Learning from Lidia: Ziti with Sausage and Fennel

by Terry B on November 21, 2012

This hearty pasta dinner layers flavors of Italian sausage, onion, fennel bulb, crushed red pepper, tomato and Parmesan deliciously. Adapted from Lidia’s Favorite Recipes. And we’re giving away a copy of the book here. Recipe and details below.

When does Lidia Matticchio Bastianich sleep? The star of PBS’s popular Lidia’s Italy, she is also chef/owner of restaurants in New York, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. She’s a partner (with son Joe, Mario Batali and Oscar Farinetti) in New York’s wildly successful Eataly. She and son Joe have a winery in Italy. Lidia and her daughter Tanya design a line of cookware (they’ve also launched a line of pastas and sauces). Oh. And in her spare time, she writes cookbooks.

Her most recent is Lidia’s Favorite Recipes: 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrees, published just last month. She calls it her “most accessible cookbook to date, a gathering of recipes that have become her go-to meals for her very own family.” These are not the deconstructed or re-imagined recipes you’ll find in some chefs’ cookbooks (not that there’s anything wrong with that approach). The recipes here reflect yet another of Lidia’s roles, one she takes great pride in—that of Italian grandmother or nonna.

Much as grand-mères are responsible for the simple, perfect meals that I most cherish in French cuisine, nonnas have long been the source for the best of traditional Italian food. They get meals on the family table and pass their culinary skills and techniques on to daughters and granddaughters, keeping classic recipes alive. You’ll find many of them here, from veal osso buco to escarole and white bean soup, olive oil mashed potatoes, eggplant Parmigiana and savory seafood stew. Lidia’s Favorite Recipes is particularly rich in pasta dishes. That’s where I decided to start exploring.

I love when recipes teach me something. When I first started cooking, once something went into the pan, it was in there. Period. Then one day, I came across a recipe that had you brown an ingredient—probably meat of some sort—and remove it from the pan while you completed other steps, then return it to the pan for finishing. It was a revelation. Now it’s standard operating procedure to me, of course. Well, this recipe uses my earlier cooking style, layering flavor upon flavor as you keep adding ingredients to the pan. And it does it in a way that nonnas have always done, I think.

Besides being fairly quick and easy to prepare, this dish is just fun to cook. You put something in the pan and cook it for a bit, then make a hole in the center of the pan and add the next ingredient. After that cooks for a minute or two, you mix everything together and then make a hole for the next ingredient. The recipe was so simple and rustic, I was expecting good but basic. What I got was transcendent.

Ziti with Sausage and Fennel
Serves 3 as a main course, 4 or 5 as a primi course

1/2 pound ziti (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
1 fennel bulb, 1 pound or slightly less
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and sliced into half moons
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and add ziti. Cook until not quite al dente, about 2 minutes less than recommended cooking time. Drain, reserving 2 cups of pasta water. Do NOT rinse (see Kitchen Notes). Set aside.

While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, assemble the other ingredients. If the sausage is not bulk, remove from casings and break the meat up with your fingers. Using a sharp knife, slice off the root end of the fennel bulb and the stalks with the fronds. Reserve the stalks and fronds. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut out the inner core and slice the bulb halves crosswise into about 1/4-inch slices. You’ll probably end up with more than the 2 cups you need. You can save it for another use or go ahead and have a little more fennel in this dish.

Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet with high sides—I used a sauté pan—over medium flame. Add the sausage and cook for 1-1/2 to 2 minutes, breaking the meat up more with a wooden spoon. Push the sausage to the sides of the pan and add the onion in the center. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, then mix the onion and the sausage together. Create a hole in the middle again and add the fennel. Cook for a minute or so, stirring occasionally, then mix with the meat and onions. Season lightly with salt and then clear yet another hole. Add the crushed red pepper and toast for about 30 seconds. Toss to combine and make one final hole. Add the tomato paste and cook until just sizzling, 1 or 2 minutes, mashing it with the back of a wooden spoon.

Ladle in 1-1/2 cups of the reserved pasta water. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer the sauce for 5 to 6 minutes. Flavors will develop, the sauce will thicken slightly and the fennel will soften a bit (you want it to remain slightly crunchy, so don’t overcook).

Add the pasta to the pan. It will be sticking together, but don’t be alarmed. As you gently toss it with the sauce, much of it will loosen up on its own. With the more stubborn pairs of tubes, insinuate the edge of a spatula between them, and they will separate. Cook for 2 minutes or so to let the pasta absorb some of the sauce and finish cooking. Add the fennel fronds and toss to combine. If the dish is seeming a bit too dry, drizzle on a little more pasta water and mix it in.

Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the pasta and toss it in. Serve immediately in shallow pasta bowls.

Kitchen Notes

I like ziti. For years, our go-to tubular pasta has been penne. But with its ridged sides, it can be thick and chewy. This recipe is the first time I’ve cooked with ziti, and I have to say, I love its thinner walls.

Starch is good. You often hear the reason to not rinse pasta is that the starch from the cooking water helps the sauce stick to it. That’s the case with this dish in letters five miles high. When you plate the pasta, there will be no sauce to speak of left in the skillet. It’s all clinging to the pasta, sausage and vegetables, not so much a sauce as a flavorful coating.

And finally, the giveaway. Win a copy of Lidia’s Favorite Recipes. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf has generously offered a copy for one of my readers. To enter to win it, just leave a comment on this post. On Tuesday, November 27, I’ll select a random comment as the winner. Just one comment per person, please.

And finally finally, the results of a past giveaway. Loyal reader Randi politely let me know that I hadn’t announced the winner of the copy of Made With Love, the Meals on Wheels cookbook that has one of my recipes. What an idiot (me, not Randi). The book went randomly but appropriately to Mary, whose husband works for a county food bank. I will try to be better about announcing the winner of this book.

Update: The contest is now closed. I’ll announce the winner next week. Thanks for entering!


{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

KJ November 21, 2012 at 10:28 am

What a wonderful giveaway. There will never be enough Italian recipes in my recipe file.

Suellen November 21, 2012 at 10:50 am

Lidia’s recipes are always so easy. And , you just can’t have enough Italian cookbooks.

warren Pfohl November 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Some wonderful recipes to share with our guests at David’s Refuge, a non profit Bed and Breakfast for parents of special needs children!

Kat November 21, 2012 at 1:58 pm

This looks like a great meal to cook next week after several days of leftover turkey. Thanks for the giveaway.

randi November 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm

The few times I’ve made ziti it’s been boring. Maybe the fennel was what it needed. I’ll definitely try this recipe. Especially for my oldest son who is pasta crazy. I have to wait a few more weeks to be able to order the Taste of Treme book from last week as it is not available in Canada yet. I will probably add this to my order as well.

Terry B November 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Randi, I generally view pasta as just a vehicle for whatever sauce and match the shape to the texture of the sauce and what we feel like eating at the moment. Fortunately, the Italians have been wildly inventive in creating pasta shapes; we generally have half a dozen or so on hand. And keep your fingers crossed—you may not need to order this book after all!

randi November 21, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Terry take me out of the contest as I’ve just ordered it along with the Taste of Treme book. Until the next contest! I have to work on my Lasagna too. I’m never happy with it. Maybe I should stop using commercial pasta sauces. Hopefully there will be something similar in this book. Thanks!

Terry B November 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Randi, you’ll find some sauce recipes in this book that may help you. Sometimes on a weeknight, I’ll doctor up a jar of commercial pasta sauce, but I find my best results usually start with a recipe for homemade sauce. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a cook-for-hours project; some are crazy easy and fast.

Larry McNeill November 21, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Sounds great – keep them coming!!! Enjoy your site.

Linda November 22, 2012 at 1:36 am

This recipe sounds amazing. I love the fennel and sausage combination!

Bryant November 22, 2012 at 1:52 am

I’ve always respected Blue Kitchen and applauded their creative recipes but to become a shill for someone who is and has been involved in multiple lawsuits for dishonest business practices against her employees is absolutely tasteless. The decision to celebrate a person of such questionable character raises concerns of Blue Kitchen’s credibility.

Terry B November 22, 2012 at 4:07 am

Bryant, I appreciate your viewpoint on this. I honestly had forgotten about the lawsuits against the restaurants of the Bastianich family and Mario Batali. The suits were settled in May, as I understand. Unfortunately, in cash businesses such as restaurants and bars, there are many dark corners and plenty of skimming on all sides. The culture not only accepts it, but breeds it. Also unfortunately, only the biggest names show up on our radar screens. All this said, whenever we are offered anything to review—books or products—we accept with this caveat. If we like the book or product, we will write about it, saying why we like it. If we don’t, we won’t cover it here. As fun as snarky reviews are to read—and to write—that’s not what Blue Kitchen is about. Again, Bryant, I understand why this piece upset you. I hope you will understand this response and continue to read.

Julie Mossel November 22, 2012 at 6:44 am

How do you print this recipe???

