Pasta Milanese with Pompano

Get two older New Orleans-Italian ladies together, and you’ll have argument about which is the right way to make “Milanese,” the name for one of the main dishes traditionally served in New Orleans Italian homes on St. Joseph’s Day (four days ago). Both ladies will hate this recipe–unless it’s served on a day other than St. Joseph’s, and if it’s not called “Milanese.” Then they’ll love it, and they’ll say it reminds them of Milanese. Keep your mouth shut.

The traditional fish used for Milanese is the strongly-flavored fresh Mediterranean sardine, a fish about six inches long. It’s good but hard to find. I substitute local pompano, which has the flavor to carry the dish and adds a touch of class–if not authenticity–to the dish. The traditional pasta shape is bucatini: the thickest kind of spaghetti, or the smallest that has a hole running through it, depending on how you look at it. The topping is bread crumbs, reminiscent of the sawdust of St. Joseph, the carpenter.

  • 1 bunch fennel
  • 3 Tbs. cup olive oil
  • 5 green onions, tough parts removed, chopped
  • 4 anchovies, crushed
  • 1 28-oz. can Italian plum tomato puree
  • 2 small whole pompano, cleaned
  • 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup dried currants
  • 1 Tbs. chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 lb. bucatini pasta (also called perciatelli)
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp. Italian seasoning

1. Cut the fennel bulb from top to bottom along the wide dimension. Cut off the inner root core and cut off the tough top parts, leaving about three inches of the stems. Chop coarsely.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and in it sauté the fennel and green onions until they soften. Add the crushed anchovies and cook another minute.

3. Add the tomato puree and the oregano and bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered for about 20 minutes.

4. In the meantime, cut the tails and (if you like) the heads off the pompano. Heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Brown the crushed garlic cloves, then add the pompano. Brown the pompano on both sides, cooking about two minutes on each side. Remove the garlic and discard.

5. Add the white wine and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and add a cup of the tomato sauce from the other pot. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Agitate the pan to slosh the sauce inside the fish. Cover the pan and cook for four to six minutes. Remove the fish from the pan. Cut out the fillets but leave the skin intact. Keep warm.

6. Pour the tomato sauce into the pan you just cooked the fish in. Add the pine nuts, currants, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the sauce up to a light simmer.

7. Cook the pasta in a large pot of water at a rolling boil with a tablespoon of salt in it. Cook for six minutes, then drain. Toss the pasta with the sauce in the pan to coat. Serve alongside a pompano fillet. Sprinkle bread crumbs mixed with the Italian seasoning over everything.

Serves four.

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