Growing up as a first-generation Italian, I regarded food not only as nourishment but also as a link to the flavors and traditions of my forebears. In fact, that strong ethnic bond has motivated much of my cooking over the last 50 years. And while the cuisines of other countries have always intrigued me, none has inspired me more than Italian. Whenever I’m in the kitchen, memories of my Sicilian mother or Neapolitan aunt at the stove or of my family around the dinner table come to mind.
Recently, I had one such recollection while I was preparing the pasta dish that is the subject of this post, Christmas Eve Sicilian Anchovy Pasta. As a child, I hated anchovies. The way they looked—dark, shriveled, when packed in salt or rusty and slimy when tinned in oil— totally turned me off even before tasting them. “Yuck,” I would say out of earshot. But I was forced to eat or, at least, try them every time they appeared in one of the dishes on the table. When I would resist, my father would say: “They’re an acquired taste; you’ll eventually grow to like them.” It may have taken some time before the acquisition, but, as usual, my father was correct.
Probably the first anchovy dish to win me over was spaghetti con acciughe, a fast and simple pasta dish, where anchovies are dissolved in a garlic-and-oil sauce seasoned with a pinch of red pepper flakes and parsley. It took a few years before I really warmed up to it, but since then it has been a staple of my repertoire.
This year, when our traditional Christmas Eve seafood dinner with friends was cancelled at the last minute owing to COVID and not wanting to face the supermarket frenzy of holiday grocery shopping, I chose to make a fish dish from what I had on hand. The only options for fish were canned tuna or anchovies. My husband suggested my spaghetti con acciughe, but I wanted something a little more festive. An internet search turned up a recipe for a Christmas Eve Sicilian Anchovy Pasta that looked intriguing from its combination of ingredients: anchovies, golden raisins, pine nuts, olives along with tomatoes and parsley.
Although some may liken this dish to a spaghetti puttanesca (strumpet style), its quantity of anchovies along with the raisins and pine nuts make it quite different. There’s a delicious counterpoint between the salinity from the olives, the sweetness from the golden raisins and pines nuts, and the heat from the red-pepper flakes. In addition, blending chopped tomatoes with tomato puree makes for quite a richly textured sauce that clings to the pasta. Thinking about the comparison to spaghetti puttanesca, I think this dish, given its costly ingredients, might be more aptly dubbed spaghetti cortigiana, or courtesan style.
I pretty much followed the recipe as written; however, I substituted whole plum tomatoes, which I cut, for the recipe’s chopped and jarred passata for the tomato puree. I also chose to cook the pasta just shy of al dente and finished cooking it in the sauce to deepen the flavor of the spaghetti rather than adding the sauce to the cooked pasta.
Christmas Eve Sicilian Anchovy Pasta (adapted from a recipe on From Italian Food Forever)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 can anchovies, chopped (Reserve the oil)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
14 ounces whole San Marzano tomatoes, cut into strips
14 ounces tomato passata
½ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
1 cup golden raisins
¼ cup fresh chopped parsley
1 cup coarsely chopped pitted Kalamata olives
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ Crushed red-pepper flakes or to taste
Salt to taste
1 pound spaghetti
1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and then add the reserved anchovy oil.
2. Add the anchovies and stir vigorously to break down the anchovies, about 4 minutes.
3. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two until fragrant.
4. Add the tomatoes and passata to the pot, and bring to a full simmer.
5. Reduce the heat, and cook for 10 to 12 minutes.
6. Add the pine nuts, raisins, parsley, and olives, black pepper, red pepper flakes, and cook for another 10 to 15 minutes or until the sauce thickens.
7. Taste for salt and add a pinch of salt if needed.
8. While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
9. Cook the pasta until it is just before “al dente.”
10. Using tongs transfer the pasta to the sauce. Reserve some of the pasta water. Toss the pasta in the sauce and cook for a few minutes until al dente. If necessary, add some of the reserved water to the pasta.
12. Serve the pasta in a warmed pasta bowls.
Wine Pairing: An Italian white, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Greco di Tufo