When I think of Sicilian cuisine, one of the first things that comes to mind is the aromatic wild fennel, its feathery green fronds and unmistakable anise-like scent. Sicily is covered with the indigenous herb, and it is the seasoning of choice for many traditional dishes. You only have to climb a hill to collect it.
Stop at the outdoor market in Palermo, and you’ll also find little bundles of wild fennel for sale, a boon for home cooks who don’t want to pick their own but need them for a variety of simple regional dishes.
There is maccu, a simple, nourishing fava bean soup in which wild fennel is the foremost seasoning besides salt and olive oil. There are wild fennel polpettini, little fried cakes of cooked and chopped fronds mixed with grated cheese and egg.
Any number of Sicilian fish soups and marinades contain fresh, juicy wild fennel, used throughout the warm months, while seeds and pollen are collected and dried for seasoning winter’s meals. Some resourceful modern cooks store their wild fennel in the freezer, so they can have it year round.
One of the most famous Sicilian dishes that employs the herb is pasta con le sarde, a magnificent concoction of wild fennel and sardines. These two frugal ingredients are fortified with raisins, currants, saffron and pine nuts, a most felicitous North African enhancement in a dish layered with history and mingling cuisines. It is an unlikely combination, perhaps, but a brilliant one.
At its best, pasta con le sarde is a perfect interweaving of sweet and savory — the raisins and salt and hot pepper, garlic and onion wilting in olive oil, wild fennel’s grassy herbal fragrance, a funky touch of anchovy and flaking sardine, a whiff of saffron. Tossed with toothy bucatini and showered with bread crumbs, it is a brightly seasoned marvel.
Pasta con le sarde can be made in many different versions. You can use fresh sardines, sometimes canned. You can make it with tuna confit and fresh anchovies. You can try with or without the tomato sauce.
You can also make a version with no sardines, just the chopped anchovy and bread crumbs; it is utterly delicious. In Sicily this is called "Pasta con le sarde a mare: pasta with sardines at sea".