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!) 


12 thoughts on “Sardine and Fennel Pasta

  1. Sara,
    I couldn’t agree more with you. We are huge fans of sardines. In fact just recently I went shopping at this store nearby and bought a bunch of cans from different parts of the world. Though my fav is still Portuguese, Spanish or Moroccan. They come with bones, and even scales at times, all delish! I guess this has to do with Mediterranean ancestry 🙂 We love anchovies too. This dish has lovely flavors! I don’t think I need to plan and shop for dinner tonight I have all the ingredients ready to go, thanks for sharing!

    • When I eat them straight, I really like the ones that are packed with hot peppers. I think the ones I order are also Portuguese. They are delicious! On our mom’s side there’s a long line of fishermen (Croatian/Dalmatian) so maybe you’re right about the ancestry part!

      I hope you enjoy! Let me know how you “tweak” it!

  2. I think I ate some fresh ones at a Portuguese festival once, but I do always breeze past the canned ones. I will try to be brave and get them one of these days. This dish does sound really good.

  3. I think I will remember your recipe for the rest of my life! I have never used canned sardines in a hot dish. Although I must say I love them and have my favourite, Portuguese brand, without bones and skin. They taste very meaty…
    Your dish looks lovely and makes me think maybe it’s time I started cooking with fennel!

  4. Now this is my kind of meal. I lurve sardines — any which way, too. 🙂 Like you, I usually just pop open a can and dive right in (with a glass of wine it’s perfect), but to jazz it up a bit cooking it like you did looks phenomenal. Yum!

  5. Lovely Sara. I was a chef for a very long time, and in this fantastic Italian restaurant I worked at (Oliveto, in Oakland, CA), we did a rendition of sardine fennel pasta. Not quite like this, but this post took me back to that kitchen. Thank you for that. I miss the days of Oliveto!

    • Wow you used to work at Oliveto? I have Bertolli’s cookbook Cooking by Hand…I haven’t made anything from it, but it’s one of my favorites to look through as an inspiration. What an amazing experience you must have had.

  6. I never breeze by the sardines–indeed I am doing a taste test by trying each and every one. Sometimes lunch is bread, sardines and some vegetable (tomato, pickles, capers) and it’s always so satisfying.

  7. Pingback: Sardine and Avocado Bruschetta | Three Clever SistersThree Clever Sisters

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