Dana Treat – Treat Yourself

Fennel Freak

Posted July 24, 2012

Baked Penne with Silky Fennel in Hot Pink Sauce
Adapted (liberally) from The Fresh & Green Table
Serves 4

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
Olive oil
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.)

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