Le Sarde

One of the benefits of blogging is discovering new things. For example, I was reading through a food post recently that discussed the New Zealand author Nicky Pellegrino’s ability to twine the sensuality of Italian food with the drama of everyday life in her fiction. Intrigued, since I had not heard of Nicky Pellegrino before, I picked up her latest, The Food of Love Cookery School, a novel set in Sicily. I won’t go into the plot of the story, but I will say that it contained delicious descriptions of Sicilian food and even had a few recipes printed at the end of the book. That combined with a recent marathon session of watching Montalbano DVDs, well…it was a foregone conclusion that I would be craving Sicilian flavors.

catania_fishmarketCatania Fish Market built into the 17th-century city walls

Those written and visual prompts brought back memories of a (too short) visit to the island exactly a year ago – exploring Catania’s markets and eating fabulous food. Fresh sardines (le sarde) from the sea, wild fennel, hot chillies, and sweet and sour tomato sauces served on robust pastas are some of the flavors I associate with Sicily. Another taste being the smoky aubergine which featured in the recipe I posted for caponata last year.

What I came up with was a fusion of north and south – Tuscan eggless pasta (pici) with a Sicilian sauce. That said, rustic, eggless pastas can also be found in Sicily and other Southern regions of Italy (such as the corkscrew busiate or fusilli pasta). The fennel I used is the feathery leafed herb from my Northern English garden (not wild Sicilian), and the sardines were frozen, hailing from Cornwall and if they were any larger, they would be called pilchards (such an English fish!) – so, neither truly Tuscan nor Sicilian, and possibly not even Italian! Let’s just say this dish is inspired by memories of Sicily, Nicky Pellegrino and Montalbano.


Pici con Sarde e Finocchio (Pici Pasta with Sardines and Fennel)
Making homemade, hand rolled pasta is a lengthy process, so dig out an audio book, turn on the radio or plug in some music to listen to while rolling the dough. The time it takes to make is one of the reasons it is a worthwhile treat and not an everyday occurrence! Make the pasta in the morning, letting it dry for much of the day. However, if making pici is too much of a bother, simply substitute with packaged bucatino (or Sicilian perciatelli) – thick spaghetti-like pasta.

Pici dough
For rolling out the pici pasta, I use my incredibly large (22 inch diameter) Greek wooden board called a plastiri (πλαστήρι) that comes with a thin dowel-like rolling pin for rolling out thin sheets of homemade phyllo. The pici, however, is hand rolled.


  • 4 cups plain (= All-purpose) flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1-1/4 cups water

Put your flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the water and the olive oil. Begin mixing with your hands until a ball is formed. Take out and knead it with the heel of you hand until it is smooth and form it i to a ball. Place a damp tea towel over the dough ball and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.

Cut the ball into quarters, keeping them under the damp cloth until they are needed. Take one of the quarters, roll out and then cut this into 4 equal pieces. Take each of these pieces, roll again and cut into 4 more segments. Take each of those segments, roll out and cut into two. Take each of these smallest pieces and roll out on the board or between your hands until you get a rough, thick spaghetti-like pasta strand approximately 10 to 12 inches long. A 4-4-4-2 cutting, producing about 32 strands for each original quarter.


As you roll them, toss each of the strands onto a tray that has been dusted liberally with semolina. Shake the tray now and then to distribute the semolina. This prevents the strands from sticking.


Once you have enough on the tray, hang them up to air dry. I have a foldable pasta drying rack which is simply a series of wooden dowels suspended over a frame. Because they are homemade, the pici are differentially formed (thinner or thicker in places, unequal lengths) and may stretch and drop from the drying rack – simply pick up and rehang. If you don’t have a special drying rack, cookie cooling racks will do – as long as the strands are not bunched together and there is some air circulation. Continue making the strands in this manner until all of the dough has been used.


While making these, I considered at least two variations that might work well: 1. introducing saffron into the pasta by infusing the water; 2. using spelt flour instead of plain. Next time!

Sardine & Fennel Sauce

  • 3/4 lb. sardines (approximately 4 to 5, depending on size)
  • 2 medium red onions
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, approximately
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup fennel leaf, about 6-8 large fronds
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 3 anchovy fillets
  • 3 peperoncini or 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
  • 1-1/2 cups tomato passata (400gr. tin of plum tomatoes, puréed)
  • 2 Tablespoons currants
  • salt and pepper

First, de-scale, clean and gut your sardines. Cut the heads, tails and fins off. Fillet the fish, but keep the tender skin on. Many of the bones are very fine, so don’t worry if you don’t get all of them. Trim the fillet edges and set them aside.


Chop the onions. Put a little over half of the olive oil in a large sauce pot and heat on medium heat and sauté the onions. While the onions are cooking, heat the water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, add the rinsed fennel. Turn the heat down and allow the fennel to blanch uncovered for about 5 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid (approximately 1 cup) and finely chop the fennel. When the onions have become translucent and soft, push them to the edges of the pot and place the anchovy fillets in the center, mashing with the back of a wooden spoon as they heat until they dissolve and blend with the oil. Chop the peperoncini and add these and the chopped fennel, stirring to mix.


