Pasta con le sarde, mandorle, olive e arance rosse
Italy is a country rich in food traditions, boasting twenty very distinct regional cuisines. Yet no Italian region’s gastronomy is quite so rich, or quite so distinctive, as the island of Sicily. Whereas the major cities of Tuscany broadly share a common gastronomy – one that’s based on rustic, simple cooking with superb produce – it is rather remarkable that Sicilian gastronomy is so strikingly diverse, exuberant and exotic by comparison. This is because the Island’s turbulent history is very much enshrined in the colourful cooking that happens across the island these days. You can still see where the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, Spaniards and French have all left their marks on culture and cooking, during over two thousand years of occupation. With the ingredients they introduced and the ways they prepared them, these different conquerors have greatly shaped Sicily’s unique cuisine.
I’m very lucky to be able to say that I have travelled all over Italy in recent years, admiring some of the world’s greatest artworks and demolishing delicious meals. Yet Sicily has so far eluded me and sadly now I’m unlikely to visit, as my chronic pain prevents me from future travel. This personal disappointment feels as if my body has betrayed me. My own body has thwarted my desire to see Sicily, the home of astonishing food that I so love to cook. I love the simultaneously modest and extravagant approach to cooking that rules in Sicily, but the best explanation for my fondness is that my family and friends absolutely adore Sicilian food too. Cooking for others is a marvellous little act of love; when you take the time to prepare good food (often Sicilian) for people you care about, it feels like such a simple, rewarding way to show your appreciation. And be in no doubt, Sicilian food is what they appreciate the most – they often tell me so and coax me into cooking it. Shameless. Of course, I really don’t mind and don’t blame them. It seems impossible to tire of the abundant comfort foods and those bold, varied Sicilian flavours that waltz with your taste buds.
And all these glorious flavour-combinations of Sicilian cooking are entirely rooted in, quite literally, the exquisite produce that now grows in Sicilian soil. The dazzling sun and the nutrient-rich volcanic soil imparts a gloriously pure and intense flavour into everything that’s cultivated on the island. For me, the best example of this has to be Sicily’s supreme citrus fruit: the aranca rossa (the blood orange). This tastiest and bloodiest of the world’s oranges can only be found growing on Sicily’s east coast, on the volcanic plains surrounding Mount Etna in the Catania province. In her fascinating book on citrus fruit in Italy, Helena Attlee explains how the distinctive ruby colouring of these Sicilian arancie rosse, is due to red-coloured pigments known as anthocyanins. These special anthocyanins, which are also found in other fruits such as blueberries, have shown in studies to be incredibly good for us: they’re chock-full of vitamin C; they’re proven to protect against strokes and heart disease; and they also improve blood circulation – how apt.
Not only are these arancie rosse aesthetically beautiful and nutritious, but they’re also likely to be the most delicious citrus fruit you ever squeeze, so gratefully, into your mouth. Unlike a common Navel or Valencia, which frankly have a rather one-dimensional saccharine taste, eating a Sicilian blood orange is an altogether more complex and unforgettable affair. In Attlee’s words, blood oranges have “a complicated, multi-dimensional flavour that unfolds, slowly, subtly, beguilingly, making any other kind of orange seem sharp, cloyingly sweet and intolerably crude”. You know, I just fancy eating one right now.
Unfortunately the Sicilian blood orange season only lasts from January to the end of March, and in the U.K we’re often denied their sumptuous flavours because blood oranges are rather costly in comparison to other robust mass-produced oranges grown elsewhere. Nevertheless, if you search well I’m sure you’ll find some; I managed to locate some meltingly juicy Sicilian arancie rosse from my local M & S.
However if you really can’t get a hold of some, then don’t despair. After all this eulogising of blood oranges you’ve endured, I actually insist that any old variety of orange will do for the following pasta recipe. It will still taste terrific. Nevertheless, the blood orange season is almost at an end, and so I really wouldn’t like you to miss out on experiencing their profound deliciousness for yourself. So you should stock up, pronto. If you can only buy four, then why not spare one for this recipe, and scoff the other three?
Before you begin: I dreamt up this recipe whilst playing around with some of my favourite typically Sicilian flavours: almonds, orange, olives and pasta – still the Sicilian staple food (and rightly so). It is also partly based upon my all time favourite Sicilian dish of Arabic origin: pasta con le sarde, which usually consists of bucatini or spaghetti with sardines, pine nuts, raisins and wild fennel. However, there are many local variations of this classic pasta, including a fishless version that’s wryly known as pasta con le sarde a mare – “pasta with the sardines at sea”. In keeping with such ingenuity, feel free to leave the sardines in the sea or supermarket too, if you really don’t like them. Either way, this is a seriously scrumptious meal.
Pasta with sardines, almonds, olives and blood orange
Serves 2 as a main course
- 200g dried bucatini or spaghetti or fusilli lunghi pasta
- 50g of whole almonds
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- pinch of dried chilli-flakes
- 1 medium unwaxed blood orange, or if out of season, another variety
- tinned sardines in olive oil, drained and bones removed
- 80ml dry white wine
- large black olives, brine washed off, pitted and halved
- baby watercress or baby rocket to garnish, large stems removed
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 180°C. Spread out the shelled almonds on a baking tray and put them in the oven about 8 minutes until golden-brown. Watch diligently that they don’t burn. Take them out and chop roughly.
Warm the oil in a large sauté pan, big enough to hold the pasta later. Add the onion, pinch of dried chilli flakes and season with a little salt. Sweat the onion nice and slowly, for about 10 minutes, letting them develop that lovely mellow background flavour.
Meanwhile, fill a separate pan half-full of water and bring to the boil. Carefully peel the zest away from half the orange using a vegetable peeler, but try to leave as much pith behind as you can. Cut this zest into thin strips and add to the boiling water. Cook these strips for around 8 minutes in order to take away the bitterness. Drain them and put aside.
Cut the remaining whole orange in half and juice it. Alternatively, you can just pour yourself out 125ml of shop-bought fresh orange juice. Set the juice aside.
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a rolling boil. Lower in the pasta using tongs and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
While the pasta cooks, add the sardines to the onions, and break in the sardines with a wooden spoon. Pour in the wine and stir, letting it bubble away for around 3 minutes. Add in the orange juice, and turn up the heat a little, so that some of the liquid evaporates.
When it is ready, add the drained pasta to the pan, Stir together thoroughly over a gentle heat, so that the flavours completely cover and soak into the pasta.
Finally, take off the heat, stir in the olives, orange zest and most of the almonds. Check for seasoning. Stir in a little olive oil to loosen up the pasta if it still looks slightly dry. Serve into individual bowls, each portion topped the remaining almonds, watercress, a trickle of extra-virgin olive oil, and add a final grinding of black pepper. Grab forks, eat right away.