Pasta with Sausage and Fennel

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I’ve never been a huge fennel fan, and for just that reason, I planted two fennel plants in my garden. I figured that if I could harvest it personally, I could figure out how to showcase its unique flavor.

Ideally, if one loves the anise/licorice flavor, fennel is eaten raw, shaved in a salad, for example. But I thought that gently sautéed and caramelized in olive oil, with pasta and sausage, would still highlight this unique plant properly.

Harvesting the fennel is just a matter of pulling it out of the ground. I read that the fennel bulb should be the size of a tennis ball.


The recipe is not mine – I found it on Epicurious.com, and adapted it slightly.

Orecchiette with Sweet Italian Sausage and Fennel

1 fennel bulb, about 7 ounces, plus some fronds
12 ounces orecchiette
Salt
Olive oil
16 ounces sweet Italian sausage
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
White wine
Freshly grated Parmesan


Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside, along with 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.

Heat some oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage until lightly browned and cooked just through.


Remove the sausage to a bowl and set aside.

Add the fennel slices and saute them in the remaining oil. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel softens, about 5 minutes.

Continue to cook, adding a little wine as necessary to prevent the fennel from sticking to the skillet. You might have to do this a few times. The resulting fennel should be soft and caramelized, about 15 minutes more.

Add the cooked pasta and reserved liquid to the skillet, along with the sausage. Stir well and let cook, until the liquid has reduced to a creamy sauce, about 4 minutes.


Add Parmesan and season again if necessary.


Also sprinkle some of the fronds over the pasta.

The fennel still reminded me of Pernod, which I dislike, but it was better slightly caramelized and cooked in the wine.

The Parmesan wasn’t in the original recipe, but I felt like it needed cheese.

Heavy cream would also be a fabulous addition!

Sausage Making

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To be honest, I’ve only made real sausages from scratch one time before. They came out so fabulously that I’ve been wanting to recreate them for years. I don’t know what stopped me, or at least, made me procrastinate. Somehow in the back of my mind I must have thought it was so taxing, that I dreaded the thought of doing it again. Sort of like childbirth.

But alas, I did it again, and I don’t know what all my fuss was about. It’s truly easy to make sausages. It does take a little time. But with proper footwear and favorite music on the IPOD, it makes for a fun afternoon. And what you get for all of your hard work? Sausages! Delicious, flavorful sausages with no preservatives or any of that other terrible stuff that’s probably in store-bought sausages.

The first thing you need is an electric meat grinder. Mine looks very much like this although it is an ancient model.
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A meat grinder is a very useful tool in the kitchen, especially if you like making terrines. I’ve also ground up brisket meat for fresh hamburgers, which has a perfect fat-to-meat ratio. Really, if you have any desire to cook with ground meat, like make meatballs, for example, it’s just so straight forward to use the meat grinder and grind up your own meat. That way, you can mix it up – chicken, and pork, for example. And this way, you’re not paying someone else to do the grinding for you.

The machine is quite noisy, which is my only complaint.

The meat grinder comes with two different sized attachments for making sausages.
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It had been so long since I’d made sausages that I almost didn’t find them in my kitchen… but I did. Phew!

For the sausage today I’m using a popular book as a reference for an Italian sausage recipe – Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman.

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For my first sausage-making experience I used a book called Home Sausage Making, but I think the book is trapped in the bookshelf behind our live Christmas tree. It’s been too cold to plant the thing outside, but hopefully it will be gone soon and I can reclaim some of my cookbooks!

note: The Christmas tree is gone. This post was written in the early part of January!

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The book is a very good primer on how to make sausages, including all of the necessary ingredients, the casings, storing, cooking, and so forth. I highly recommend it if you want to make sausage for the very first time.

Home-Made Italian Sausage
adapted from Charcuterie

1 – 7 pound pork shoulder, cut up, bone removed
3 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons fennel seeds, toasted
1 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted
3 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons dried sweet basil
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

3/4 cup chilled water
1/4 cup chilled red wine vinegar

To begin, grind all of the meat, about 5 pounds, plus any fat attached, using the largest holed grinder plate.
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Place all of the seasoning ingredients in a large bowl, then give them a stir.
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Then add them to the ground pork.
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Using gloved hands, if desired, stir the pork together well, mixing in the spices and herbs until they’re evenly distributed. Then add the chilled water and vinegar and mix well. Set aside the ground sausage mixture.
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The next step is to prepare the casings.
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I’ve owned this container of casings since the last time I made sausages, which is maybe 8 or 9 years back. They keep well refrigerated, but before you use them they need to be rinsed well because of the brine in which they’re stored.
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Place a good handful of the casings in a large bowl. You probably have pulled out too many lengths, like I did, but they’re just no way to judge. Better to have too many than not enough and have to do over this step.

