Oh crumbs

‘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.

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)
  • salt

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,


Filed under fish, food, olive oil, pasta and rice, recipes

41 responses to “Oh crumbs

  1. That looks incredible. I’ve never been brave enough to try anchovy-anything, but you might have just convinced me to give it a go!🙂

  2. This sounds very similar to my all-time favorite pasta dish, which I usually prepare when I’m super hungry and want a quick pasta fix. Try it with some additionally added fresh sardines, tastes fab, too!

  3. Julie

    Mmm this looks fantastic!! Laughing at “the 5th one”😀

  4. This looks like one I can handle, Rachel! Initially the inclusion of anchovies worried me…could I get the little ones to eat anchovies? I just have to remind myself that if it’s good, they’ll eat it and those breadcrumbs look and sound incredible!

    Funny thing, I have to admit I desperately read and re-read your post looking for a definition or description for rocket. I finally googled it. Turns out, I have some in the fridge🙂

    Hope you are doing so well! Marija

    • rachel

      Marija. yes, as you now know Rocket is arugula – thank you for pointing that out – I’ve added it to the post.
      We are well thank you – love to you all.

  5. Lavi

    absolutely lovely

  6. I first had toasted breadcrumbs on a wonderful whole wheat linguine with rocket and pecorino toscano in Sienna several years ago—and it remains in my file of good food memories to recreate.

    But, they were plain (olive oil, garlicky) not these anchovy style, which sound marvelous, and the essence of umami!

  7. a recipe which makes me feel warm all over. ‘english barbarian’- v cute. x shayma

  8. Wow, Rachel, this recipe is a godsend! I just made a sardine hummos last week and had some tins of sardines left and was bored eating them right off the tin! Thanks for an inspired recipe which I shall make asap!

  9. Ruth

    Sardines smack of childhood…buttered toast, smashed sardines and tomato sauce. No, I can’t say we were ALWAYS classy. I’m interested to see them with pasta, especially with my almost favorite salad rocket (yes in Prague) and anchovies, the most maligned, delicious little fishy ever. Have sardines, will pasta. Thanks Rachel.

    • rachel

      I agree, i agree, a much maligned, neglected and overlooked little fish. Yes yes they do ‘smack’
      of childhood, what a nice way to put it. Do try this recipe, it sounds like you might like it.

  10. I have a love for crumbs. I even like the crumbs that fall off my slice of lemon loaf. I pick it right off the tabletop and eat it. I see you love crumbs too! Of course much tastier are they when fried til crispy and golden!

  11. I think I’m going to start saying “crumbs” instead of cursing so much. Crumbs leave a better taste in ones mouth, after all…Especially if they are fried in anchovy infused olive oil.

  12. Just saw a similar dish posted in the New York Times by Mark Bittman, the Minimalist. It must be in season! Yum!

  13. Looks delicious.

    Welcome to the Society.

  14. hi rache!!! it’s been a long time – i’ve been away from the blog-o-sphere for a bit and now i’m catching up on older posts. this one, ohhhhh, this one. is it wrong to just want to sit with a bowl of anchovy breadcrumbs w/ a spoon and nothing else?

    i think that breadcrumbs in pasta is one of those perfect pairings. texturally and flavor-wise. this is an all-around perfect, simple pasta dish to me.

  15. I agree–glorious! Judicious, speedy and thrifty is just my style. Anchovy crumbs, mmm mmm. Thanks.

  16. Okay – it is high time that I’ve made this dish after reading about it for years. Thought it needed to include wild fennel (which last time I checked does not grow on the streets of Cleveland), and yellow raisins, which ooked me out in combination with the sardines.

    You’ve bent the rules in the most appetizing way and the dish will get made this spring.

    • rachel

      Heidi you are right -I think many Sicilians might be outraged by this – proper pasta con le sarde needs wild fennel, proper sardines and pine nuts and a pinch of warm Sicilian sea air yayaya – this is not proper, but it’s very tasty.

  17. KARINE


    This was such an amazing dish! The crunchy factor of the anchovy crumbs mixed in with the yummy pasta…i will make this again and again. Had my lovely friends over and they loved it as well. Thank you for sharing…I am addicted to your site…

    • rachel

      great, glad you like it.. yes the crumbs are so good ! – thank you for taking the time to write and let me know.

  18. Lynn D.

    This was sensational. I balked at using as many anchovies as you suggested, but I will next time. The crumbs were fantastic. I used whole wheat spaghetti and squeezed additional lemon juice on mine.

    • rachel

      Whole wheat spaghetti sounds good as does extra lemon. Yes, I seem to remember thinking it was rather alot of anchovies the first time round, but the crumbs can handle them – promise !

  19. this looks absolutely delicious! my grandfather was from Sicily and he cooked with anchovies all the time, but unfortunately my mother never reallly cooked with them growing up. I am printing this one out and making it this week. thanks!

    • rachel

      I wonder what your Sicilan grandfather would have thought of this – it is a most delicious way to use tinned anchovies though and my Sicilian loves it.

  20. Hi Rachel, made this tonight having done Mark Bittman’s version a couple of weeks ago. It was a huge hit – Jack said he would eat the anchovy breadcrumbs all on their own… We squeezed lemon juice on the top too, and added capers, per Mark B. Anyway, thanks!

  21. Lisa

    Hi Rachel,
    Just came across your blog and I just love it! I am so passionate about food and I enjoy reading about your delicious adventures in the kitchen. This pasta dish reminds me of a recipe I read a long time ago with baked breaded squid atop pasta with olive oil anchovy sauce. I remember it was delicious but I used anchovy paste. I wonder if it would be even better mushing the anchovy fillets in the oil? I think the recipe was “tamed” for the casual cook but I am inspired now to try this dish and add more anchovy to the squid pasta! Have you ever made the baked squid pasta?
    I look forward to reading your blog!

    • rachel

      hello Lisa
      In answer to the baked squid, no, but I do have a sicilian recpe for braised squid with pasta and then breadcrumbs on top, I should dig it out. I should investigate the baked squid as well, as we are both fans. Thank you for the message.

  22. Pingback: Just call me anchovy. « rachel eats

  23. Rachel in LA

    So glad you are representing Racheldom out there with this excellent blog.

    Just made this – AMAZING. Anchovy bread crumbs are, indeed, a revelation.

  24. Just thinking about one of my favorite recipes and you. Where is our Rachel? We miss you.

  25. loooooovvve your blog!!!! :::)))

  26. Pingback: Spaghetti with Sardines, Lemon, and Anchovy Breadcrumbs | a little saffron would make this!

  27. Pingback: Spaghetti with Sardines, Lemon, and Anchovy Breadcrumbs | a little saffron

  28. Pingback: Recipes to Try | Live and Learn

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