Sausages are old-school convenience food – pre-seasoned, prepackaged in casing, often even precooked – which makes them an excellent ingredient for an easy weeknight dinner. This recipe takes the sausage out of its casing for a quick cook with tomato, white wine and fresh fall fennel.
A versatile vegetable with a celery-like feel and a mild licorice taste, fennel is adored in Italy, where it is enjoyed both raw and cooked. In American markets, fresh fennel is often erroneously labeled anise, which probably adds to its lack of popularity. Maybe fennel would be more popular here if we used its charming Italian name, finocchio, which starts with fee and ends like Pinocchio.
Fresh fennel’s season starts in fall and runs to spring. The whole plant is edible: white bulb, celery-like green stalks, feathery dill-like fronds, and of course the licorice-flavored seeds found in Italian sausages.
Fall’s vegetables are exciting now in the novelty of the season, but when you tire of the orangeness of pumpkin, butternut squash and sweet potato, fennel provides a welcome change of pace.
I had a fennel fixation a couple of winters ago, during which I lived on roasted fennel with parmesan and fennel, orange and avocado salad. Two fennel recipes in February 2011 alone! You guys are good to put up with me.
This recipe, adapted from Fine Cooking, keeps it simple: fennel, sausage, tomatoes, wine. No onion or garlic – the sausage flavors the entire dish, so use one you like.
Cutting fennel is similar to cutting an onion, but without the tears. Easy.
If the core is very tough, you could cut it out. Since we are chopping finely here, I don’t worry about it.
Uncooked sausage preferable, so it can cook into crumbles. Run a knife end-to-end on the sausages to cut the casing. Then simply peel it off.
Break up the sausage during cooking, browning well.
Fennel next, same pan.
Then white wine, which loosens up all the yummy browned bits at the bottom of the pan. The wine only takes a minute or two to cook off, but the flavor stays.
If you don’t have a bottle of wine on hand, dry vermouth makes a good substitute. Vermouth is great to have on hand for cooking, as it keeps much longer than wine.
Sausage back in, and tomatoes.
Basil (parsley is good too).
And pasta. Orecchiette – meaning “little ears” in Italian – are cute cupped pasta. Of course you can substitute.
Done! You can add some Parmesan or Pecorino Romano to the tossed pasta, or simply serve with cheese on top.
The flavor of fennel is even milder when cooked, playing a quiet but special background role to the sausage, wine, tomatoes and basil.
Added bonus: this is one pasta dish that keeps well for next-day leftovers.
Orecchiette with Sausage, Fennel and Tomato
Fennel provides a mild and fresh flavor to this quick dish, adapted from Fine Cooking, which makes an tasty weeknight meal as well as excellent leftovers for lunch the next day.
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
- 1 large fennel bulb
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups fresh (or canned) diced tomatoes, drained if using canned
- 12 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
- Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 lb. dried orecchiette (small cupped pasta; “litte ears” in Italian)
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano
- Set a large pot of water on high to boil.
- Cut stalks off fennel bulb and trim the end. Cut bulb in half and chop finely, similar to cutting an onion. You may cut the core out if it seems very tough.
- Remove sausage from casing. In a large saute pan, cook sausage meat on medium-high, breaking it up with a spoon or spatula, until browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer sausage to a bowl (or, if very oily, a paper-towel-lined plate) and pour off and discard any fat left in the pan.
- Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil to pan and cook the fennel over medium heat, sprinkling with a bit of salt and stirring, until the fennel softens and browns lightly, about 6 minutes. Raise the heat to high, add the wine, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits, until almost evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the sausage, tomatoes, and half of the basil, as well as salt, pepper and red pepper to taste. Lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down, 6 to 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, salt the pasta water (salty like the sea) and cook the orecchiette, stirring frequently, until soft but with a chewy bite at the center. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and drain pasta. Return the pasta to the pot and add the sauce, mixing well. If the pasta seems dry, add enough cooking water to moisten it to your liking. Stir in half of the cheese, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve sprinkled with the remaining cheese and basil.
- Gluten-free option: serve the sausage, fennel tomato sauce over polenta.
- Sausage provides much of the flavor of this dish, so try to find a good one. Check the spiciness of your sausage before you add crushed red pepper – you may not need any.
- If you use poultry sausage, as I often do, you probably won’t need to drain the cooked sausage meat.
- Flat-leaf parsley is a good substitute when basil is out of season.
- Dry vermouth is a good substitute for white wine, and a bottle is great to have on hand for cooking as it keeps much longer than wine.
- Unlike many pasta dishes, this one is very good left over.
Here’s the link to a printable version.