Once the casings are in the bowl, give them many rinses of cold water.

One note: they stink. I think it’s mostly because we’re dealing with intestinal linings here. The smell is expectedly not pleasant. It does, however, get more pleasant after they’re rinsed. So don’t be discouraged.

Then, it’s important to open up the casings and rinse out the insides as well. I couldn’t get a photo, with only two hands, but you can see the casing that I’ve filled with water in the bowl. Repeat as many times as you find casing lengths to make sure they’re all rinsed out.

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So now you have your sausage meat ready to go, as well as the casings. Clean up the meat grinder and the work area. All you need to do is install the medium-holed grinder blade and the sausage attachment to the meat grinder. For the Italian sausages, I’m using the sausage filler with a 3/4″ opening.

Then grab a length of casing (you can shorten them as you like) and place it on the sausage filler attachment. Yes, we all know what this looks like.

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Tie an end at the casing, just like you would a balloon.
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Then turn on the loud machine and begin adding the sausage. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to control the speed of the sausage coming through the machine, so one person can do this job easily. Allow the casing to fill with the sausage, but not overfill, for fear of the casing splitting open. This has actually never happened to me; they seem pretty sturdy.

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Allow the sausage to fill the casing, and when they’re about the right length, give the sausage a twist, and repeat. Today my sausages were turning out a bit on the squatty side, but it really doesn’t matter. It does help that they’re even-sized for cooking purposes, but that takes a bit more practice I’m afraid. I shouldn’t wait another 8 years to make sausage again!

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When you’re done with a length of casing, add a new casing, and make more sausages.
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Continue with the remaining sausage meat.
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I placed my lengths of sausage in a pan with a little oil drizzled on the bottom. I plan on saving half of the batch to use immediately, and freezing the second half.
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For any of you interested, we enjoyed the Italian sausages as is, once served with lentils, another time served alongside pasta with pesto.

For lunch one day I cooked up some black barley, added some cabbage, peas, chickpeas, and celery, tossed everything with olive oil and lemon juice, added sliced Italian sausage that was left over, and enjoyed a fabulous meal, shown in the photos.

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note: Fat is typically added to sausages when you make them from scratch. I can’t bring myself to do this. The original Michael Ruhlman recipe included fat, but I ignored it. However, what it does mean is that you absolutely cannot overcook the sausages or they will be dry. The fattiness keeps them nice and moist. And honesty, the fattier, the better. But for me, making them at home, I just can’t bring myself to add fat. To cook the sausages, I used a decent amount of oil in a skillet, browned them, lowered the heat, put on a lid, and cooked them through for about 5 minutes. And they were done. And moist. Alternatively, add fat to the pork, and no matter what you do to the little buggers, they will remain moist.

Toasting Seeds

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Toasting seeds, like cumin seeds or sesame seeds, is no more difficult than toasting nuts – pine nuts, for example. Except that the seeds are typically so tiny and weigh such minute amounts, that the toasting sends them flying off into oblivion. It’s much like trying to pop popcorn in a shallow pan without a lid. This is especially the case with oily sesame seeds; they really can pop!

So years ago I found a little stove top gadget that I adore. I think I found the same one here:
sestoaster

It’s about 5″ in diameter, so it can hold a lot of seeds in one layer. You simply pour the seeds inside the toaster, close the screen lid, and place it on the stove.

Today I needed to toast fennel and coriander seeds for tomorrow’s post on home-made Italian sausages.

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Place the toaster on the stove – I have a gas stove so the flames were at about 50%. Within almost seconds, you can smell the toasting, at which point just shake the toaster for a few more seconds, then remove it from the flames or heat source. Let cool.

As you can see, the seeds toasted nicely, and none were lost.

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If you don’t own one of these seed toasters, you can easily use a skillet and a splatter screen. A lid would work as well, but you can see through a splatter screen. In either case, be vigilant; don’t leave the stove during the toasting process or you’ll be left with a bunch of burnt buggers!