On my way back from the airport on Tuesday, I stopped by Trader Joe’s (a rare treat for me, as I live 45 minutes away) and enjoyed the joy that is really cheap, really good food. While browsing through the fresh produce section, a container of fresh fennel bulbs caught my eye. Both its thin, green fronds and pale, white bulb-like stem base have a soft, anise-like taste that works in both savory and sweet dishes, and I wanted to try it out for dinner tonight. While I normally wouldn’t make two dishes with heavy cream back to back (last night’s blue cheese sauce was so tasty though!), this fennel was just begging to be cooked down and blended into cream. Paired with tender pasta and sweet Italian sausage, which typically contains fennel seeds in it, this sauce is perfect and pulls the whole dish together. Oh, and on an unrelated note, for once in my life, I actually took a few pictures along the way, so enjoy.
Prep. time: 10-15 minutes
Cooking time: Approx. 45 minutes
Special equipment: Food processor or blender
- 2 tbsp. butter
- Olive oil, enough to lightly coat the bottom of a medium pan (you’ll need to do this twice)
- 2-3 sweet Italian sausage links, casings removed, pulled/crumbled into small pieces
- 1 bulb fennel, quartered, cored, and roughly chopped (remove the top but keep the green fronds for garnish)
- 1 onion, roughly chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp. dry white wine
- 1/2 pint heavy cream
- 1/4 cup milk
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
- A pinch of dried sage
- 1 tsp. dried basil
- 1 tsp. fennel seeds
- Cornstarch-and-water mixture, as needed
- 8 oz. small pasta (farfalle, medium shells, rotini, etc.)
Heat 1 tbsp. butter and a splash of olive oil in a medium pan over medium high heat, then add the crumbled sausage and cook until lightly browned on the outside and cooked through (approx. 10 minutes). Remove the sausage from the pan and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate (leave the leftover oil and butter in the pan).
Return the pan to the stove over medium high heat, add 1 tbsp. butter and a little olive oil, then add the onion, fennel, and garlic. Cook for 15-20 minutes until golden brown, tender, and fragrant, then add the white wine and let it reduce a bit.
|Fennel: The top left corner is the core, below that is a quarter of the bulb, and the right is the sliced up bulb
|Onions, fennel, and garlic early in the cooking process
|The onions, fennel, and garlic, now soft, golden-brown, and ready for the food processor
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and add the pasta, then cook according to package instructions (approx. 11-13 min.). While the pasta is cooking, pour the onion and fennel mixture into the “bowl” of a food processor and pulse to blend. Add heavy cream and blend until fairly smooth. Pour the mixture into a small pot and heat over medium heat. Add the listed spices and herbs and the milk. Thicken with cornstarch-and-water as needed, then reduce to medium low heat. Reheat the sausage in the microwave for 30 seconds. Drain the finished pasta and return to the pot, then add the sausage and sauce and toss to combine. Serve with a garnish of the thin fronds from the fennel bulb.
This sauce is really something different—the fennel taste is sweet and subtle and, combined with onions, the resulting flavor is a blend of sweet and savory; there’s a buttery quality to it, with a richness that creates depth. The fennel flavor in the sauce mirrors the fennel seeds that help to flavor the sausage, and pasta creates the perfect base for the two.