Though some of you probably can’t imagine sardines being a crave-worthy food, I’ve been completely smitten with them since my first taste (a long-ago birthday dinner at Prune restaurant in NYC, where my husband and I shared a starter of sardines with Triscuits, mustard and cornichons). These days we’ve always got a few tins in the pantry at home, so it’s easy to put together one of our favorite weeknight dinners – linguine with sardines, fennel, and tomato, my version of a classic pasta dish known as “Linguine con Sarde.” The sweet, slightly caramelized fennel and the bright tomatoes and lemon work really well with the rich flavor of the sardines, and the crunchy breadcrumb topping makes for a fun textural contrast. Think you don’t like sardines? This simple pasta dish just might make you change your mind. (Note: It goes without saying you should use the best quality wild-caught tinned sardines you can find. Some of our favorites are Wild Planet, Cole's, MorGaDa, and BELA-Olhão, all of which I’ve used and any of which work well here. Also, tiny fresh tomatoes are a wonderful replacement for canned during the summer months - Super Sweet 100s, left whole, or halved small cherry varieties work beautifully. Just add a pint or so to the pan in step 3 and let them cook until softened.) - lastnightsdinner —lastnightsdinner
Test Kitchen Notes
When we tasted lastnightsdinner's rich, sea-infused pasta, our first thought was: "It's amazing that you can make something that tastes this good using fish from a can!" This simple, pantry dinner (the only thing you may have to shop for is the fennel) packs a punch with just a few ingredients. Perfectly al dente strands of pasta are tossed lightly in a sauce of garlic, fennel, tomato, lemon and vermouth, studded with briny bits of sardine; the oil from the canned sardines enriches the sauce, and a shower of lemony toasted breadcrumbs brightens the dish. We found it challenging to caramelize the fennel without burning the garlic; if you'd like, you can add the garlic after you've sauteed the fennel. - A&M —The Editors
2 to 4
Kosher or sea salt
tin sardines packed in olive oil (about 4 ¼ oz.)
extra virgin olive oil
fat cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed, and roughly chopped (up to 3 cloves total, to taste)
small or ½ large bulb fennel, fronds reserved
red chile flakes, or more to taste
canned peeled tomatoes with their juice, gently crushed
Bring a very large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
Open the sardine tin and drain a tablespoon or so of the oil into a wide skillet (the amount of oil in the tin will vary by brand, so add additional extra virgin olive oil if necessary to make up a tablespoon). Warm the oil over medium-low heat and add the garlic, cooking until fragrant.
Trim the fennel and slice the bulb very thinly (a mandoline works great here). Add to the skillet with a sprinkle of salt, raise the heat to medium, and cook until the fennel is soft and beginning to caramelize. Add the chile flakes and let them sizzle for a minute, just until fragrant, then add the tomatoes with their juice. Cook until the liquid is reduced, then add the vermouth and let that reduce slightly.
Add the sardines to the skillet with the tomato and fennel mixture, breaking up slightly but leaving some chunks. Zest the lemon and combine a tablespoon or so of zest with the toasted breadcrumbs, then set aside. Juice the lemon and add the juice to the pan. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
Add the linguine to the boiling salted water, cooking it until it is just short of al dente. Using tongs, transfer the linguine to the sauce to finish cooking, adding a little bit of the starchy pasta water and tossing gently to combine. (You'll want to leave this a little wet, as the breadcrumbs will soak up the sauce and dry the pasta out a bit once you've added them.)
Transfer the pasta and sauce to a large warmed serving bowl (or individual pasta bowls), add a drizzle of olive oil, sprinkle on the toasted breadcrumb-lemon zest mixture, and garnish with picked small fennel fronds and the remaining lemon zest.