Monday, April 02, 2012


Even though I’m not actively trying to accumulate new pasta recipes (because I already have more than I can make in a year), every now and then I encounter one I can’t resist. I initially struggled to disregard this one when I spotted a simplified version at Dinner With Julie—I mean, it looked tasty, and I love filled pastas, and mushrooms and spinach and sausage go so well together, and I don’t have anything like that in my archives, yet it seemed too basic to be worth breaking my ban—but when I saw that the original Bon Appetit recipe also contained fennel (in three forms, no less: bulb, seeds, and fronds), I caved. Now that seemed special. Plus, it looked like the perfect easy weeknight meal for someone who’d just come back from vacation and wanted to eat some vegetables but hadn’t had a chance to go to the farmers’ market.

I’m not sure if I was just off my game, but this wasn’t quite as quick to throw together as I’d expected. Not laborious whatsoever, mind you, but not effortless…just your standard pasta recipe, basically. I blame the fennel, which always feels awkward for me to deal with, especially because I have to struggle to wrest the fronds away from a cat that is inexplicably obsessed with chewing on them. (Like, he can smell the fennel as soon as I bring it through the door and follows me around until I get it into the fridge. It’s pretty cute, actually.) Plus, I cooked my fennel mixture a bit longer than 15 minutes because I like it super-tender, not crunchy at all. So I guess if you’re looking for an unusually fast dish, try the Dinner with Julie version. But if you love fennel, stick with this one, because it’s going to be right up your alley.

Long story short, this is delicious. I knew the flavors would play well together, but I was still surprised by how much I liked it. The saucy-but-not-goopy texture was particularly delightful; that little bit of cream gives it some unctuousness without descending into heavy cream-sauce territory (in fact, if you hadn’t read the recipe, you might not notice it was there at all). I didn’t really make any changes. I did use chicken Italian sausage, which only comes in the sweet variety at Trader Joe’s, so to add spiciness I put in ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes along with the garlic and fennel seed. I might select a different tortellini next time, though. It cracked me up that the original recipe specifies only “dried tortellini with pesto filling or fresh tortellini with 3-cheese filling.” What happens if you use dried cheese tortellini or fresh pesto tortellini—will the dish explode? Still, I followed the rules and went with dried pesto tortellini, mainly because it handily comes in a 1-pound package at Trader Joe’s, whereas the fresh tortellini comes in odder sizes and I’d have to use something like 1.6 packs to equal a pound. I use the dried cheese tortellini all the time for pasta salad, but I hadn’t tried the pesto variety before and found it a little salty and fake-tasting (it reminded me more of dried basil than fresh). It wasn’t as noticeable in the finished dish, but I think I could do better. Oh, and I initially scoffed at the recipe’s direction to return the tortellini to its cooking pot and then add everything else to it—why not keep things cleaner and easier and add the tortellini, spinach and cheese to the skillet with the bubbling sauce, as in most pasta recipes? I’ll tell you why—because that skillet gets full nearly to overflowing, even before you try to add the bulky-before-wilting spinach leaves. I made a mess of the surrounding stovetop in the process, so I’ve learned my lesson there.

Anyway, despite my reluctance to add to my massive collection, I guess I’ve acquired another favorite pasta recipe, because this one’s a crowd-pleasing keeper.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed, halved through core, thinly sliced lengthwise (about 3 cups), fronds chopped
1 pound spicy Italian sausages, casings removed, sausage coarsely crumbled
8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, coarsely crushed
½ cup heavy cream
1 cup low-salt chicken broth
1 pound dried or fresh pesto or cheese tortellini
5–6 ounces baby spinach leaves
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sliced fennel bulb, sausage, and mushrooms; sauté until sausage is brown and cooked through and fennel is almost tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Add garlic and fennel seeds; stir 1 minute. Stir in cream, then broth; boil until liquid is reduced and very slightly thickened, 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook tortellini in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain tortellini; return to same pot.

3. Add sausage mixture to tortellini in pot. Toss over medium heat until blended. Add spinach; toss gently until spinach wilts. Stir in ½ cup cheese. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds, and serve with additional cheese to taste.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: High.

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