This is THE dish that absolutely defines comfort food for me. It's a carb laden feast with meat and sweet fennel, all wrapped in the coziest blanket of creamy cheesy tomato sauce.
If meal prep is your thing -- assemble this over the weekend and keep covered in your fridge. Take it out about 30 minutes before baking. Add a few minutes to cooking time. Serve it up with your favorite green salad.....or not.....the choice is up to you!
If you're more by a "fly by the seat of your pants" this takes about 20 minutes to prep, or less if your knife and sauté skills are Iron Chef-like.
And, if you're like me and forget to buy fennel -- the fennel seed mimics the flavor beautifully. Exactly the same, nope. But oh so close!!
- 1 lb orecchiette (or rigatoni)
- 1 fennel bulb (OR 1 1/2 teaspoons ground fennel seed)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound mild Italian sausage, ground
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 cup of your favorite tomato sauce (I love Rao's marinara or tomato basil)
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups shredded fontina cheese
- 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat an oven to 425°F (220°C). Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch (24-by-33-cm) baking dish.
Bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. When the water is boiling, season generously with salt (you want to make it "salty like the sea" which means you should add about 1/4 cup).
Add the pasta and cook 3 minutes less than the cook time on the package. Because you're going to finish this off in the oven, you want to undercook the pasta just a bit, so it retains a bit of a bite and doesn't get mushy.
Drain and place back in the same pot you cooked it. Add about a tablespoon of butter.
Remove and discard the stalks and core from the fennel bulb and dice the bulb.
In a large sauté pan, over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. If you're using ground fennel seed, add it with the sausage right away.
Add the sausage and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the fennel to sausage and cook, stirring, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add sausage and fennel to the pot with the pasta.
Add the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil to the same sauté pan and then add the onions and pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the sugar and vinegar and cook until the vinegar has reduced, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the tomato sauce and cream and simmer, stirring, until lightly thickened, 4 to 5 minutes.
Transfer to the pot with the pasta, add the fontina and stir well.
Transfer the pasta mixture to the prepared dish and top with the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Bake until the top is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling around the sides, 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve directly from the dish.
To save some time, start boiling the water first. While you're waiting for the water to boil, start cooking the sausage and fennel. By the time the sausage and fennel is finished, the water should have boiled, and while the pasta is cooking, chop the onion and mix the sugar and vinegar in a small dish. Now it will be time to add the sausage/fennel to the pasta. Give it a stir. Next step is to cook the onion and get the tomato cream sauce cooking. While the sauce is simmering, grate the fontina on a piece of parchment paper (makes cleanup SUPER easy!), and the Parmesan (on a separate piece of parchment).