Last night, a message arrived in my email account at six-thirty from our good friend Sam to say that a mutual friend who moved south a couple of years ago was unexpectedly in Paris for the evening. Would we be interested in meeting up in the Marais for a drink? Well, of course we were interested. However these are non-mobile baby days and we can't just pop off to the center of town at the drop of a hat. Not only that but said baby's father is chronically late at work. Without much hope and in a spirit of "it never hurts to ask" I left a message on Sam's mobile to say that while we couldn't actually come out we would love to see him and Kevin if they would consider coming over to our side of the city. I didn't point out that Kevin (proud father of a gorgeous three year old boy) hadn't seen our boy Kieran yet but I hoped they'd make the connection themselves.
To my surprise, the baby magnet worked and they called back to say they'd be delighted. What can an enthusiastic host do but invite them over for dinner? And then dig furiously through the cookbooks looking for a way to stretch two chicken breasts, some Mediterranean vegetables and six sardines to dinner for four.
It was an odd mixture of ingredients, I'll admit. I have days like that sometimes, when I realize that there are several mostly incompatible elements that need to be used up in my refrigerator. I had already set the eggplant, zucchini, shallots and garlic to roast in the oven when I decided to wrap the chicken breasts in ham (with a leaf of sage each) and bake them too. Then I realized the fish definitely had to be cooked or thrown away so I rinsed them off, drizzled them with olive oil and thyme and slid the baking dish onto the lower tray of the oven.
This is where things stood when I invited our friends for dinner. I grabbed my Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan and leafed through the index to the letter S. And I found my bonheur as they say in French: a lovely Sicilian tomato sauce.
I love Marcella's recipes because they are classic italian dishes (or so I believe) and because they give me fresh ideas for my ingredients. Not surprisingly, they are well adapted to someone living in Europe with access to sardines and fennel and other ingredients that were rarely seen in my mother's kitchen. However I do have a tendency to simplify her recipes as sometimes I just don't have time to do things the "right" way. (I am also shameless about changing proportions to favour ingredients I really like, but that is true of all recipes!) So what follows is Marcella's recipe, but simplified and suited to a busy working mother who unexpectedly has the pleasure of showing off her new baby to an old friend. Also, I added garlic as I can't imagine a pasta dish without it...
Sicilian Sardine Sauce
6 whole fresh (well, mostly) sardines
1 tsp frozen thyme
3-4 Tbs olive oil
1/2 a fennel head
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
1 small can of tomato paste (about 3 Tbs)
1 cup wine
1 tsp pepper flakes
1/2 tsp saffron
freshly ground black pepper
1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta - bucatini for preference
freshly grated Parmesan
Rinse and pat dry your sardines and place them in a baking pan into which you have drizzled a little olive oil. Pour a little olive oil over them and sprinkle them with the thyme. Bake them in a hot oven (200c/400f) for 15 minutes or until the flesh is tender but cooked through.
Begin boiling water for the pasta.
In the meantime, slice the fennel in large chunks and put them in a small pot of water and bring to a boil. Soak the raisins in a little water. Sauté the chopped onion in olive oil with the garlic cloves (thinly sliced). When the sardines are done, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool slightly. By now, the fennel will probably be tender. Remove from the fire and drain.
Add your pasta to the boiling water.
Chop the anchovies and add them to the onions. Add the wine and stir to dissolve the anchovies. Allow this to cook down a bit while you carefully remove the flesh of the sardines from the bones and place them in the pan with the onions. Mix the tomato paste with a half cup of water and the saffron and add to the pan. Roughly chop the fennel and add it to the pan. Drain the raisins and add them to the mix, along with the pine nuts. Stir gently so as not to break up the sardines too much. Give it a good grinding of pepper and the pepper flakes and taste for seasoning.
Drain the pasta, toss it with a little butter and then pour the sauce over it and stir quickly. Sprinkle each helping with a little freshly grated Parmesan.
The result is a truly delicious Mediterranean flavoured dish: like a bouillabaise, it has the glorious triad of fish-fennel-saffron, but the pasta gives it a substantial edge the soup lacks. I think next time I might add a splash of Ricard instead of the wine, to emphasize the point even more. But even in this incarnation it was truly delicious. And it went extremely well with the roasted vegetables!
I'm afraid I was too busy cooking and catching up with old friends to take any pictures of this one, so you'll have to use your imagination on how it looked. Then again, one tomato sauce with pasta looks very much like another, don't you think?