Forkful's speedy suppers: Fennel sausage pasta
Is it just me or is there something wonderfully therapeutic about frying onions? If I have a lot on my mind, I find the simple action of dicing onions and frying them, gently, in butter or oil to be quite soothing. It requires a bit of attention in order not to burn them, but this attention doesn't need a huge amount of effort. It's the kind of simple, everyday activity that demands you to slow down to its pace.
That is, as long as you just focus on the task of frying onions and don't mess it up by the modern affliction of multiple multi-tasking. If you must do something while the onions are frying, dice your garlic and red chilli pepper, but don't leave your onions alone too long, and keep stirring.
About once a week, and perhaps more often in the colder autumn months, I turn to pasta for comfort. I love making tomato-based sauces, not least because they start with the relaxing exercise of chopping and sweating onions, which does actually sound much more strenuous written down and taken literally than it is in real life. But when focused on, frying onions is one of life's simple pleasures.
For this fennel and sausage sauce, I've borrowed a technique I learned from one of Jamie Oliver's cookbooks. I use the sausage as a sort of cheat's mince meat, squeezing the meat from its casings and then breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it fries in the pan. I've used really delicious fennel pork sausages from the organic Coolanowle Butchers, based in Co Laois. I do my best to visit them once a week in The Green Door Market in Dublin 8, where I pick up my meat.
With the addition of fresh basil and a good over-sized handful of finely grated Parmesan cheese, this makes enough for two people with some leftovers.
Fennel sausage pasta
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
6 small fennel (or regular) sausages
2 or 3 garlic cloves, finely diced
1 red chilli, finely chopped
Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon of sugar
200g penne pasta
Handful of fresh basil
Handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Start by removing the sausage meat from the casings. This is a sticky job, not for the squeamish. Discard the casings.
2. Heat a bit of olive oil in a heavy, non-stick frying pan over a medium to high heat. Add the sausage meat and use a wooden spoon to break up the sausage meat so that it cooks in the same way mince would. Once it's cooked off a bit and starting to brown, use a slotted spoon to remove the meat and set aside. If there is a lot of excess oil or fat from the sausages, you can discard it but leave some for cooking your onions.
3. In the leftover sausage fat, gently sweat your onions for a couple of minutes, around 4 or 5, until starting to soften. Next, add in the diced garlic and red chilli (you can add the chilli seeds if you want to pack extra heat). Fry them gently with the onions for another few minutes until the onions are translucent and everything smells heavenly.
4. Return the sausage meat to the pan and mix with the onions, garlic and chilli. Add the tin of chopped tomatoes and then fill up the empty tin about halfway with water, and pour into the pan. Add the sugar, and a good big pinch of salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a slow simmer and let it bubble away for about 15 minutes, or until it has thickened nicely.
5. Meanwhile, cook your penne pasta according to the packet's instructions. Drain, keeping aside a little bit of the pasta water. When the sauce has thickened nicely, put the penne into the pan with the sauce and add a splash of the reserved pasta water, which helps the pasta stick to the sauce. Stir it really well until the penne is coated and making sure everything is nice and hot.
6. Serve in bowls with handfuls of finely grated Parmesan and finely chopped fresh basil.
This week's storecupboard essential:
Dried fennel: In this week's recipe, I've added some dried fennel seeds to bulk up the lovely flavour of this licorice-like spice in the fennel sausages. Use fennel seeds sparingly as they can easily overwhelm. Get the balance right and you're in aniseed heaven.