Add the tomato passata, the currants (roughly chopped) and simmer until the sauce has thickened. Add the reserved fennel poaching liquid and turn the heat up slightly.


Take the remainder of the olive oil and heat up in a frying pan. Place the sardine fillets skin side down and cook until the skin begins to brown and the flesh has almost turned opaque. Flip the fillets and quickly finish frying the sardines. Drain on paper towels. Cut all but a few reserved fillets into 1/2 inch segments.


Heat a large pot of salted water for the pasta while the sauce once again thickens. Add the 1/2 inch segments of sardine to the thickened sauce and gently stir. Some may break up, but the object is to have a few small chunks of fish in the sauce. Turn off heat under the sauce pot while you cook the pasta.


Once the pasta water is boiling, add the pici (it will be semi-dried) and cook for 7 to 8 minutes. After the pasta is in, turn the heat back on the sauce pot to reheat on low. Drain the pasta once done, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Put the pasta in the sauce pan, gently lifting and stirring until well coated. Add about 1/2 cup (1 large ladle full) of the pasta cooking liquid and stir again, allowing the pasta water to nearly evaporate, leaving a glossy coat to the pasta and sauce. Serve with large chunks of the reserved sardines on top.


    • Pici is one of my all time favorite pastas! We used to be able to buy it here in Sheffield, but the little Italian deli that carried it has now become a gelateria – yummy, too, but not pasta. It is worth making now and then. The sauce was divine!


  1. Snap!!! I am just reading a book by Nicki Pelligrino, same genre as the one you mention, entitled ‘Recipe for Life’, a light read chosen for my flight to New Zealand late tonight, The pici looks like it is well worth the effort, and the combination of finocchio and sarde is heavenly.


    • Just finished ‘Recipe for Life’ and about ready to start ‘Delicious’. They are good light reads – just the thing for summer reading. My husband was in heaven with this dish. It was his favourite when we were in Sicily. He’s made me promise to make it again. Must stock up on audio books for pasta making sessions!


  2. Fantastic and you made your own pici, woo hoo! I will certainly be looking up this author. Sardines, a very under-utilised but delicious wee fishy.


    • They way it was consumed with gusto probably means I’ll be making it again soon. Perhaps my pasta skills will improve. The sardine sauce is something my husband has been nagging asking me to make ever since we got back from Sicily nearly a year ago now. Will certainly be doing it again. I also love grilled sardines wrapped in fresh vine leaves!


  3. That was a big effort making the pici but well worth it i’m sure. We also adore fresh sardines, also time consuming if you fillet each fish, but usually we simply pan fry or grill them. Thanks for another great recipe to try!

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    • Definitely worth it! Will be trying spelt pici next. We also like sardines grilled, wrapped in fresh vine leaves and stuffed with lemon slices and herbs. Cornish sardines/pilchards are plentiful and inexpensive here, particularly this time of year.

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  4. wow, I bet you had a LOT of time to think about variations while making that pici! How long did it take?
    Interesting…I just read an article on sardines and different ways to use them and how under rated they are. I’m not too sure I could get my hands on any here in Canada.


    • It took about an hour or an hour and a half once I got started rolling, but I had music on and my husband would drop by the kitchen every now and then to see how I was progressing. It was worth it, though. If I keep at it, my technique might even improve and speed up. And you are right, I was thinking up the variations as I rolled! Sardines are very common and cheap here. If they get larger than 6 inches, they’ll labelled pilchards, but they are the same fish. We really love them. Of course, they were fresh and much better in Sicily!


  5. Your finished past photo with le sarde laid over the top is perfect! My parents came from the Naples region of Italy and sarde were quite common for me growing up. LOVE fennel and adding it to your sauce with sarde must be just divine!


    • We loved this sauce. The sardines and fennel are perfect for one another. And the eggless pasta was perfect for it. Fennel is going strong in the herb garden and Cornish sardines are plentiful, so we’ll be making this again! However, am now hankering after grilled sardines on the barbecue…maybe stuffed with fennel leaf…


  6. You made a fabulous pasta con le sarde! I love it and i love sicilian cooking …an amazing island and food traditions!
    ….and you made pici too! Great work! …I like and i’d like your wooden thing to hang it to dry! Cool 😉


    • It really is a great sauce … and pici is one of my all time favourites. Since we can’t easily get it here, it has to be homemade. I got the pasta rack a very long time ago in the US and I am so glad that I did; it folds away when not in use. It is simply wooden dowels lined up and suspended over a frame.


    • It is delicious – and fresh sardines are a sadly underused fish. They’re one of the oily fish, like mackerel, that are high in omega-3. The pasta, however, is just carbohydrate, but oh, so tasty!


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