Growing up pasta wasn't part of the family's standard fare despite it being one of the easier things to make. In fact, when I was growing up on Cape Cod, we never heard the word pasta. All we knew was spaghetti which was only a Sunday dinner meal, easily made ahead thus allowing the cook, our mother, "time off" from preparing three course meals.
Sometime in the mid-80s, as upscale gourmet Italian restaurants peppered the Manhattan landscape, I became aware, as we all did, of pasta and the word became prevalent in our vernacular. Celebrity chefs introduced us to all different shapes of pasta, each with its own characteristics and name - the corkscrews of fusilli, the pointed pipes of penne, the tight spirals of rotini, the bow-ties of farfalle, and the large round tubes of rigatoni. And no longer were noodles drowned in tomato sauce, rather they were bathed in light cream sauces and crowned with thin strips of prosciutto, mushrooms, and herbs. Noodles were now gourmet fare and prices reflected their elevation to these new heights.
I will say on the cold winter nights in the Northeast this past winter, pasta was a comforting (and easy) meal. Once again I found a very satisfying and flavorful recipe from Ina Garten in her last cookbook Cooking for Jeffrey. Sweet Italian sausage and fennel flavor a light cream sauce touched by a dollop of tomato paste. I liked this so much I had it for breakfast the morning after our original dinner. It's also a great "pot luck" dish but don't expect any leftovers.
Rigatoni with Sausage & Fennel
3 tablespoons good olive oil
3 cups chopped fennel (1 large bulb)
1 ½ cups chopped yellow onion
1 ¼ pounds sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
½ teaspoon minces garlic (2 cloves)
½ teaspoon whole fennel seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle (or a hammer in a baggy)
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
⅔ cup half and half
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 pound rigatoni, such as DeCecco
½ cup chopped parsley leaves
1 cup freshly grated Italian Parmesan cheese, divided
- Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset, over medium heat.
- Add the fennel and onion and sauté for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender.
- Add the sausage and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, crumbling it with a fork until nicely browned.
- Add the garlic, crushed fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, and cook for 1 minute.
- Pour in the wine, bring to a boil, and add the heavy cream, half and half, and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened.
- Meanwhile bring a large pot of water to boil, add 2 tablespoons of salt, and cook rigatoni according to the directions on the package. Drain and add to the sauce, stirring to coat the pasta.
- Cook over low heat for 5 minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the sauce.
- Off the heat, stir in the parsley and ½ cup Parmesan.
- Serve hot in shallow bowls with the remaining ½ cup Parmesan on the side.