As I said, food is an important part of the altar, and nearly all of the food on the altar has a symbolic significance. The altar is laden with bread which is baked into elaborate shapes, multitudes of cakes, cookies and pastries, as well as fried vegetables. I think one of the most recognized symbols of an altar is the lucky bean. The lucky bean is a dried fava bean; the significance is that during the famine, there was nothing to eat except fava beans, which were grown as fodder for the animals. Sicilians ate the fava beans because there was nothing else to eat and they were lucky to have something to eat, hence, the lucky bean, also known as the prosperity bean. I always have a fava bean in my purse, as the legend goes that if you carry a lucky bean, you will always have coins.
Now, this is a Sicilian tradition, yes? Do you think there is any way possible this tradition would not feature pasta in some way? Of course not! The dish is referred to as Pasta Milanese, which is meatless, but contains anchovies and/or sardines as well as fennel. The pasta is topped with mudica, which are sweet, sautéed breadcrumbs. Mudica represents the sawdust of St. Joseph, a carpenter.
I attended more altars in my childhood than as an adult, most of which were in the homes of relatives. One altar I remember vividly was at a cousin’s house, and my brother, who was probably no older than 5, was one of the saints for the altar. I say vivid because I remember him wearing a little brown leisure suit. While I didn’t attend an altar this year, I did celebrate in my own way by making a large pot of Pasta Milanese gravy and sharing with friends. My Pasta Milanese recipe is quite different from the one that was served at the family altars. There are no sardines in my gravy, only anchovies. I sauté the fennel along with the other aromatics for my gravy, and I also boil fennel with the pasta. I was never overly fond of the Pasta Milanese of my childhood, but this, this is something I actually look forward to making and eating on St. Joseph’s Day.
12oz bag frozen seasoning (onions, celery, bell pepper)
1 medium onion, diced
2 large bulbs fennel, cleaned and chopped, reserve fronds
6-8 anchovy filets, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons sugar
1 6 oz can tomato paste
1 12 oz can tomato sauce
1 28 oz can tomato puree
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped and added just before serving
2 cups warm water
1 pound pasta (bucatini is what my grandmother used, but use any hearty pasta)
Over medium-high heat and using a dutch oven or large saucepan, saute seasoning mix, onion, chopped fennel, and garlic in 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil until soft and lightly brown on the edges.
Add sugar, tomato paste, dried basil, anchovy filets, and cinnamon. Stir into onion mixture and cook for 5 minutes. Lower the heat and add the sauce, puree, and crushed tomatoes. Once well-mixed, add the raisins and pour in the water and bring sauce to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring often, until sauce has thickened.
Prepare pasta according to package directions. After pasta has cooked for 5 minutes, add the fennel fronds and continue cooking until pasta is al dente. Drain pasta and fennel. Serve in individual bowls ladled with the gravy and sprinkled with the mudica.
6 cups plain dry bread crumbs
3/4 cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons sugar
In a large skillet, over medium heat, heat olive oil until just barely shimmering. Add breadcrumbs and stir constantly, so that all of the breadcrumbs are coated with the oil. Add the sugar to the breadcrumbs and continue to stir until breadcrumbs turn a deep golden brown. Remove from heat and allow to cool before sprinkling on pasta. Store leftover mudica in refrigerator.