My husband likes nothing more than a good ragù. His perfect meal would involve something saucy, bright, and rich with a bit of meat, falling over a dish of toothsome pasta. A good ragù is nearly a religious experience for him. It expresses the ultimate goodness of the world, a place where people feed one another good food in love and honesty. So when a fennel and sausage ragù at a local restaurant invoked this mystical moment, giving him a cross-eyed moment of pleasure, I felt that the gauntlet was thrown in my lap.
I also have strong feelings about ragù. Making a good ragù is like playing music, or practicing any other discipline that requires periods of meditative patience punctuated with quick action. Cooking a ragù cannot be rushed; it is a kitchen dance as you coax each ingredient into its full potential, playing its own part in the sauce. It may sound a little high-flying, but as I browned meat, softened vegetables, simmered it down, waiting for each part to reach its finish, I felt like I was conducting a symphony. That's the pleasure of ragù — you feel as if you have just done something incredibly worthwhile and substantial. And so you have.
And yet you do it with only a handful of ingredients. This ragù, created to satisfy my husband's craving for a fennel-rich sauce (and mine too!), has a petite list of requirements. Sausage, onion, garlic, fennel. Some tomato. I bypass the other two legs of the holy trinity, letting fennel stand in for the usual carrots and celery.
The fennel in this sauce stays a little firm, a little toothsome, and sweet and juicy. Its sweetness complements the bright tomato and the savory garlic. This is a chunky sauce, with an emphasis on that sweetness and brightness, the sausage playing a backup role with its heat and meatiness. You can use fresh tomatoes in this sauce, if you like. You can also use a less spicy sausage, if you want to avoid the heat.
Like all ragùs, this freezes to perfection; make this whole batch (it's big) and do that happy ragù dance in your kitchen, stirring the pot slowly and deliberately. Don't rush it. Just make a lot and put it away for later. It's like a gift to yourself — real, homemade ragù for hurried weeknights — made with love.
And yes, this beat my husband's dish of pasta at that restaurant. Beat it all hollow. At least, he lets me think so.
Sausage & Fennel Ragù
serves 8 generously
It is currently summer and high tomato season. If you wish you can use fresh tomatoes instead of canned in this recipe. Simply replace the canned tomatoes with the same weight of peeled, diced fresh tomatoes.
Olive oil 1 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed 2 small to medium white onions 6 cloves garlic 2 small fennel bulbs Two 32-ounce cans diced tomatoes, with their juices One 15-ounce can tomato puree 1 long sprig rosemary Salt and freshly ground black pepper Cooked pasta, to serve Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve
Heat a Dutch oven or wide, extra-deep sauté pan over medium heat and drizzle the pan with a tiny bit of olive oil. Spread the oil around as the pan heats up. When the pan is hot, crumble in the raw sausage. Brown the sausage over medium to medium-high heat for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring and scraping frequently. (Don't worry if a lot of sausage residue sticks to the bottom of the pan; this will get taken care of later.)
While the sausage is cooking, peel and finely dice the onion, and mince the garlic. Remove the stalks and fronds from the fennel and reserve the fronds for garnish later. Dice the fennel bulbs into a similar size and shape as the diced onion. (You may dice up the long stalks as well, but I find that they just don't get as tender in this recipe. I compost them, but you can add them if you like.)
When the sausage is browned and partially cooked in small crumbles, add the diced onion, garlic, and fennel. Stir thoroughly so the vegetables are coated with the sausage fat. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook the vegetables with the sausage for at least 15 minutes, or until they are beginning to be tender.
When the vegetables are beginning to be tender, add the two cans of diced tomatoes and the tomato puree. Stir thoroughly and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the rosemary sprig, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Lower the heat to a bare simmer, and cover the pot loosely with a lid. Cook for at least 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
After an hour, take off the lid and taste the sauce. It should have cooked down into a jammy, thick sauce with still-juicy bits of fennel and small chunks of sausage. It probably will not need more salt, as the sausage tends to be quite salty, and some canned tomatoes have salt added. But taste and adjust as needed.
The ragù can be refrigerated for up to five days, and frozen for several months (or more). It gets even better tasting after a night in the fridge.
To serve, ladle the ragù over freshly-cooked pasta and garnish with a sprinkle of chopped fennel fronds and a generous pinch of freshly grated Parmesan.