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.

Dirty Rice with Andouille Sausage

New Orleans is made up of such a spicy mix of people, so is it any wonder that this is reflected not only in their history, but also their food as well. I still remember my first visit to New Orleans when I was a teenager. I couldn't help but stare wide-eyed in wonder as we wandered around the French Quarter doing the typical tourist things. We went on walking tours and learned about history, the good times, the hard times, and the desperate times. I grew to appreciate how frank many of our guides were, not trying to hide the rougher side of history from the children in the groups. The people of New Orleans are proud, resilient people and the love they have for their city came through loud and clear with each new story I was told.

After a full day of wandering the city on our tours or trips through Jackson Square to see the street artists and fortune tellers, I was absolutely famished. The highlight to the end of my day was always where we were going for dinner and what new things I would discover that night. I often took the time to ask our waiter or waitress about the items on the menu that I didn't recognize. The cuisine was like nothing I had ever sampled before and they were always glad to point out not only their favorites, but items I would only find in their city. This was how I first discovered dirty rice and my love for it only grew every time I ordered it. 

I ended up ordering it at nearly every meal while we were visiting. Some occasions it was a main dish and other times it accompanied blackened chicken or Cajun shrimp. I sampled it with chicken hearts, gizzards, liver and spicy sausage, sometimes it had only one or two of those, other times it was a mixture of all four. Sometimes it was mildly spicy and other times it would burn your mouth off, making sure you never forgot having tried it. With every new cook their was a new version to try. I remember one person telling me that their mama made dirty rice at the end of every week, tossing in whatever leftover scraps were laying about so they wouldn't go to waste. My unfiltered teenage mouth of course had to say, oh, so it's like my mother's pot pie (which I love BTW.) He doubled over laughing and I was incredibly grateful that my mother didn't hear me.

My first trip to New Orleans cemented my love for the city and it's people as well as their cuisine. With Mardi Gras coming up soon I thought that I would share my version of Dirty Rice using Andouille Sausage rather than the traditional chicken liver and gizzards. I hope you enjoy it.

DirtyRice.jpg

Dirty Rice with Andouille Sausage
makes 4-6 servings, can be easily doubled or tripled to feed a large group

Ingredients

2 Cups uncooked rice (I used jasmine white from Super Lucky Elephant)
1 heaping Tablespoon Cajun seasoning
2 Tablespoons bacon drippings
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced yellow onion
1 cup diced red bell pepper
1 Andouille Sausage, diced (approximately 7oz)

optional

⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more as necessary

Directions

  • Prepare rice according to instructions listed on the package, adding 1 heaping Tablespoon of Cajun seasoning to the water before cooking.
  • Dice celery, yellow onion, red bell pepper and Andouille sausage and set aside.
  • In a skillet over medium heat, melt 2 Tablespoons of bacon drippings, then add diced ingredients. Cook until onions are slightly transparent and tender, then add to cooked rice.
  • Add optional red pepper flakes, mix well, then serve.

Notes

If you don't have bacon drippings available cook up a batch of bacon over the weekend and save the drippings for later. They have an incredibly long shelf life when kept in a sealed container and refrigerated. Otherwise you can substitute butter or oil.