Lila, my youngest sister, loves burgers, chocolate, and ice cream. She’s turning 9 this August.
But most of all, that girl loves cheese. One night, when she was younger, I walked into the kitchen at my parents’ house to find her seated at the counter. In front of her, a plate piled high with parmesan cheese. She’d cleaned us out.
Dinner, she called it.
That’s what kids must picture dinner being like when you’re older and in your own place. Ice cream for breakfast. Chips for dinner. Sprinkles all around. And sometimes it is, and it is great to sit in your pajamas and have a little bit of ice cream around 10 a.m. But of course, this can’t and won’t go on forever.
Your belly grumbles for real food. A real dinner.
Some nights Danny works late to cover meetings for the paper, and I find myself making dinner for one. I sit on the couch browsing this and catching up on that, and before I know it I only had avocado toast or a big bowl of kale for dinner. Suddenly it’s 9 p.m. and all I’ve had is a skimpy dinner.
It had to change. I came across this recipe for spaghetti with sardines, lemon, and anchovy breadcrumbs. Turns out I had everything I needed, which is part of this dinner’s appeal. I’ve been stashing these cute tins of sardines in the cupboards ever since we picked up fresh Portuguese sardines on a whim and liked them very much. It’s also great knowing they’re sustainable and healthy.
Anyway. The pasta doesn’t take very long. The sweet smell of lemon and garlic as you chop and prep is enough to convince you this was a waaaay better move than heating up soup. I tend to cop out on dinner when it’s just for me, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Let’s try and quit that, okay? Treat yourself.
The original recipe has you chop a lot of the ingredients while the pasta boils, but I like to have everything ready at the start and then use the downtime to sip on wine. A clean and crisp sauvignon blanc is really nice with this pasta.
Everything starts with the breadcrumbs. You’re supposed to use fresh white breadcrumbs, but the only bread I had was pita and this was no time for a run to the grocery store. I used panko crumbs, and that worked out just fine. The crumbs sizzle in the pan, soaking up a lot of olive oil just in the first minute. It looks more like a paste that won’t crisp up, but the color is more important here. Mine were a bit darker than fresh breadcrumbs would’ve been, but you want to let them brown for a bit. Set them on paper towels and as they rest they’ll crisp up. They’re salty and they look and sound like shaved ice.
Be generous with the breadrumbs on the pasta. As you twirl a fork in the spaghetti, it’s a mini avalanche and the breadcrumbs coat every strand. The crunch is unbeatable and makes me wonder why all pasta isn’t served with salty, crsipy accents. Do not skip them.
This was a very satisfying dinner. Good enough to share the leftovers with Danny and good enough to make again. I’ve used arugula and baby kale, but you can use whatever small, slightly bitter greens you have around. If you’re feeling inspired, I bet parsley would be great here. Maybe some shallots, too.
I didn’t really miss cheese in this pasta, but you could definitely grate a bit of parmesan over the pasta. Be careful not to add too much as this is already salty with the anchovy crumbs and sardines crumbled into the dish. I may add some next time and raise my fork to Lila, who would not eat this now but could maybe be convinced to clean a plate of this spaghetti when she grows up.
spaghetti with sardines, lemon, and anchovy breadcrumbs
This is a great dinner at the end of the week when the fridge may be a little low but you can depend on your pantry. It’s no sacrifice. It is salty, delicious, and enhanced with a jolt of green from arugula, kale, or whichever green you have around. The leftovers for lunch the next day are great, too.
10 anchovy fillets in oil, drained
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more
6 tablespoons fresh white breadcrumbs (I used panko and that worked out fine)
about 14 ounces spaghetti
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small hot chili, chopped and seeds removed, or a good pinch of red chili flakes
7 ounces or 200 grams sardines in olive oil
1 lemon, zested and juiced
3 ounces arugula or baby kale (or more if you want this to be a little heavier on the greens)
Place the anchovies in a skillet with 4 tablespoons olive oil and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the anchovies fall apart and melt into the oil, about 7 minutes. Stir in the breadcrumbs and turn up the heat to medium. Keep stirring the breadcrumbs frequently until they fry up to a golden brown color, no more than 10 minutes. Strain the breadcrumbs and place them on a plate lined with paper towels. This is when they’ll really crisp up.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente or as tender as you like it, 10 to 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, drain the sardines, making sure to reserve the oil. Use a fork to break the sardines into small pieces. Clean and dry the skillet used for the breadcrumbs. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the skillet and cook the garlic gently over medium heat. Stir in the chili pepper or flakes and the sardines.
Drain the spaghetti when it’s done and reserve a bit of the pasta water. Pour the drained pasta into your large skillet with the sardines. Toss the pasta to coat and add in the arugula and the zest of 1 lemon and half its juice. Add a generous splash of the reserved pasta water and toss the pasta again until everything is just about evenly distributed. Taste for seasoning and add some of the oil from the sardines if pasta could use a bit more oil and the rest of the lemon juice if it needs a bit more acidity. Garnish generously with anchovy breadcrumbs on top and serve immediately.