Last Week’s Dinner: Orecchiette with Fennel & Sausage

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Have we covered fennel here before? Even if we have, it’s worth discussing some more. Fennel is one of those vegetables that, when I smell or taste it, brings immediate recall of my youth. Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, Easter…there would always be a relish dish with olives and hunks of fennel (SIDE NOTE: It was called finocch in my family, from it’s Italian finocchio. Finocch, not unlike the Italian word for eggplant, has been unfortunately twisted in the Italian-American lexicon as a slur against homosexuals. In season six, episode eight of The Sopranos, Vito was called a finocch and not in a loving way. I’ve said this before, but Italians really are European rednecks. Sigh. I digress.) on the table. This was the palette cleanser for all of us, as well as the pre-meal snack as we waited for dinner to make its way to the table.

Every so often, my co-worker Toni or I will bring it to work. Toni, the daughter of a Northside Italian, also group up with finocch as a staple food and we usually pack an extra piece for one another.

In this recipe, it works much like celery. It sautees and softens in the same way and provides an underlying flavor that enhances the Italian sausage, which is made with fennel seed.

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WHAT WORKED: Quick assembly. I’ve already lost track of what day last week that this was made, but it was definitely on one of the nights when time was of the essence.

WHAT DIDN’T: Fresh tomatoes. The plum tomatoes still look terrible, so canned it was. Worth mentioning that Muir Glen makes an excellent canned tomato product.

WHAT DID THE WIFE SAY: Yeah, no idea. I barely remember what we talked about this morning. I cannot remember what she said last week.

WILL IT MAKE ANOTHER APPEARANCE: Yes. I think The Sister might like this. I’ll file this as something to make when she is home.

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Orecchiette with Fennel & Sausage
Adapted from Tony Rosenfeld’s original at Fine Cooking

  • 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 lb. sweet Italian sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
  • 1 large fennel bulb, outside layer removed, quartered, and chopped
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 8 to 12 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • 1 lb. dried orecchiette
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Heat a large stockpot of water until it boils.

In a saute pan, heat half of the olive oil over medium-high until it shimmers. Add the sausage and cook until well-browned, approximately 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer sausage to a bowl.

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Using the fat in the pan, add the fennel and season with salt. Cook until the fennel softens and begins to brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Raise the burner to high, pour in the wine, and deglaze the pan. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan and cook until the wine has evaporated.

Add a liberal amount of kosher salt and cook pasta to the directions on the side of the package. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water.

Return the sausage to the pan and add the tomatoes and basil. Stir and taste, adjusting the seasoning with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium and cook about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the tomato pieces are very soft.

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Drain the pasta and return to the pot over a medium-high burner. Top with the sausage-tomato sauce and stir. Stir in half of the pasta water and the cheese. When combined, check the seasoning again and adjust with salt and pepper. If necessary, add additional pasta water to supplement the sauce.

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