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Pasta chi sardi a mari

Pasta chi sardi a mari
Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

In this age of fresh and local, canned foods are so far out of fashion that it sometimes seems as if they hide their heads when you walk past them in the grocery store. In some cases, this is valid: Who still buys canned peas or asparagus? But in others, it's nothing but shortsighted snobbery on our part. What is more delicious than a really good canned sardine?

Well, certainly a fresh sardine is right up there, split and grilled over a hot fire. But canned sardines are not ersatz fresh sardines; they are a different product entirely, like cucumbers and pickles, or roast pork and prosciutto.

Canned sardines are worthy in their own right. They have earned their pungent dignity.

And pungent they can be. Rightly or wrongly, canned sardines have a reputation for masculine appeal. They're the kinds of things hard-boiled detectives might eat, leaning over the sink, pulling on a strong craft beer, with Charlie Parker on the stereo.

They're good with mustard and/or capers. Of course, a little sharp onion is never out of place. A little heat? Why not? A squirt of lemon or a few drops of red wine vinegar bring balance. Maybe mash them up with butter or mayonnaise into a spread or a soft pâté.

If you've got canned sardines in your pantry, dinner is never far away.

When his wife is out of town, Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Provisions & Wine in East Hollywood and former proprietor of the beloved Lou wine bar, makes what he calls his "bachelor special": sardines spread on toasted crusty bread, moistened with a little of their oil and topped with pickled red onions.

Hungry yet?

Just recently, The Times' Jonathan Gold reviewed Octavio Becerra's new Acabar restaurant, where the chef makes a fetish of sardines — served on grilled bread thickly spread with butter and topped with a spicy herb mix. I simplified this a little, mashing sardines onto crackers and spooning a little of a chermoula made with mint and parsley and just a touch of garlic. Pungent meets pungent.

But, of course, sardines are not just a hard-boiled guy thing. I remember renowned cookbook writer Paula Wolfert serving an appetizer of toasts topped with wedges of ripe avocado, sardines and thinly sliced onions. She said she'd learned it from Ferran Adrià, an amazingly rustic offering from the wizard of modernist cooking.

Sauté olive oil, garlic and fennel seeds, and add canned sardines at the last minute, so they just barely break down. Stir this together with cooked pasta, parsley and fennel fronds chopped together and soaked golden raisins. And finally, scatter over fresh bread crumbs that have been toasted in sardine oil.

That's my version of a dish that I learned from an old friend, the late actor Vincent Schiavelli. He called it pasta chi sardi a mari, or "pasta with sardines that are still in the sea." It's a pun on the great Sicilian fresh sardine dish pasta con le sarde, for those times when fresh sardines are scarce.

Granted, this is another case of me taking liberties with someone else's recipe. Traditionally, it is made with anchovies — either salted or canned. However, I think with canned sardines, the pun seems even more pungent.


Total time: 30 minutes | Serves 4 to 6
Note: Loosely based on a recipe from the late actor Vincent Schiavelli.
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1 (120-gram) can sardines in olive oil
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 whole clove garlic
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup chopped fennel fronds
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Step 1Cover the raisins with hot water and set aside to soften. Place the bread crumbs in a small skillet, add just enough of the oil from the sardines to moisten and toast over medium heat until bread crumbs are golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Transfer to small bowl to stop the cooking.

Step 2Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of rapidly boiling, heavily salted water until it is al dente, about 12 minutes.

Step 3While the spaghetti is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet large enough to hold all the spaghetti. Add the garlic clove, fennel seeds and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally until the garlic has begun to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Discard the garlic.

Step 4Remove the sardines from the oil in which they're packed, retaining the oil. Add the sardines to the skillet and cook, breaking the fish into bite-sized pieces with a spatula.

Step 5When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving one-half cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the skillet, along with the reserved cooking water. Drain the raisins and add them. Add the fennel fronds and parsley, increase the heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, until the water has evaporated. Taste and add some of the reserved sardine oil if a stronger flavor is desired.

Step 6Scatter the toasted bread crumbs over top and serve.

Each of 6 servings:
Calories 413; Protein 16 grams; Carbohydrates 64 grams; Fiber 3 grams; Fat 10 grams; Saturated fat 1 gram; Cholesterol 28 mg; Sugar 6 grams; Sodium 127 mg
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