By Jessica – April 21st, 2010
Say the words “Italian sausage” to an Italian and you may get a perplexed look; after all, Italian sausage can mean anything from hard, air-dried salami to creamy, spreadable nduja.
But say the words to an American, and one thing will spring to mind: plump links of coarsely ground pork, seasoned with fennel and possibly chili flakes (depending on whether the sausage is “sweet” or “hot”), and probably grilled and served in a bun with peppers and onions, or stewed in a rich tomato sauce to accompany polenta or pasta.
Much like the smoked sausage needed for red beans and rice, the American version of Italian sausage is hard to find here in the UK. This frustrated me until I realized that just a pinch of one key ingredient—fennel seed—can transform a plain old pork sausage into something approaching an Italian sausage as an American would know it.
This is the tactic I use when making pasta with sausage ragu, my go-to recipe for chilly weeknights. You can make this with almost any type of herby or garlicky sausage, and of course you don’t have to add the fennel if you don’t want to, though I’d highly recommend it.
Also, instead of simply slicing the sausages, you can create a really thick and clingy sauce by squeezing the sausage meat out of its casing. It’s a bit of a slippery job, but it takes all of a minute or two and it’s worth it for the final product: a heaping bowl of pasta with spicy sausage morsels nestled in every nook and cranny.
For two people, you’ll need:
- olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 or 3 plump pork sausages (Italian, garlic, herb, etc.)
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- pinch of chili flakes
- pinch of fennel seed
- pinch of oregano, basil and/or other Italian herbs (optional)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste (tomato puree)
- 1/4 cup wine (red or white)
- 1 can chopped tomatoes (400g)
- salt and pepper
Heat a good splash of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the chopped onion for about five minutes, until it begins to soften. Squeeze the sausage meat out of its casing into the skillet, then break up the sausage with a spatula. Cook the sausage with the onion until the meat is browned, scraping up any crispy bits from the bottom of the pan as you go (crispy bits are good). If your sausage is quite fatty, you may want to drain off some of the fat as you cook it.
When the sausage is browned, add the garlic and as much chili, fennel and other herbs as you like; I generally use a small pinch of chili flakes and a bigger pinch of everything else. Stir in the tomato paste and then douse everything with the wine. After the wine has sizzled down, add the can of chopped tomatoes, stir everything well and bring it to a simmer. Check for seasoning (salt, pepper, maybe more herbs or tomato paste) and then let the sauce bubble away for as long as you like—at least until your pasta is cooked, though you can leave it on the stove for ages and it’ll just get thicker and better.
Serve the ragu over rigatoni, penne or similarly shaped pasta which will cradle all the lovely meaty bits. You’ll also want some crusty Italian bread to mop up any extra sauce and a glass of spicy red wine to wash it all down.