kitchen firsts: pasta with braised fennel and bacon
Fennel is not something that I grew up with, and my natural reaction to it (and all the other foods in its anisey-scented family, for that matter) is love-hate. When I smell fennel cooking, I find it sort of intoxicating, like I just can’t stop smelling it, but I’m not sure if I want to scarf it up or throw it out. For this reason, and since I don’t have a lot of recipes in my repertoire that feature fennel, I have never cooked with fennel myself (although I have purchased it and then wasted it with the intention of doing a kitchen first like three times). But this time, I finally found a recipe that excited me enough to follow through. This pasta was fragrant and spicy without being too much, and it was a welcome change from all those everyday-tasting tomato based pastas I get so tired of. The fennel is braised in a flavorful broth with lemon, red pepper flakes and bacon until it’s tender and mellow, then tossed with pasta and parmesan. It was so good that I’m 100% positive I will never waste a fennel bulb again! In fact, I may go get another one tomorrow.
This dish cooks up in under an hour, and it’s very satisfying– warming from the chile flakes but not burningly spicy, fragrant and flavorful from the fennel without being overpowering. Plus, there’s bacon and parmesan, and that never hurts. We felt that the bacon added a nice richness to the sauce, but if you want to make this dish vegetarian you can easily omit it (replace the bacon drippings with olive oil) and just sub vegetable broth or water for the chicken broth in the sauce. Either way, if you try this pasta I think it will quickly seal its place in your repertoire!
Pasta with Fennel, Bacon and Herbs
Adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2010
2 slices of bacon or 4-5 slices pancetta, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium shallot, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut in thin wedges with some core attached
3/4 cup chicken broth (you can use vegetable broth or water if you prefer)
2 T chopped fresh parsley, divided
1 T fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 lb pasta of your choice (we liked penne)
1 T olive oil
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano or parmesan, plus more for sprinkling
Get your prep ready before you begin. Prepare the fennel by first removing the fronds, then slicing off a little bit of the bottom (leave some of the core). If there are any discolored outer layers, remove them. Stand the bulb back up, and slice it into quarters. Then lay each quarter on its side and slice it diagonally, to make thin wedges. Lastly, chop your shallot, garlic, parsley, and bacon, and gather the rest of the troops (red pepper flakes, broth, lemon juice, fennel seeds).
In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until starting to brown, then remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towel, to drain. To the drippings in the pan, add the shallots, garlic, and red pepper flakes, and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the fennel wedges and cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Then add the broth, lemon juice, fennel seeds, and one tablespoon of the parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until fennel is very tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, set a large pot of salted water to boil, and cook your pasta according to package directions, until al dente. Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta liquid in a glass measuring cup, then drain the pasta and return it to the pot or to a serving bowl.
When the fennel in the skillet is tender, remove the lid, turn the heat back up to high, and cook until almost all of the liquid is absorbed, 3-5 minutes. Then dump the fennel mixture, the bacon and 1/2 cup of the pecorino or parmesan into the serving bowl or pasta pot with the drained pasta. Stir, then add 1 T olive oil and thin the sauce to taste with a little of the reserved pasta liquid. Sprinkle the finished pasta with the remaining parsley and cheese and serve immediately.