That greeting/title may be misleading, because Hawaii is not the island I have in mind as I write, it’s Sicily. I’ve been watching Sicily Unpacked on BBC2, a series in which Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon travel around that island, giving each other, and us, a guided tour of its cuisine and its art history respectively. You may well have reservations about the format, and it’s potential for annoyance - two successful, wealthy and, it might not be unfair to suggest, somewhat vain men, gadding smugly about Sicily in a big Maserati, showing off to each other, at the licence payer’s expense, and no doubt being handsomely paid for the privilege – and I couldn’t necessarily blame you, but nevertheless, as far as its subject matter goes – Sicily, art and food – its intersections with the interests of this household at least, draw a venn diagram that closely resembles a bullseye.
Becca and I went to Catania a couple of years ago, and although the series has yet to cover that part of the island, I’m sure when it does it will heavily feature the old fish market there, which is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited, and the source of some of the finest seafood I’ve ever eaten. My only regret from our trip to Catania (apart from the night we got locked out of our pensione, but that’s another story) was that we weren’t self catering, and I couldn’t buy and cook any of the market’s produce. That was a small but exquisite torture, and it’s been an ambition of mine since to return to the area, rent out a big villa, with a large group of friends and fellow seafood enthusiasts, and spend a week or two just eating our way through the market. Anyone care to join us?
As I say, Locatelli and Graham-Dixon have yet to feature the fish market at Catania, but they have certainly featured fish, and duly inspired, and full of my own reminiscences and hankerings, I paid a visit to my own fishmonger, The Fishery, in Stoke Newington – which isn’t exactly Catania, but it is that sadly increasingly rare thing, a proper local fishmonger – and not a fancy, fashionable, boutiquey one charging extortionate prices for not necessarily top grade fish. If you do have a decent local fishmonger, please do make a point of using it – if you don’t, you may soon find you no longer have one to use.
The day I visited the Fishery, my mind on sardines, which had been the freshest, and therefore best, item on offer to Locatelli at the Palermo fish market on consecutive days (due apparently to storms limiting the catch), they had a fish I’d never seen before which resembled a large, and rather beautiful sardine, with a delicate lemon yellow stripe. The fishmonger told me it was an “Aloha”, apparently (although subsequently Googling ‘aloha’ and ‘fish’ came up with nothing, so I may have misheard), and he wasn’t – unusually – sure where it was from, but he guessed the Carribean, which would have been my guess too. Wherever it was from, it had clearly got to Stoke Newington quickly, because it was very fresh – firm fleshed, bright eyed and shiny of scale. I took six.
I used three of them to do my own version of a pasta dish that Locatelli had made on the show, a dish that reflects the ancient Arab influence on Sicilian cuisine. He called it ‘Pasta con le sarde’, or pasta with sardines, which I rather like the simplicity of but doesn’t, perhaps, quite do the dish justice. I made it by and large the same way he did, with one exception: He used a great clump of ‘finocchietto selvatico di montagne , the wild mountain fennel that grows everywhere on the island to flavour his pasta cooking water, and used a couple of ladles full of that water as the only added liquid for his sauce. Funnily enough, there is no mountain fennel growing wild around Dalston, so I skipped that part and added a glass or so of vermouth (or you could use white wine, or sherry) to the sauce instead. I will, though, try cooking my pasta in fennel stalk flavoured water when next an appropriate opportunity arises.
Pasta con le sarde:
3 sardines (or ‘aloha’), filleted, the fillets cut in half
A handful of pine nuts
A handful of raisins
2 anchovy fillets
Fresh red chilli, or a pinch of dried chilli flakes
Half an onion
Glass of vermouth (or white wine or sherry)
Long thin pasta (I used linguine)
Start by putting your pasta water on to boil – this is one of those dishes you can do from scratch in the time it takes the pan to come to the boil and the pasta to cook (certainly if you’re a deft filleter, or you might want to fillet the sardines ahead of time, or have the fishmonger do that bit for you).
Fillet your sardines and halve the fillets cross ways. Chop your onion and your anchovy fillets. Finely slice your chilli (if you’re using fresh) and your garlic.
Heat a large frying pan and toss the pine nuts into it dry, as soon as they are showing the first sign of colour add the raisins, a good generous glug of olive oil and the anchovies. Add a grind of pepper, but no salt (the anchovies should supply that – you can add more at the end if needed). Allow to cook gently for a minute or two for the anchovies to break down and really flavour the oil and the pine nuts and raisins. Then add the garlic, chilli and onion. Again, cook for a minute or two toll the onion starts to soften and go translucent, then stir in a good dessert spoon or so of tomato puree. Stir it all together. Then add your sardines. Another minute or so, then add the wine. Let it all simmer gently while your pasta cooks.
Before straining off the pasta add a ladleful of its cooking water to the sauce. Check the seasoning at this point, and add salt if you feel the need – I doubt it. Then add the drained pasta to the sauce in the pan, and stir it all through, with another grind of black pepper and some chopped parsley.
Serve it up, with or without a sprinkling of mollica (breadcrumbs sautéed in olive oil – a simpler version of the pangrattata from the Jamie Oliver cauliflower risotto recipe I featured recently) – but preferably with. It might not be, as Graham Dixon claimed of Locatelli’s version, the finest pasta dish you’ve ever tasted, but I’m pretty sure it’ll rank well up there.