil packed tuna, if you like), but there’s going to be a difference in taste and fresh sardines will taste incomparably better. I did a mini test run with canned ones and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t nearly as delicious as the version I made using fresh fish. Lastly, there are those of you out there (you know who you are) who hate all things fennel, licorice, and anise. I used to be one of them, though I firmly remain in the camp that hates the last two. Firmly. However, in caramelizing and then stewing the fennel, it mellows out and becomes sweet and delicate. Even if you think raw fennel is gross, give it a try.
2 fennel bulbs (2 pounds; about 900 grams), greens removed and reserved, bulb cut into sticks
2 pounds (about 900 grams) whole fresh sardines, heads removed
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 (28-ounce; 794 grams) can whole tomatoes, chopped and juices reserved
1 large onion, minced
1/4 cup (40 grams) pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/4 cup (48 grams) dried raisins, soaked in water and drained
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon fennel pollen or 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
7 saffron strands
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound (454 grams) dried bucatini, or my favorite corkscrew pasta (the sauce bits get stuck in them)
1. In a large skillet set over medium heat, add enough olive oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan and heat until the oil shimmers. Add the fennel and cook it, stirring, until caramelized, about 15 to 20 minutes. If the fennel is starting to burn a bit and not caramelize, reduce the heat to low and cook until sufficiently caramelized (i.e. about 3/4 of the mass).
2. Remove the heads of the sardines and pull out the backbones and entrails (you can also ask your fishmonger to do it). Chop the sardines and set aside.
3. In the skillet with the caramelized fennel, add the tomatoes (and their juice), onion, pine nuts, raisins, tomato paste, fennel pollen, and saffron. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium, and bring the sauce briefly to a boil; then then lower to a simmer. Add sardines and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the sardines have broken into pieces and are thoroughly mixed into the sauce, about 10 to 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the sauce sit while you make the pasta (this allows the flavors to marry better, which means that the sauce will taste better).
4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously until the water tastes like the ocean. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still al dente. Drain the cooked pasta into a large serving bowl, add 3/4 of the sauce, and toss to combine. Top with the remaining sauce. Garnish with reserved fennel fronds and serve.
Serves 4 to 6.