When I’m feeling a quick and easy meal, I lean hard on my repertoire of pantry pasta. I’ll whip up a classic aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil sauce), throw together a quick pesto, or toss pasta with some simple sautéed greens.
I fully believe that pasta doesn’t have to be complicated to be tasty or impressive. So when I set off to develop a recipe featuring canned sardines, I knew it needed to feel special without feeling burdensome. The resulting recipe is loosely inspired by pasta con le sarde, a Sicilian sardine pasta.
Here, the mild, briny flavor of sardines is complemented by tangy, sweet caramelized lemons and buttery Castelvetrano olives. Garlic and red chili flakes sauté in oil, and the aglio e olio-like base serves two functions: it amps up the pasta sauce and provides a flavorful canvas for frying breadcrumbs.
In addition, the crispy, crunchy garlic and breadcrumbs offer a fun textural component. Keeping things light and bright, a garnish of parsley completes the dish.
Best Pasta Shapes for This Pasta
I recommend a long pasta shape you can twirl around your fork to pick up all those jammy, crispy bits. Spaghetti, bucatini, or fusilli col buco are all great options.
If your budget allows, opt for bronze-cut pasta. Bronze-die pasta has more texture on the surface, so it picks up the sauce better. And these cuts release significantly more starch into the pasta water, yielding a saucier dish.
How to Select Sardines
There are a few different characteristics to look for when purchasing sardines.
- Look for canned sardines packed in oil, providing lots of added flavor.
- Choose wild sardines over farmed varieties.
- Sardines from Portugal or Spain are likely to be of high quality. My go-to brand is Matiz, which is excellent value and has a firm texture.
Tips and Tricks
- Don’t be afraid of giving those lemons some color! The caramelization will offset any bitterness in the fruit.
- Season and adjust the dish as needed. The pasta should taste briny, lemony, and garlicky, with a hint of spice. Not spicy enough? Add more chili flakes. Not lemony enough? Add a squeeze of juice.
I love pairing this pasta with vibrant greens, like a classic green salad, kale salad, or a shaved Brussels sprouts Caesar salad. And if you’re feeling up for it, a glass of cool, crisp, dry white wine makes for an ideal pairing.
Quick Pasta Dinners
- Penne alla Vodka
- Creamy Cavatappi
- Pasta Carbonara
- Shrimp and Asparagus Pasta
- Creamy One-Pot Pasta With Zucchini
Cook the pasta:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 3/4 cup of pasta water.
Toast the breadcrumbs:
While the water is coming to a boil, prepare the breadcrumbs. Add the olive oil, garlic, and chili flakes to a large skillet. Set over medium heat, and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until the garlic is just beginning to turn golden.
Remove from the heat, and transfer half of the garlic-oil mixture to a small bowl. Set aside to add to the pasta later.
Add the breadcrumbs to the pan with the remaining garlic-oil mixture and toss to combine. Set over medium-low heat, and toast the breadcrumbs for 2-3 minutes until golden brown. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate, season with a pinch of salt, and set aside.
Prep the lemons:
Trim off the pointy ends of the lemons. Thinly slice 1 1/2 lemons into 1/8-inch rounds. Remove any seeds, then finely chop the rounds.
Cut the remaining 1/2 lemon into wedges for serving.
Caramelize the lemons:
Wipe the pan clean, then add the reserved garlic-oil mixture back into the skillet. Set over medium-low heat, then add the lemons.
Sauté for 4-6 minutes until they’ve fully softened and caramelized, turning slightly golden brown.
Add the sardines:
Add the sardines and olives to the pan, and saute over medium-high heat for 1-2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low.
Add the pasta to the skillet, and stir to combine with tongs. Stir in about 1/4 cup of pasta water, and toss the pasta, stirring frequently until the sauce clings to the noodles.
Season with salt to taste, and add chili flakes if desired. Divide amongst serving bowls, top with the breadcrumbs, then garnish with the parsley and a squeeze of lemon if needed.
Refrigerate leftover pasta and breadcrumbs in separate airtight containers for up to 2 days.
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