I love when recipes teach me something. When I first started cooking, once something went into the pan, it was in there. Period. Then one day, I came across a recipe that had you brown an ingredient – probably meat of some sort – and remove it from the pan while you completed other steps, then return it to the pan for finishing. It was a revelation. Now it’s standard operating procedure to me, of course. Well, this recipe uses my earlier cooking style, layering flavor upon flavor as you keep adding ingredients to the pan. And it does it in a way that nonnas have always done, I think.
Besides being fairly quick and easy to prepare, this dish is just fun to cook. You put something in the pan and cook it for a bit, then make a hole in the center of the pan and add the next ingredient. After that cooks for a minute or two, you mix everything together and then make a hole for the next ingredient. The recipe was so simple and rustic, I was expecting good but basic. What I got was transcendent.
Ziti with sausage and fennel
Serves three as a main course, four or five as a primi course
1/2 pound ziti (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
1 fennel bulb, 1 pound or slightly less
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and sliced into half moons
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and add ziti. Cook until not quite al dente, about 2 minutes less than recommended cooking time. Drain, reserving 2 cups of pasta water. Do not rinse (see Kitchen Notes). Set aside.
While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, assemble the other ingredients. If the sausage is not bulk, remove from casings and break the meat up with your fingers. Using a sharp knife, slice off the root end of the fennel bulb and the stalks with the fronds. Reserve the stalks and fronds. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut out the inner core and slice the bulb halves lengthwise into about 1/4-inch slices. You’ll probably end up with more than the 2 cups you need. You can save it for another use or go ahead and have a little more fennel in this dish.