Whole Wheat Penne with Caramelized Vidalia Onion, Fennel, and Pancetta

I've had a bit of a love affair with fennel lately. It started last fall after I picked up a bulb at the farmers' market on a whim, hoping it would turn out to be the missing ingredient to my stuffing recipe. I've been tinkering with my stuffing recipe for over five years now, it's tasty, but not quite perfect— something that has been a source of frustration every time the holidays roll around. At least with this latest iteration I learned something new about my husband, he enjoys fresh fennel nearly as much as I do. 

Since this discovery fennel has become become a staple in our house, so I wasn't surprised to find a forgotten bulb when it came time to clean out the fridge before my trip. I gathered up all of my leftover bits and bobs— scraps of parmesan, Vidalia onion, and bell pepper, plus a pint of cream a little past its prime, then spun a little kitchen magic. Today's recipe, born of nothing more than leftovers and a box of whole wheat penne I bought by mistake, turned out to be something worth making again. I ran out to the store in the middle of the night so I could share it with you. It's a little labor intensive for a week night meal, but if you're looking for comfort food or a special dish to share with someone, then look no further because this is it.

Whole Wheat Penne with Caramelized Vidalia Onion, Fennel, and Pancetta

Whole Wheat Penne with Caramelized Onion, Fennel, and Pancetta
makes 4 - 6 servings

Ingredients

3 ounces pancetta, diced
1 cup Vidalia onion, thinly sliced (see notes)
1 cup fennel, thinly sliced
½ cup red bell pepper, diced
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, thickly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound whole wheat penne pasta
¼ cup salted butter
½ cup whipping cream
1 cup parmesan, freshly shredded
sea salt, to taste

Directions

  • In a skillet, over medium-low heat, cook pancetta until crispy. Set aside on paper towel to drain. Do not drain the grease from the skillet, you'll need it for cooking the veggies.
  • Add thinly sliced onions and fennel to the skillet. Cook for 30 minutes, over medium-low heat. Give the pan a good stir every 10 minutes to help everything cook evenly. 
  • After 30 minutes add bell pepper and shiitake mushrooms to the skillet, cook for 10 minutes.
  • While the peppers and mushrooms are cooking, boil your pasta according to package directions. Once the pasta has cooked, drain the water and add a tablespoon of salted butter to keep the pasta from sticking.
  • Remove the cooked veggies from skillet and add to pasta. Leave the heat for the pasta turned off so you don't overcook the veggies.
  • In the skillet add three tablespoons of salted butter and two cloves of minced garlic. Cook for several minutes, until the garlic turns slightly translucent.
  • Add whipping cream and parmesan, then turn heat to medium. Use a whisk to stir the sauce until it thickens. Add the finished sauce and the pancetta to the cooked pasta. Stir until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed and top with salt to taste.

Notes

My husband and I disagree about how much salt this pasta needs. I'm content not to add any additional salt, there is already a fair amount from the pancetta and salted butter, but he insists that this benefits from a pinch or two of salt. So, take a taste of the final dish and salt it to your preferred tastes.

Vidalia onions have a short growing season, if you can't find them feel free to substitute with yellow onions.