Sardine and Fennel Pasta

This post was originally published on Honest Cooking.

I know this is going to be a hard sell, but bear with me.  Might I suggest, the next time you are in the store, not to breeze by the canned sardines? Now, before you wrinkle your nose (and if you are wondering, yes I did develop a taste for these when I was pregnant), let me point out the following, for your consideration:

As a fatty fish, sardines are high in omega-3s, calcium (don’t buy them de-boned, as unlike many fish you can eat the bones)  and are one of the only food sources of vitamin D.  (Don’t be turned off by the words “fatty” here–it’s a good thing!).  Furthermore, as a small fish, low on the food chain, sardines are generally low in mercury.  And because they are small fish that reproduce rapidly, sardines are sustainable.

It’s the trifecta! 

But wait, folks, there’s more:  they are, in stark contrast to most of your pescatarian options, cheap

Have I persuaded you? 

Now, I’m perfectly content to pop open a can and eat on a slice of toasted bread when I’m too busy/tired/lazy to cook.  (Just ask me about what I ate for dinner last night).  But I’ll up the ante and provide you with a more elegant way to enjoy these.

Sardines and fennel are a classic combination in Sicilian cooking:  a delicious, if possibly unexpected, pairing.  The two flavors work well together:  the clean, almost licorice flavor of the fennel brightens the fatty fish, and throwing in a few fennel seeds just enhances this combination.   While you might ideally use fresh sardines, I’ve modified the recipe to use the more readily available, canned variety.  This results in a recipe that is very pantry-friendly (especially if using fennel bulbs).

You can use one or two cans of sardines as you prefer (I probably don’t need to tell you my preference).  I order my sardines in bulk from Vital Choice , whose cans are packed full of meaty fillets, but you can of course grab them at the grocery store.

Sardine and Fennel Pasta

  • 1/4c (60mL) olive oil
  • 1 small onion or several shallots
  • 2 c fennel tops (approximately 3 ounces/ 80g) or chopped fennel bulbs (approximately 6 ounces/170g) or a combination; approximately 1-2 bulbs, exact measurements are not critical.
  • 1 28 oz (800g) can of whole tomatoes
  • 1 t fennel seed
  • 2 cans (about 8 ounces or 225g) of bone-in sardines, packed in olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1lb (500g) penne or other pasta

Put a pot of water to boil for the pasta.  Heat the olive oil until shimmering in the pan. Finely chop the onions and saute until the begin to soften. If using fennel bulbs, chop fine and add with the onions. When the onions are soft, roughly chop the fennel fronds (if using) and add to the pan and cook until they brighten in color. Drain the tomatoes and roughly chop. Add to the pan along with the fennel seed. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for 5-10 minutes. Add the sardines and heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste but be careful as canned sardines are briney already.

Meanwhile cook the pasta and drain. Stir in the sauce and serve.

A few additional thoughts:

If you can find fresh fennel with full leafy tops still attached, you can use the fronds and the thinner stalks for this recipe, and use the bulbs for something else. Otherwise, use the bulbs and chop them fine. 

I’ve deliberately kept this simple, but you can make this even more traditionally Sicilian in any of the following ways:
–Add a few anchovies and cook for 30 seconds just before adding the tomatoes.
–Add saffron or currants soaked in hot water along with the fennel seed and tomatoes.
–Add toasted pine nuts or fried bread crumbs as a garnish.

Whatever you do, eat your sardines!

Updated 08/04:  How could I forget to remind you of this recipe?  (Yes, we’ve blogged on sardines before here!) 

Can Jam March Challenge: Alliums

At first, I was nervous about allium–this month’s Can Jam challenge.  Then I figured, I actually love the allium family, as opposed to the feature veggie from last month’s challenge.  Garlic?  Yes.  Onions?  Of course.  Leeks?  Love ‘em!  And finally, my personal favorite–shallots.

I looked around quite a bit before deciding.  Would I make my first jelly ever, with red onions?  Would I make a chutney?  Would I make pickled pearl onions for dressing up cocktails?  Surprisingly there were a lot of possibilities. 

Which makes my tale all the more tragic.

I settled on an onion-fennel relish.  I absolutely love fennel (I’ll just chop it up, drizzle on a healthy amount of olive oil all, sprinkle with sea or better yet Maldon salt, and have at it).  This was another recipe out of The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving which was another plus–I didn’t want to overload my shelves with 6 pints of onions in jars, for example (that’s a lot of cocktails!).  This made 4 cups or two pints, which seemed a small but reasonable amount.  I imagined this being a nice condiment on a sandwich or (as suggested) a complement to cold meats. 

The first problem was that Stop and Shop did not stock fennel when I went on Sunday night to pick up my supplies.  (My backup recipe also was a no go–it required regular pectin, which for some reason S&S didn’t have–they had low sugar pectin but I wasn’t sure if that was an adequate substitute, and since S&S’s onions weren’t looking so hot anyway, I just decided to bag it and hit Whole Foods the next day).

