A Piquant Tomato Sauce Adds Full Flavor
Lots of us eat more fish this time of year. Some are still following New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier. And what’s healthier than fish and seafood? For others, Lent means fish or seafood every Friday at a minimum, so new recipes are always welcome. And some of us just crave the taste.
Shrimp is a favorite of most seafood lovers. Almost everyone likes its briny tang. But in much of the US, it’s still cold, so we’re also craving hearty dishes. Like a big, warm plate of pasta — which just happens to pair wonderfully with shrimp.
So why not combine the two in a spicy tomato sauce? Then add some fennel (a perfect winter veggie) for extra credit. The result? A welcoming cold-weather dish with flavor that won’t quit.
Recipe: Pasta with Shrimp and Fennel
There are scores of recipes that combine pasta, shrimp, and fennel. They seem to fall into two camps: Some dress the ingredients only in a light olive-oil sauce (maybe adding a bit of lemon or wine). Others feature a more robust tomato sauce. This recipe is very much in the latter tradition.
For this dish, we make sauce from scratch, infusing it with the flavor of fennel. If you already have some homemade red sauce on hand in the freezer or canning cellar, and you prefer to use that, I provide instructions in the notes. You’re not really saving much time, though, so I recommend making the sauce fresh for this dish.
Active prep time is a good 15 to 20 minutes (this includes sautéing the onion and fennel). You’ll also need at least 30 minutes to cook the sauce, although you can cook the pasta during the latter stages of this. So figure total time of 45 to 50 minutes (and you can cook the sauce a bit longer if you like; it’ll only get better).
This recipe serves 4 to 6, and you can easily halve or double it (see Notes). If you cook the sauce but don’t add the shrimp (Step 8), you can freeze the sauce.
- 1 medium-to-large fennel bulb (close to 2 cups; you want one that’s about a pound)
- 1 medium-to-large onion (once sliced, you’ll get a cup or a bit more; I like yellow, but use what speaks to you)
- 4 - 8 cloves garlic (to taste)
- 1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil (I use pure olive oil — the cheap stuff)
- salt to taste
- black pepper to taste (freshly ground)
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- ½ - 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (to taste)
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram(see Notes for substitutions)
- 1 28-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes (you can also substitute whole tomatoes; crush with your hand before adding in Step 4)
- 1 pound deveined shrimp, preferably 26 - 30 to the pound (fresh or frozen; you can substitute another size if you prefer — see Notes, plus Step 5)
- 1 pound dried pasta of choice (I like a robust shape like rigatoni, farfalle, or shells for this dish, although spaghetti certainly works if that’s your pleasure)
- Rinse off the fennel and remove the stalks and green tops. Roughly chop some of the green fuzzy fronds, and reserve them for garnish (optional). Using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, slice off the root end of the bulb. Cut or peel off the outer part of the bulb if it’s tough. Cut the fennel bulb in quarters lengthwise, and then cut into thin slices (lengthwise).
- Peel the onion and cut in half lengthwise. Thinly slice parallel to the equator. Peel the garlic and slice thinly (you can also mince, but I think distinct pieces work better in this dish).
- Heat a large skillet (preferably nonstick) over medium heat for at least 2 minutes. When hot, add oil, and wait until warm (it will ripple slightly). Add the fennel, onion, and garlic, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté on medium-low until onion is fully translucent and begins to brown (about 10 minutes).
- When the onion is ready, add the fennel seeds and the crushed red pepper. Sauté for 10 seconds. Then add the marjoram and the can of tomatoes (if the skillet isn’t large enough, transfer the whole thing to a sauce pan). Add some water if the sauce is too thick, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes (longer, if you wish).
- Meanwhile, if using shrimp that need to be deveined, do so now. If using shell-on shrimp, shell now (or leave them in the shell, and your guests can shell at table). I often use frozen shrimp for this recipe (see Notes), and generally buy the headless ones that have been partially shelled (the tail section still has its shell).
