I first discovered fennel seed in a somewhat unusual way. When I was a kid in the late 70′s and early 80′s, my mom would sometimes make boxed Kraft pizza (we lived in a rural community so delivery wasn’t an option). Each kit contained a can of sauce, dough mix and a seasoning packet of dried herbs to sprinkle over the pizza. All you had to do was add the toppings of your choice which usually included ground beef, mushroom slices (canned, of course) and cheese. I always loved the seasoning packet – it added a zippy burst of Italian flavour to our less than authentic pizzas. Years later I finally realized what it was that gave our ‘pizzas’ the flavour I loved so much: fennel seed.
Fennel seeds are the dried fruit of the sweet fennel plant. They have an anise (black licorice) flavour and pair well with pork. In Italy’s Tuscan region, fennel salami (finocchiona) is very popular and fennel seeds are often crushed to rub onto meat before roasting or grilling. They impart a delicious burst of anise flavour when chewed. Fennel seeds can be found at most well stocked grocery stores or kitchen shops. Look for whole seeds as opposed to ground ones.
A tip: You can use either cream or evaporated milk in this recipe. While cream will give the sauce a silky richness, it’s very high in fat and calories – low-fat canned evaporated milk is a decent substitute.
Penne with Sausage and Fennel Seed
Makes 6 servings
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 5 mild or sweet Italian sausages
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 2 teaspoons fennel seed
- A 14 oz. (398 ml) can of tomatoes
- 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
- ½ cup evaporated milk or cream
- Pinch of sugar, to taste (optional)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 500 g (1 lb.) dried penne or rigatoni
- Parmesan cheese, to garnish (optional)
- In a large deep skillet or enameled cast iron pot, heat olive oil on medium-high heat. Add onion and celery and sauté until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes.
- Slice the skins of the sausages lengthwise down the middle and remove the meat from their casings. Discard the casings. Add the sausage meat to the pot and use a spatula or spoon to break up the meat. Add garlic and fennel seeds.
- Cook sausage mixture on medium-high until just browned, about 7 minutes. Stir occasionally to ensure it doesn’t burn.
- Add tomatoes and break up with a spoon. Simmer for about 5 minutes, until some of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in tomato paste until thoroughly combined.
- Add evaporated milk or cream and stir into sauce. Let sauce simmer for 5 more minutes. Season to taste with a pinch of sugar (optional – use if the tomatoes are very acidic), salt and pepper. Keep warm on low heat while the penne cooks.
- In a separate large pot with a lid, heat water to cook the penne. Bring to a boil and cook penne until al dente, according to package instructions, about 10 to 12 minutes.
- Drain penne and toss with sauce until thoroughly coated. Garnish with parmesan cheese if desired.
Copyright Trish Coleman. Please contact the author to obtain permission for republication.