The first time I made this pasta a few months ago, I was totally winging it based on ingredients I happened to have in my fridge that day. I hadn’t gone grocery shopping with any particular thing in mind, but realized I definitely had enough ingredients to make some kind of delicious pasta dish. Armed with a House of The Dragon podcast to keep me company, I set off one night to create something edible using ingredients I already had, and landed on something extremely easy and also pretty incredible.
My boyfriend, Paul, came home when I was almost finished with the sauce, and immediately upon opening the door, yelled out: “Why does it smell so good in here?!” I had acclimated to the smell already and didn’t fully appreciate it until I left the kitchen to grab something and was smacked in the face by the coziest, most delicious tomato/cheese/fennel scent when I returned. As we sat down to take our first bites after sprinkling the finished product with some fancy Fleur de sel I had just acquired, we looked at each other with wonder in our eyes and knew this was going to be in our regular dinner rotation all fall/winter long.
Although it’s not groundbreaking by any means, I created this super simple “recipe” myself with items I bought at Trader Joe’s (plus two special ingredients I already had at home). While I wouldn’t consider myself a foodie by any definition, I know my way around the kitchen and am definitely the kind of person who prefers coloring outside the lines rather than following a recipe to the T, so feel free to do the same here! This pasta is basically foolproof and only takes around 30 minutes to make (depending on how long you let the sauce simmer and how hungry/impatient you are) and I would serve it to… pretty much anyone.
MAIN INGREDIENTS (from Trader Joe’s)
Roughly ⅓ bag of TJ's Cascatelli (or whatever pasta you want!)
½ red onion, diced (or use the whole thing, YOLO)
*Several* cloves of garlic (I trust you to do the right thing)
½ of a carton of mushrooms, broken into pieces (optional)
1 jar of Bolognese pasta sauce
Salt and pepper
1 or 2 pre-cooked Bavarian Bratwurst (yes really), sliced
½ package of pancetta cubes
½ ball of fresh mozzarella
8-10 basil leaves, torn into pieces
A splash of red wine (optional)
SPECIAL INGREDIENTS (not from Trader Joe’s)
Roughly 2 spoonfuls of fennel seed (essential!)
Fleur de sel or any “fancy” finishing salt, not 100% necessary but so delicious
- Get your pasta going by boiling a pot of water. You’ll spend most of your time on this recipe waiting for the pasta to finish cooking and attending to the sauce while it simmers. When the water boils, throw the pasta in, and cook according to the instructions.
- Get started on the sauce by heating up a large pan on medium heat (one that can hold an entire jar of sauce + other fun ingredients). Throw in some olive oil, then your diced onion and garlic. Let those two dance for a few minutes, then throw in your mushrooms (if you’re using them, I didn’t the first time I made this) and some more olive oil and let those go a few minutes more.
- Once that starts to smell good, it’s time for your pasta sauce. Dump in the whole jar and let that start to gently boil a bit.
- While your pasta sauce is coming up to temperature, it’s time for your seasonings. Be generous with everything (salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and the magic ingredient, fennel seed!). The fennel I think is really what makes this dish special. Fennel isn’t something I cooked with a lot before meeting Paul, who is obsessed with it. Don’t be shy!
- If you happen to be drinking red wine while making this dish and want to splash some in, do that now.
- Once your sauce is spiced up, it’s time to add the meats. Stir those in, turn the temperature down a bit, and let the whole thing simmer for a while–maybe around 15-25 minutes. You’re going to start smelling the good smells once it's been cooking for around 10 minutes, so be sure not to babysit your sauce the whole time. Leave the room and come back in a few times to really experience it properly!!
- Once your pasta is ready, drain it, and return it to the pot and cover until your sauce is finished. If you’re super hungry, you don’t have to cook the sauce for very long, but I find the sauce improves its flavor and really starts to throw amazing smells around once it starts to stick to the edges a bit and thicken slightly. Give it a good stir every now and then, and if it's not smelling quite delicious enough, add more fennel seed.
- Once you think your sauce is almost ready (or you’re hungry and can’t take it anymore), throw in your cheese and basil. Let those cook in there for just about a minute or so to soften up.
- Dump the entire sauce mixture into the pot with the pasta, and use a big spoon to stir it all up. You should get some really satisfying cheese stretchy-ness.
- Dish up the pasta into bowls and top with Fleur de sel if you have it, or regular salt if you don’t.
A few tips –
• Don’t skip the fennel seed! I think this is the key to this recipe and why it smells so, so good.
• Make sure you add plenty of freshly chopped garlic to aid in the smell factor. I usually do like 6-10 large cloves because I'm a monster.
•The longer you cook your sauce, the better your house will smell. I'd give it a minimum of 10 minutes; I usually do around 20. If it's been over 20 minutes and you see the sauce is thickening too much, add a bit of red wine or olive oil, or even a few splashes of water, and let it cook for a few more minutes.
• Getting the right pasta-to-sauce ratio can be tricky when you’re a person who hates measuring (like me). This particular recipe is better when it is more saucy. You can reverse the order and add the pasta to the sauce gradually instead if you’re worried about not having enough sauce.
• Adjust the cayenne pepper to how much spice you can handle; personally I add a lot because I think it makes the dish more unusual and exciting. Some paprika would probably be good in this dish too... an experiment for next time!