- After the sauce has been simmering for about 10 minutes, fill a 4-quart or larger pot ¾ of the way with water, and bring to a boil.
- About 8 or so minutes before the sauce is done, salt the pasta water (about a tablespoon), add pasta to the water, and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente (the time required varies by brand and shape — usually 7 to 8 minutes for me).
- Add the shrimp to the sauce at the appropriate time for it to just cook through. Fresh uncooked shrimp will take about 5 minutes to cook. Frozen uncooked shrimp will require maybe 9 or 10 minutes. Frozen precooked shrimp will need about 3 minutes or so to warm up.
- When the pasta is cooked, drain it. If there’s room in the sauce pan, add it to the pan and toss. Otherwise, add pasta to a large serving bowl, then add the sauce, and toss together.
- Serve with a garnish of chopped fennel fronds, if desired.
- If you prefer to use pre-made red sauce, here’s the procedure: Simmer the fennel in water for a few minutes to soften it up, then add it to your red sauce and cook for 10 to 15 minutes to meld the flavors. Then add the shrimp (Step 8).
- You can use cooked or uncooked shrimp for this recipe, either fresh or frozen. In many parts of the country, “fresh” shrimp actually arrive at the market in a frozen state — so I usually just buy frozen. Shrimp are often higher quality anyway if they’re IQF (individually quick frozen). IQF shrimp are “blast frozen” soon after they’re harvested, so most of the flavor remains intact.
- If using fresh shrimp, you’ll probably want to devein them (that dark line that runs across the top of the shrimp is its intestinal tract, or “vein”). If you’re buying fresh shrimp, I assume you know how to deal with them, but I’ll briefly recap the procedure: I always buy fresh shrimp in the shell, with the heads attached. So I first pull off the head and legs. Then starting at the end where the head was, I pull off the outer shell (usually leaving the bit at the tail end attached, to serve as a little “handle” if, as I often do, I elect to pick up the shrimp and eat it from my hand). Then to devein, I use a small knife and cut a slit down the shrimp’s back, maybe ¼ inch deep or so. You’ll see a black line (the vein). I use the knife to remove it.
- BTW, I often use frozen cooked shrimp. The flavor is not as good as the uncooked, but when used in a dish with a sauce (or in a soup), I don’t notice much difference.
- If at all possible, buy shrimp that have been harvested from the Gulf of Mexico. They have the best flavor IMO. They are more expensive than the imported kind, however.
- If you don’t want to leave the shrimp whole, you can cut each one into 2 or 3 pieces — they’ll be closer to bite size that way.
- You can substitute fresh marjoram for dried, or skip that herb completely and substitute another to your liking (oregano works well, as does fresh basil).
- If you want, you can add a bit of wine (or dry vermouth) to this dish for some added zing.
- Fennel combines well with olives, so you could add some of those (and perhaps capers), turning this dish into something Niçoise- or Provençal-style.
- I don’t recommend adding cheese to this dish. In Italy, the rule says never to add cheese to a pasta dish that contains seafood. That’s a rule I often break, but in this dish the cheese detracts rather than adds, IMO. You may think differently, of course.
- As mentioned above, I prefer a chunky pasta shape for this dish — it holds the sauce better. I used a store-bought campanelle for the batch I photographed (it’s shaped like a little bell or flower, and is a fun pasta).
“Lovely,” said Mrs Kitchen Riffs, as she sampled her plate of pasta. “Shrimp and fennel are a natural combination, but I never think of fennel and tomato together. It works so well, though.”
“Glad you like it. Because our next recipe for the blog, later this week, is going to be a fennel-and-tomato gratin.”
“A side dish?” inquired Mrs K R.
“Right,” I said. “Although it’s so good, we could almost make it a main course.”
“Or just have seconds,” she smiled. “That works too!”
My Mrs K R — always flexible.
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