Nick Rucci November 22, 2012 at 8:47 am

Lidia’s Favorite Recipes will join My Calabria, The Italian Country Table, Molto Italiano and Everyday Italian as the most used cookbooks on my bookshelf.

Sharon November 22, 2012 at 11:43 am

I can’t wait to try this recipe. Visiting Italy a few years ago was a real eye-opener, and our kitchen hasn’t been the same since. Hope everyone has a happy holiday!

Mary November 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm

I’ve been working hard on making homemade pasta and have just begun making tubular noodles. This recipe comes just in time (and winning the cookbook would be an awesome bonus!)

Terry B November 22, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Julie, creating printable recipes is on my too long list of things to do for the blog. Sorry. For now, please just copy the recipe portion of the post and paste it into a Word document.

Emmie H November 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I love “Lidia’s Italy” on PBS. My husband and I watch her almost every weekday evening on WGBH-Create in Boston. [Thank you, WGBH.] When Lidia tastes her dishes, we both say, in unison with her, “M-m-mmm!” Just last evening, we watched her show on pesto and we were both drooling. [And my husband is a constant, loyal follower of Blue Kitchen!]

Lena Nowak November 24, 2012 at 12:40 am

This looks so easy I think even I could follow this recipe.

It looks as delicious as it always does, Terry.

Debbie S November 25, 2012 at 12:31 am

I love Lidia and watch her on PBS. Hope I win. Thanks for the giveaway.

Katina November 26, 2012 at 12:08 am

This caught my attention after all the turkey I’ve been eating. I love the uncased Italian sausage available at Whole Foods and this will be a perfect recipe to showcase it!

The Rowdy Chowgirl November 26, 2012 at 4:40 am

Yum, yum, yum! This is my kind of recipe. I always use penne, so maybe I should go a little crazy and try ziti! Thanks for blazing the trail…

Bruce P November 26, 2012 at 5:03 pm

I’m hungry, and have got my fingers crossed.

Susie November 26, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Lidia’s show on PBS is my favorite cooking show. I love her — and I love Blue Kitchen!

altadenahiker November 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Ok, I just paid a visit to my scary Italian grocer and I have all the ingredients. It just sounded too good.

Terry B November 26, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Altadenahiker, I’m probably going to regret asking, but what precisely makes your Italian grocer scary?

Kristy November 27, 2012 at 2:52 am

This was delicious. I used penne, since I couldn’t find ziti in the shop, and I upped the tomato paste. I also cooked the onions until they were almost caramelized. We’ll be making this again!

kitty November 27, 2012 at 4:01 am

oh my gosh, I love the look of this recipe!
we are so going to make it! hooray! thanks for posting this, Terry.

Jackie November 27, 2012 at 4:11 am

I love sausage and love fennel. This just made it up to the top of a list of things to make soon.

Terry B November 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Glad you liked it, Kristy! And your tweaks sound delicious. That’s one of the fun things about cooking for me, taking recipes and making them my own.

Jackie, pork in general plays so well with fennel, doesn’t it? Look for another example here in a couple of weeks.

Cynthia November 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never cooked with fennel – this recipe sounds so delicious that I’ll have to try it!

randi November 28, 2012 at 5:15 pm

I received this book the day after I ordered it. So much in there I want to make. Will be making this dish on Saturday. Glad you brought it to our attention!

Brad November 29, 2012 at 11:48 pm

love Lidia

randi December 11, 2012 at 1:37 am

Terry, we had this for dinner tonight. It was SO delicious! My husband looked disappointed when it was cooking thinking he would not like it but he loved it. I made the proportions from the book which said serves 6 but for us it was smallish portions for 4. I guess that’s because an Italian meal has many courses? We did have a salad to go with it. So good! We will have this again soon.

TRNL November 30, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Fantastic for dinner tonight. Many thanks! I had some slow-roasted tomatoes that needed to be dispatched, so chopped them up and tossed in at the end. It was, as you say, transcendent. Any idea why?

Terry B November 30, 2013 at 5:54 pm

TRNL, my guess is that many Italian grandmothers over many, many years had a hand in making it the delicious meal it is. It has become a go-to weeknight meal for us.

TRNL December 1, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Whatever works, I say! A culinary friend suggests:

As to the rich taste of this pasta dish … hhmmm … my guess is that you have four separate sources of umami: sausage, sauteed onions, tomato paste and parmesan. Collectively they create an harmonious savoury blend reminiscent of a richly savoury stock.

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