As I mentioned when I wrote about Irish Soda Bread, I’m not Irish, despite my craving for Irish carbs. I grew up in a household that was half preppy and half first-generation American in a college town without much ethnicity. But when March 19 rolled around, my mother, the daughter of Latvian immigrants, wished all her friends a Happy St. Joseph’s Day.
The phone would ring off the hook, and she would chime merry greetings in a variety of languages: Polish, Russian, German, French, Italian and Spanish. (Flight attendants used to tap her as an interpreter when we traveled.) As it turns out, St. Joseph is venerated in the Baltic countries, across Europe, and especially in Italy and Sicily.
In our household, St. Joseph ranked higher than Jesus, and was tied in the rankings with the Virgin Mary. My father had a little statue of him on his dresser. My brother’s middle name is Joseph, as is one of his sons’, and my mother’s favorite uncle was named Joseph.
When I started spending a lot of time in New Orleans, I was excited to learn just how important St. Joseph is to a multitude of communities there. Everyone thinks of New Orleans as being a French city, and it is, but its culture also includes a heavy dollop of Sicilian and Italian roots. Those are two very different things, as many people have stressed to me, but their traditions have both been mixed into the New Orleans ethnic gumbo.
The French Quarter actually became populated with Sicilians around the turn of the 20th century. Justin Nystrom’s wonderful book, Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping Of New Orleans Food Culture, explains that Sicilians began arriving in the city around 1830, working on its docks and in its produce businesses. New Orleans’ wealthy residents began building homes in the Garden District and Uptown, which left the Quarter for the newcomers.
Their food became known as Creole Italian cooking, featuring a dense sauce called “red gravy” and pungent tastes that provided a contrast to refined Creole and spicy Cajun food. Restaurants like Mosca’s, Liuzza’s and Pascal’s Manale feature this unique cuisine on their menus.
You find elaborate St. Joseph’s Day altars all over New Orleans in March, bursting with offerings of food. They’re at almost every Catholic church, especially those with Italian congregations. Last year, more than 75 churches in the area took part. This year, unfortunately, the altars are canceled. But in normal times, people tour the city to admire the displays, and then stay to eat. (The food is typically donated to charity once the displays are taken down.)
My fascination with New Orleans’ Sicilian and Italian tradition led me to take a class in Creole Italian at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Since then, I’ve taught myself how to make St. Joseph’s Day Pasta, whose main protein is sardines. There are two versions of this dish, which is also called Pasta Con Sardo, or Sawdust Pasta, known as the latter because of its layer of toasted bread crumbs that symbolize the sawdust on the floor of St. Joseph’s carpentry shop.
One version, like mine, has a tomato base, which pays homage to the “red gravy” you find in New Orleans. Because my mother taught me to make a killer tomato sauce, I use that as my foundation for this dish. Another popular version does not have tomatoes, but features capers and fresh fennel along with sardines. You also can dress it up even more and include anchovies in addition to the sardines.
St. Joseph’s Day Pasta comes together in under an hour, and it’s a wonderful way to incorporate a readily available protein from your pantry, along with tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, and raisins (if you opt for them), whenever you feel like eating something hearty.
Happy St. Joseph’s Day—no matter where you’re from or how Italian you are.
- 1 (3.75-oz.) tin sardines, packed in oil
- 1 (6-oz.) can tomato paste (or from a tube)
- 1 (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes, unsalted
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 2/3 cup chopped onion
- 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. crushed fennel seed
- 1 Tbsp. oregano
- Salt, to taste
- 1/4 cup golden raisins (optional)
- 1 lb. bucatini or spaghetti
Slice the sardines into 1/2" pieces. Add the olive oil to a deep pot or saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the chopped onion and minced garlic. Let the onion and garlic sweat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent. Add the sardines, stir, and let them cook together for about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste, plus 6 ounces of hot water, then stir. Add the crushed tomatoes, give it another stir, then add the fennel and oregano.
Cook on medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. It should simmer, but not bubble vigorously. Taste the sauce, and add salt as desired (probably 2-3 teaspoons). If you’re adding raisins, stir them in now. Let it simmer about 30 more minutes.
Meanwhile, place the breadcrumbs on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Toast them in the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes until crispy.
Make your pasta according to package directions. Drain it when finished and reserve 1-2 tablespoons of the cooking water to stir into the sauce. Toss the sauce with the pasta. Serve with a generous portion of breadcrumbs on top. (You can place it under a broiler for 1-2 minutes if you want the breadcrumbs to be a deeper color.)
Sardines in oil give you a little stronger flavor than sardines packed in water. If you use the latter, add 1 teaspoon of olive oil to the sauce.
The raisins are a tribute to the vineyards of Italy and Sicily. They add a little sweetness and chewiness to offset the pasta’s bold flavors.
Before adding the spices, blitz the fennel seed and the oregano together in a spice mill. You’ll get a nice powder that will blend easily into the dish.