Tell me if this happens to you. You taste something delicious and then suddenly, your homing device is set to that thing. I had burrata for the first time several years ago at Pizzeria Mozza while visiting a friend in L.A. and when I got back, I scoured my cookbooks for recipes using burrata.
On Sunday night, I went to a wine tasting, featuring Walla Walla wines, at Tom Douglas’ amazing space Palace Ballroom. They had platters of food set out so we could make sure there was a cushion for the 13 (!) wines we were slated to taste. One of those platters held roasted vegetables and I may have scoffed. So imaginative! Roasted vegetables as a vegetarian option! But they were roasted in a wood-fired oven and they had fennel included in the mix and I could have eaten an entire plate of that roasted fennel. I included a roasted fennel dish in one of my classes last winter – fennel, red peppers, grapes, and herbes de Provence – so I knew how good that vegetable is blasted at high heat. But this was something else.
So, off I went in search of fennel recipes. I did not have to look far. I just got a new cookbook (surprise!) called The Fresh & Green Table. It is a lovely book with so many a very nice variety of mostly vegetarian recipes. Baked Penne with Silky Fennel in Hot Pink Sauce – how could you not want to make that?
I’m no stranger to baked pasta recipes (like this one, this one, and this one). They are one of my favorite things to make on a cold day and I also love making them for large groups. You can scale up easily. I understand that it is actually summertime and many of the people in this country might not want to turn their oven on to 425º and then eat hot pasta. So save this recipe for another time. But make it and you won’t be sorry. I sort of expected this to taste like other tomato based baked pasta dishes I’ve made but no. No no no no. I give full credit to the fennel (browned in a pan first – almost a little smoky) and the bread crumbs (crunch!). I made a lot of changes, some of them intentional – lightening up the dish with less cheese, less oil, and no butter, and some of them unintentional – making about 100 mistakes in the process of getting it in the oven. The recipe below reflects what I did.
One Year Ago: Chesapeake Bay Snack Mix, Vegetable Enchiladas
Two Years Ago: Mini Pissaladière, Lavender Honey Ice Cream
Three Years Ago: Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
Baked Penne with Silky Fennel in Hot Pink Sauce
Adapted (liberally) from The Fresh & Green Table
I sometimes have a hard time finding 14-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes. They seem to always come in the 28-ounce size. I just stick my immersion blender directly into a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes and crush them that way. You could just use a blender. Please, by all means, make your own breadcrumbs for this dish. If you don’t have stale bread on hand, throw a few slices of good bread in the oven until crisp and then grind it up (tearing into small pieces first) in the food processor.
¾ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan, divided
3 tbsp. chopped parsley
Kosher or sea salt
3 medium fennel bulbs
1 tbsp. minced garlic
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
2 tbsp. vodka
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes
½ pound penne rigate
½ cup heavy cream
4 ounces diced fresh mozzarella cheese
Preheat the oven to 425ºF. In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, ¼ cup of the Parmesan, 2 tsp. of olive oil, the parsley, and a large pinch of salt. Set aside.
Trim the stalks from the fennel. Trim any brown spots from the outside of the fennel and halve the bulbs. Cut most of the core from both halves, leaving a bit of it to hold some of the wedges together (some will fall naturally apart into slices). Cut the fennel lengthwise (rotating your knife as you go, so that you are cutting on a radial angle always toward the center) into ¼-inch thick slices. Place a large pot over medium-high heat. Drizzle in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then add the fennel slices. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is very tender and well browned, 12 to 14 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the vodka and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot while it simmers down (this will take just a few seconds). Add the crushed tomatoes and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot, until well mixed, about 30 seconds. Turn the heat down to low.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until just shy of al dente (the pasta will continue to cook in the oven, so be sure to not overcook it). Pour the cream into a 2 cup measuring cup and keep it by the stove. When the pasta is ready, ladle out ¾ cup of the cooking liquid and add it to the cream. Drain the pasta and add it to the tomato fennel mixture. Pour in the cream mixture and stir well to combine. Stir in the mozzarella cheese and the remaining ½ cup of Parmesan. Season to taste with salt.
Turn the mixture out into a 8×12-inch casserole dish. Using a spatula, press down on the top. Scatter the breadcrumbs over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the top is browned and crusty and the casserole is bubbling vigorously, about 25 minutes. Let it sit for a few minutes while the bubbling subsides, then serve right away.
(Make ahead tips: You can make the sauce part (brown the fennel all the way through adding tomatoes) several hours ahead. Just leave the pot on the stove and warm it up before you proceed with the recipe. As with most casseroles, this can be made early in the day that you plan to serve it. Cover the whole thing with foil and store it in your refrigerator. You will need to add about 10 minutes to your cooking time.)