From the roll of the first bocce ball to the dusting of the toasted breadcrumbs on the pasta, it’s that time again when Sicilians all over the world celebrate the feast day of San Giuseppe and gather around the table. Known as St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 is a day devoted to the father of Jesus, also the patron saint of all Sicilians.
The tradition of St. Joseph’s Day altars and tables began centuries ago in Sicily. The Sicilians had been suffering from famine because of the country’s poor farming and little or no rainfall. When they could not provide for their families any longer, the Sicilians turned to their faith. They prayed to St. Joseph so they would have a successful crop and end the famine.
The farmers and fishermen gathered together to feed their country in the only way they knew how — by building altars in their homes and sharing their food in honor of St. Joseph. The tradition is carried on today throughout Sicily and Italy and across America.
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There are two versions of pasta prepared on this day, one purely Sicilian and the trademark of Palermo and the province of Trapani, with sardines, anchovy, garlic, oregano, red chili pepper flakes, fresh fennel, pignoli, raisins, onions, saffron, Romano cheese, olive oil and toasted breadcrumbs. The second dish, Pasta alla Milanese, is prepared with tomatoes and all of the above ingredients. Are you confused yet? Why the name change? Tomatoes in Northern Italy?
After much research, I have discovered that sardines were used because this dish is served during Lent when many Sicilians observe fasting of meat and also because the waters around Sicily and Sardinia are full of these little blue fish, hence the name sardine. Salted and cured, the sardine will last for many months. Fresh fennel is a springtime vegetable and of course very flavorful. As for the garlic, raisins, onions, oregano, onions, Romano and olive oil, these are common ingredients found on the island.
Now to confuse things even more, in some small towns in Sicily, tomatoes are used in this dish on the feast day. My nephew Jasper III and I traveled to Gibellina, Sicily, two years ago and enjoyed many versions of this dish from town to town, some with tomatoes and some without. I recall my cousin Reno (a nickname for Jasper) becoming upset when we dined at one restaurant just five miles from Gibellina and the chef omitted the tomatoes. You must understand, Sicilians are very serious about their traditions and of course their pasta.
Why is this also called Milanese? I called on my friend and co-worker Paolo Di Camillo and he reminded me that although this dish has Sicilian origins, when some Sicilian immigrants moved north to Milan, sardines were not readily available so they used canned ones. The sauce was too dry, so tomatoes were added.
As for this chef, I like both versions but I grew up on Pasta alla Milanese. But then again, I am a traditionalist so sometimes I have to have Pasta con Sarde. Hmmm …even in my family’s hometown in Sicily, they eat Pasta alla Milanese. Confused still?
I finally went to my cookbook collection and found a compromise with well-known chef and cookbook author Giorgio Locatelli. Giorgio adds a little tomato paste. Wow, I like this addition. He also claims the Arabic combination of raisins, nuts and saffron shows the history of the island, yet the ingredients themselves have been indigenous there since classical times. Perhaps my cousin Reno would approve.
Whether you prepare the traditional sauce or add tomato paste or prepare Giorgio Locatelli’s version, please remember to add the toasted breadcrumbs that represent the carpenter St. Joseph’s wood shavings. I do hope I cleared up a few issues here and do hope you prepare this dish. It would not be St. Joseph’s Day without it. Mangia bene and buona San Giuseppe!
Giorgio Locatelli’s Pasta con Sarde
6 anchovy fillets in oil
1 2/3 cups breadcrumbs
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 ounce plus 2 teaspoons white wine
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato puree
8 fresh sardine fillets
3 tablespoons golden raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts
a good pinch of saffron (about 20 threads)
3 sprigs of wild fennel, finely chopped or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, soaked in a little water
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 pound pasta such as bucatini
Toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan over medium heat, until they are quite dark golden brown. Take care not to burn them.
Drain anchovies of oil. Heat half the extra-virgin olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Saute until softened but not colored, then add the anchovy fillets, stirring them until they “melt.” Add the wine and bubble up to let it evaporate, then add the ’strattu or puree and bring back to a boil, adding just enough water to give a sauce consistency. Add the sardine fillets, raisins, pine nuts, saffron and chopped fennel or soaked seeds. Taste and season if necessary, stir gently and cook for 10 minutes.
Bring water to a boil, add salt, then put in the pasta and cook for a minute less than the time given on the package, so that it is al dente. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water.
Toss the pasta with the sardine sauce and the remaining olive oil, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce, and sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs.
Recipe from “Made in Sicily” by Giorgio Locatelli
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 62-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.