Dinner on Sunday, when the sixth season of "The Sopranos" debuts on HBO, has to be Italian, and it has to be ziti. End of story.
That's what started things off in Season 1, Episode 1, when Tony's mother was supposed to bring her ziti to Anthony Jr.'s birthday party. She didn't come, and A.J. was memorably disappointed. This recipe, adapted from "The Silver Spoon" (Phaidon, 2005), will not disappoint. In addition to pasta, sausage, tomato sauce and cheese, it features fennel -- its sweet bulb sauteed and its fragrant fronds sprinkled on top. Serve with antipasti including gabagool (capicola, a spicy deli meat). For dessert, pick up some cannoli, sfogliatelle and napoleons at the bakery, and try to show more impulse control than Christopher.
- 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 pound sweet italian sausage (without fennel seeds. May substitute Italian-style turkey sausage)
- 1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 medium (8 ounces) fennel, the bulb halved and cut into matchsticks, with the fronds reserved and coarsely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 pound dried ziti
- 1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese or Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil. When it is shimmering, squeeze the sausage meat out of its casing and cook, stirring and breaking it up with a spoon, until it begins to brown, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Drain all but 1/2 tablespoon of fat. Add the onion and cook, stirring constantly, until it is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the fennel matchsticks and cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Add the red pepper flakes and salt to taste and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups of the salted, boiling water, mix well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the fennel is soft but not mushy, about 6 minutes, adding 1/2 cup more of the salted boiling water if the sauce becomes thick.
Meanwhile, add the ziti to the pot of boiling water, stir and return to a boil. Cook about 8 minutes (the ziti won't be quite done). Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, and add the ziti to the sauce, stirring to combine. Sprinkle the fennel fronds on top and cook, stirring, until the ziti is al dente, about 2 minutes, adding some of the reserved water if needed. Remove the skillet from the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the pasta and lightly toss to combine. Transfer to warmed bowls and serve.
Adapted from "The Silver Spoon" (Phaidon, 2005).
Tested by Marcia Kramer.
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