‘Life is rather like a tin of sardines – we’re all of us looking for the key..’ Alan Bennett.
Spaghetti with sardines, rocket, chilli, lemon and anchovy breadcrumbs.
I like everything about this dish of pasta. It’s such a delicious and clever combination of ingredients, flavours and textures. It’s judicious, speedy and thrifty, admirable qualities all of them. I like that it’s so accommodating and up for all sorts of variations. I like that you could make it with fresh sardines and finest salted anchovies, but that it’s just as delcious with the oily contents of rectangular tins. Tins with keys that you twist to pull the top off, the kind of sardines and anchovies, or makerel for that matter, we can all find in our cupboards or local shops, the ones that aren’t on any ‘unsustainable lists’ (yet) so can be consumed without guilt.
I like that it nods respectfully to its origins, the classic Sicilian dish Pasta con le sarde, but that it doesn’t pretend or want to be it. I like the rocket, the arugula to most of you, because, well, I really like rocket. Last but not least, I like the breadcrumbs, the anchovy ones, they turn something good, into something marvelous with a their crisp, heady, anchovy infused crunch.
Breadcrumbs sprinkled generously on pasta are not that new to me, it’s one of the nice Sicilian habits I’ve adopted from Vincenzo and his family. We often have a bowl of finely grated breadcrumbs sitting on the table for liberal sprinkling, Ones made from good, dry, stale bread which we’ve toasted with a little olive oil in the cast iron skillet. I’ve also been known to sprinkle these breadcrumbs on my salad after the pasta, a habit Vincenzo finds very odd and can provoke him into calling me an English barbarian. He often calls me an English barbarian, a peculiar term of endearment.
These anchovy crumbs however, are slightly different.
You want soft, fresh breadcrumbs from the heart of the loaf and you fry in them in anchovy spiked oil. Now, about the anchovies, you can use 4 or 5 of the wonderful fat Sicilian or Spanish ones that are preserved under salt or – like me for this recipe – a little tin of anchovies in oil which you drain and then melt in warm extra virgin olive oil over a very gentle flame.
Yes melt, that’s what happens to the delicate anchovy fillets in the warm oil, they disintegrate and dissolve, melt really, giving you a deeply flavoured, heady, very brown anchovy infused oil. This is the oil – if you crank up the flame a notch – in which you fry the breadcrumbs until they are deep golden brown, crisp and even more ragged at the edges.
These anchovy crumbs were, are, a revelation, crisp, with deep anchovy favour, seasalty, delicious and incredibly morerish, you might even mumble Umamanaiii or whatever that word is! You know the one! The 5th one. Making them for the first time I had a small eureka moments in the kitchen, a ‘ just look at this, its brilliant, why didn’t I know about these sooner‘ funny turn. It was the kind of happy discovery that makes me want to do an embarrassing little jig and make ‘said revelation’ again immediately, for lots of people. Not known for my restraint, I can see myself sprinkling these crumbs with abandon on many things this spring.
Breadcrumbs prepared, the rest of the dish is very straightforward. While the spaghetti is rolling around in plenty of fast boiling water you soften the garlic in oil over a gentle flame, then you add the chilli, followed by the sardines. Now you add the drained spaghetti, toss and finally in the heat and steam of it all, you add the rocket and lemon. The rocket withers accommodatingly in the heat and the lemon releases its glorious citrus contribution to proceedings.
You divide the contents of the pan between warm bowls and sprinkle the anchovy crumbs over the top
It’s a glorious combination, the spaghetti, the garlic, the heat of the chilli, the warm, spiciness of the rocket and the toothsome texture of its withered leaves, the meaty oily flesh of the sardines, the vitality of the lemon and finally the crunch, crunch, crunch the intense, oily, saltness of the anchovy crumbs.
I like everything about this plate of pasta.
I must give credit to my brother Ben- again, he is becoming invaluble- for suggesting I make this particular recipe. I’ve made various suppers and lunches like this before, but this precise recipe (with these particular proportions, quirks and the superlative anchovy crumbs) is Rowley Leigh’s contribution to the first (2007) Crisis Cookbook, which comprises 84 recipes donated by 28 superb chefs from around the world. A significant proportion of the proceeds from each book sold go directly to Crisis, the homelessness charity in the UK. It is a gem of a book, neat concise, totally unpretentious with really fantastic recipes from some of my very favourite chefs, I want to make almost everything. A highly recommended book which beats most of the fancy, expensive, coffee table cookbooks out there hands down.
Spaghetti with sardines, rocket, lemon, chilli and anchovy crumbs
Adapted from Rowley Leigh in the Crisis cookbook
- 10 tinned anchovy fillets in oil (or 4 larger salted ones)
- 50ml extra virgin olive oil
- 6 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
- 400g spaghetti
- 2 cloves of garlic (or 4 of wet, new season garlic)
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small hot chilli (or a pinch of chilli/pepperoncino flakes)
- 200g tinned sardines in olive oil (or fresh sardines cooked simply)
- Finely grated zest of a unwaxed lemon
- 75g rocket (arugula)
Drain the anchovy fillets and then put them in a frying pan with the 50ml of extra virgin olive oil over a gentle flame. Stir and nudge the anchovies until they disintegrate and literally melt into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs.
Turn up the heat and stir the breadcrumbs briskly as they fry and sizzle to a golden brown colour. Tip the breadcrumbs into a sieve, discard the oil and then drain them on some kitchen towel. Set them aside.
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and drop the spaghetti into the boiling water.
Drain the sardines but save the oil. Break the sardines into small pieces with a fork. Peel and chop the garlic finely, then cook it gently in the frying pan with the 1 tbsp of olive oil over a gentle flame. Deseed and chop the chilli then add it to the frying pan along with the sardines.
As soon as the spaghetti is ready, drain it – reserving a little of the cooing water-and tip it into the frying pan.
Turn and toss the pasta, add the rocket and the lemon zest to the pan and moisten the pasta with a little of the reserved cooking water. Turn the mixture well and then remove from the heat. Add a little of the oil from the sardines if the spaghetti needs lubrication. Taste, check the seasoning and divide between warm serving dishes and serve sprinkling the anchovy crumbs on top.
It feels a bit odd to be here typing on a Tuesday morning, I’ve grown accustomed to the late night Thursday writing and Friday posting habit. Odd, but very nice too, I always like being here talking to you all. Hopefully this is the start of a new habit and more posts. No promises though, to myself or you, because as you know, I am rubbish at keeping those.
Have a really good week,