Whole Foods had my sweet onion and fennel, quite large specimens so I only bought one of each, and immediately sliced them up once I got home to get started.  Sadly, part of my fennel was bad–while I discarded that part, there was much angst.  I have often read how you should only use “perfect” produce for canning.  At the same time, I have rarely seen a perfect looking fennel from a grocery store.  Secondly, is a fennel like an onion where one spot may be bad but can also just be sliced off and discarded?  It is like an onion with that concentric growth pattern, after all.  I went ahead with the recipe, but was still uncertain.  As we know, I am really neurotic about canning right and am always convinced I am one false move away from being the subject of a tragic local news story.  I ended up having less than 10 ounces of fennel but easily had the full 8 ounces of onion called for.  Wasn’t sure I would have 4 cups anymore, but figured I’d have at least a pint and a half, so I pulled out one of my 8 ounce jars to have ready along with two pint jars.  After all, even in my brief canning career, my yields have varied wildly from what the recipe would suggest, so–always prepared!

In any event, I learned, at 6:45 PM, that I had to let my fennel, onion, and pepper mixture marinate for 4 hours in salt.  So, that meant I was looking at not being done until 11:30, optimistically.  Regardless of how many shows I had taped on demand to get me through this, I was not too pleased.  But, what could I do but continue onward, and turn on Project Runway?  (That’s the least embarrassing one in the lineup, I won’t admit to what else I watched while my copies of The Odyssey and The Museum of Innocence sat ignored yet again–but I will finish your book, Orhan!)

Ok, finally time to go on.  Twenty minutes before the four-hour mark I started up my canner.  Waited a bit longer.  Quite a bit of liquid had been released as a result of the salt marinade (this is why I no longer skip that step in recipes where they want you to salt a particular vegetable an hour or more in advance.  It really does make a difference).  I made the brine, added the veggies, and brought to a boil again. 

Next problem.–filling the jars.  I don’t think I overzealously packed the jar here, but I suspect if I had really tried I could have copmacted the entire recipe into nothing more than a single pint jar.  I realize I was two ounces too low on my fennel, but 16 ounces of veggies instead of 18 would hardly seem to account for that.  Like I said, yields vary wildly for me, and I’m not sure why.  I sighed, screwed the lid on fingertip tight and set my one lonely little jar in the canner.  I made sure it was covered by an inch of water–in fact it was covered by nearly two inches and cranked up the heat.  Then I realized I had forgotten to add the bay leaf and peppercorns, but there was no going back.  Set the timer for 15 minutes and finished up my show.

15 minutes later, my jar was done, and I turned off the water and let it rest for another 5 minutes as suggested.  But when I went to finally retrieve my jar, I noticed there was only about a half inch of water covering the jar.  What had happened?  My recipe said to cover by one inch, so I again was concerned–did this signify some serious error?  Were these going to be safe?  Would anyone else even have noticed this (probably not). 

The next day I tried a bit of the overflow–that 1/3-1/2 cup that didn’t fit in my pint jar.  And then I had another frustrating revelation.  I did not like it.  And what’s more I should have known I wouldn’t like it.  This recipe calles for one bulb of fennel, one onion, and one sweet red pepper.  Anyone who knows me knows bell peppers are my favorite vegetable to HATE.  Tolerable raw, atrocious (to me) cooked.  I can’t eat a soup that has 15 ingredients I love but also a bit of bell pepper.  Even the slightest hint turns me off.  So, really, what was I thinking.  (Yes, my husband said, what were you thinking?).

That being said, I don’t think it’s a bad recipe, as long as you like that flavor.  I think it would be worth making and would nicely jazz up some leftover beef or cold cuts.  I don’t mean for my prior paragraph to be unfair.  My “outrage” is more driven by the fact that I know I don’t like red bell pepper,  and all the less when it’s 1/3 of the ingredient base!  Ah well.  I may yet eat it, though I’m still half afraid it is death in a jar.  (But as Doris and Jilly predicted in their comment to my offering last month–I did not forget to release the air bubbles–such  smart little goats!)

Sweet Onion and Fennel Relish  (adapted from The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving)

  • 1 Vidalia or other sweet onion (about 8 ounces)
  • 1 Fennel Bulb (about 10 ounce)
  • 1 Sweet Red Pepper
  • 2 1/2t pickling salt, divided
  • 1 1/2c white wine vinegar
  • 1/2c water
  • 1/4c sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 black peppercorns

Halve and thinly slice the onions.  Halve lengthwise, core, and thinly slice the fennel.  Cut the pepper into long thin strips.  Mix together in a non-reactive bowl, sprinkle with 2t salt, stir, and let sit for 4 hours.  Drain the liquid that collects, then rinse twice and drain well.

Bring the viengar, water, sugar, and remaining 1/2t salt to a boil.  Add the vegetables and return just to a boil, stirring nearly constantly.  Pack prepared jars, pour in brine leaving a 1/2″ headspace, and divide spices among the jars.  Process pint jars 15 minutes, half pint jars 10 minutes, covering with one inch of water.