With fresh sardines and wild fennel, this bucatini recipe has a few less common ingredients (outside of Italy, at least), though the extra search is worth it. Specialty Italian stores may have what you are looking for, or in a pinch, you can make a few substitutions. If you can’t find fresh sardines, high quality canned sardines may be used. Simply drain two or three four-ounce cans and fillet the sardines.
In addition, dill is an acceptable substitute for wild fennel, or finocchio selvatico. Bucatini, the pasta typically used in this recipe, is a thick, hollow spaghetti that pairs well with the texture of the sauce. Bucatini pasta is used for other famous bucatini recipes: bucatini all’Amatriciana, bucatini cacio e pepe, bucatini alla gricia and bucatini alla carbonara.
I was recently reminded of a traditional Sicilian recipe called “pasta con le sarde,” which means pasta with sardines. The combination of the fragrant wild fennel, the creaminess of the toasted pine nuts, and the saltiness of the sardines creates flavor that will take you to the Mediterranean Sea. Go to your local Italian specialty store and look for the perfect wine pairing of Corvo Bianco--you’ll be glad you did.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the chopped fennel and boil for 20 minutes.
Remove the fennel and reserve the cooking water.
Chop the fennel into 1-inch pieces and set aside.
Pour the olive oil into a large sauté pan over a medium heat. Add the onions and sauté for 5 minutes or until translucent. Stir in the anchovy fillets and let them dissolve for about 1 minute.
Add the sardines and 2 ladles of the reserved fennel water. Stir for a few minutes, then add the toasted pine nuts, saffron, salt, and pepper. Cook gently for 5 minutes.
Add the fennel to the sardine mixture and 2 more ladles of fennel water to form a medium-thick sauce.
Bring the reserved fennel water back to a boil. Add plenty of salt and more water if necessary, then add the bucatini and cook until al dente, about 8 to 9 minutes.
Drain the bucatini and mix with the sardine sauce. Let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.