My husband and I have a guilty pleasure. We often watch the Food Channel together. The other night we were watching Lidia's Italy as she made a humble dish of braised sausages with fennel and chopped green Cerignola olives. We don't often cook with fennel, and were intrigued with the rustic simplicity of dish, so much so that we decided to make it.
Lidia's recipe calls for Italian sweet sausages which we purchased from The Sausage King at the St Lawrence Market, run by Ark Siniak. All of their sausages are ground and mixed by hand, and have no preservatives or additives. The vegetables are from lovely Wei at Family Foods, and the olives from Alex's — all at the St. Lawrence Market.
Ark Siniak and his wife Natali, of The Sausage King
As we found out, fresh fennel is a great companion to good Italian sausage. In this dish, the vegetables are skillet cooked, separately then together, with crushed garlic, olives, wine and hot peperoncino (chili flakes), until their flavours merge and become deliciously concentrated. It may seem that there's a lot of fennel, but it reduces significantly as it cooks, and becomes impossibly sweet and tender. It's excellent with any grilled meat or fish, or with pasta, like Lidia's Ziti with Sausage, Onions and Fennel — another of her great recipes. A celebrated cookbook author, successful restauranteur and one of television's best loved chefs, Lidia Bastianich holds true to her Italian roots, inviting everyone to experience the warmth, hospitality and passion of her simple but delicious cooking.
Lidia's Sausages with Fennel and Olives
Recipe courtesy of Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
6 sweet Italian sausages
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/8 tsp. hot chili flakes, or to taste
1/2 cup large green olives with pits, then pitted
2 large fennel bulbs (2 lb), trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/4 tsp coarse sea salt
Trim the stalks and tough bottoms off the fennel bulbs. Peel off the outer layer. Cut in half lengthwise and trim out the bits of stalk that go down into the bulb. Cut into 1-inch chunks.
Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil into a skillet large enough for your sausages and set over medium-high heat. Lay in the sausages and cook for 5 minutes or more, rolling them over occasionally until nicely browned. Pour in the wine and boil until it is reduced by half. Remove the sausages to a platter and pour the remaining wine sauce over them.
Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the empty skillet. Toss in the garlic cloves and cook for a minute or so over medium heat until they're sizzling, but don't let them burn. Drop in the chili flakes in a hot spot for a few seconds, then scatter the squashed olives in the pan. Toss and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the fennel chunks and stir. Season with 1/4 tsp salt. Cover the skillet and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, tossing and stirring now and then until the fennel softens, shrinks, and begins to color. Add a bit of water to the pan if the fennel remains hard and resistant to the bite.
When the fennel is cooked through, return the sausages and wine to the skillet. Turn the meat and vegetables together, cook uncovered for another 5 minutes or so, until everything is deeply caramelized and glazed. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve hot.
Ziti with Sausage, Onions and Fennel
For the Sauce:
1 lb sweet Italian sausage, without fennel seeds
1 large fennel bulb, with stem and fronds
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp peperoncino (chili flakes)
2 cups onion, sliced into half-moons
½ tsp salt
½ cup tomato paste
For the Pasta and Finishing:
1 tbsp kosher salt, for the pasta cooking water
1 lb ziti
⅓ cup fennel fronds, finely chopped
1 cup Pecorino Romano, freshly grated
Heat 6 quarts of water with the tablespoon kosher salt to boiling in a cooking pot. Remove the sausage from its casing and break the meat up a bit with your fingers. Trim the fennel bulb. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise, then slice each half in 1/4-inch thick lengthwise slices. Separate the slivers of fennel if they are attached at the bottom; cut the long slivers in half so you have about 3 cups of 2-inch long matchsticks of fennel.
Pour the olive oil into the skillet and set it over medium-high heat. Add the sausage meat and cook, stirring and breaking it up more with a wooden spoon, until it is sizzling and beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.
Push the sausage a bit aside and drop the onion slices into a clear part of the pan; sauté, stirring, until they're sizzling and wilting, another 2 minutes or so, then stir them in with the meat.
Clear a space and drop in the fennel; let it heat up and wilt for 1 minute or more, then stir it around with the sausage and onions. Sprinkle on 1/4 teaspoon salt; drop the peperoncino in a hot spot and toast the flakes for 1/2 minute, then stir them in.
Clear a good-sized hot spot in the center of the pan, plop in the tomato paste and cook, stirring it in the spot for a good minute or more, until it is sizzling and caramelizing; then stir it in with everything else.
Ladle 3 cups of boiling pasta water from the pot into the skillet, stir well and bring the liquid to a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain an active simmer all over the pan.
Drop the ziti in the boiling water in the pasta pot. Stir and bring back to the boil. Cook about 8 minutes until the ziti are not quite al dente.
Continue to simmer the sauce until the flavors have developed and the fennel is soft but not mushy, 6 minutes or more. The sauce should not get too thick: stir in another cup or 2 of boiling pasta water, if it reduces rapidly. When the sauce is done, taste it and add more salt if you want. If the pasta is not ready, turn down the heat to keep the sauce at a very low simmer until the ziti are on their way-then turn the heat up.
As soon as the ziti are ready by your timing, lift them out of the pot with a spider. Let excess water drip off only for an instant and drop the wet cylinders into the simmering sauce. Start tossing pasta and sauce together; ladle in more water if the sauce seems too thick.
Sprinkle over the chopped fennel fronds and continue to cook and toss the ziti in the skillet for 2 minutes or until they are perfectly al dente and coated with sauce. If the pasta appears dry, ladle in more hot pasta water; if it is soupy, cook rapidly to thicken the sauce.
Remove the skillet from the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the ziti, and toss it in. Serve the hot pasta right from the skillet into warm pasta bowls.