This classic Sicilian pasta dish is made with sardines and is also known as pasta con sarde (sardines). Pasta Milanisa, or Milanese as the Italians say, is a marriage of wild fennel, sardines, currants, and pignoli nuts – native ingredients that are abundant along the Sicilian coast. Currants add a little sweetness to the dish. This version is made with a tomato sauce and is layered with sautéed cauliflower and baked. Of course, you can’t forget to further lavish your pasta with the requisite toasted breadcrumb topping – no cheese please! Putting cheese on seafood is a Sicilian faux pas.
The key ingredient for Pasta alla Milanisa is fresh wild fennel, which of course is difficult to find here in the United States, unless you live near southern California where I’ve seen it growing wild near the coast along the Palos Verdes Peninsula. You can also grow the herb fennel in your garden. Fennel bulbs, a different variety of fennel available in supermarkets, is not an herb and has a much milder anise flavor. The other key ingredient is fresh sardines, another ingredient that’s difficult to find. Not to worry – this recipe uses a canned seasoning that has fennel, sardines, and currants in it. It is available in some Italian specialty food stores or through on-line mail-order through Amazon. If you are a pasta con sarde aficionado, you’ll love this dish.
Saint Joseph’s Day is the traditional holiday that Pasta Milanisa is served. Our family makes this pasta dish for New Year’s Eve but it can also be made for Christmas Eve if you follow the Italian tradition of serving seafood. Regardless of the time of year, this baked pasta dish is worthy to serve for any occasion.
Note: You can simplify this dish by foregoing the baking and serving the sauce over cooked pasta. Top with sautéed cauliflower (optional) and toasted breadcrumbs. However, baking the pasta allows it to absorb those great flavors and makes the dish even better tasting. I like to add a tin of skinless and boneless sardines packed in olive oil for added flavor but this is optional. It is much less fishy than adding regular canned sardines, which I don’t recommend.
BAKED PASTA MILANISA WITH SARDINES
(Pasta alla Milanesa cù Sarde/Pasta alla Milanese con Sarde)
Difficulty Rating: Medium
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
FOR THE PASTA:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 anchovy fillets
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 (14.5-ounce) can seasoning for macaroni with sardines
1 can skinless and boneless sardines in olive oil (optional)
1 (28-ounce) can peeled tomatoes
1 (28-ounce) can tomato puree or crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons dried currants
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 teaspoons sugar
Pinch saffron (optional)
Salt and pepper
1 pound bucatini pasta
FOR THE VEGETABLES:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 small heads of cauliflower or broccoflower or a combination (about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds), trimmed and cut into florets
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fennel fronds (optional)
FOR THE BREADCRUMB TOPPING:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup plain dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup ground almonds or almond meal
Pinch of salt
MAKE THE MILANESA SAUCE: Place the peeled tomatoes and juices in a medium bowl and crush the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands. Heat the olive oil in a large 6-quart pot with lid over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until they are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in the anchovy and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes, until anchovies disintegrate.
Stir in the tomato paste, then add the tomato puree, peeled tomatoes, seasoning for macaroni and sardines, currants, sardines, pine nuts, sugar, and saffron, if using. The sauce will be very thick. Thin the sauce out with 1 to 1 1/2 cups of water to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
COOK THE VEGETABLES: Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add cauliflower and fennel. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, until just tender. Drain the vegetables well.
Heat olive oil in a large frying pan, over medium-high heat. Add the drained cauliflower mixture and cook for about 4 minutes without stirring, until lightly browned on the bottom. Stir cauliflower and cook for 4 minutes longer, breaking the cauliflower up into small pieces. Set aside.
PARBOIL THE PASTA: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. The pasta will be undercooked. Drain pasta and place in a large bowl. Stir in the Milanese sauce.
ASSEMBLE AND BAKE THE PASTA: Lightly grease a 4-inch deep, 10-inch by 4-inch rectangular baking dish or lasagna pan with olive oil.
Using tongs, place half of the pasta in the baking dish. Top with half of the cauliflower mixture.
Layer with the remaining pasta and cauliflower. Sprinkle the top with fennel fronds. Bake for 30 minutes, until heated through.
TOAST THE BREADCRUMBS: Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a small skillet over low heat. Stir in the breadcrumbs, almonds, and salt, and continue to stir until lightly toasted, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat, continue stirring for 1 minute. Transfer to a small serving bowl. Serve over pasta.
*The pasta can be made several hours ahead of time and refrigerated. Increase baking time to 1 hour.