Pasta with Deconstructed Italian Sausage Sauce (and a mushroom version)

Pasta with Deconstructed Italian Sausage Sauce (or Mushroom Version*)

Serves 4 to 6

1 pound dried ziti or penne


2 cups vegetable stock

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, 3 pinches

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling at the table

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 pound coarsely ground pork

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 2 teaspoons fresh, chopped)

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons smoked sweet paprika

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes (Muir Glen or San Marzano)

8 large basil leaves, torn up

3/4 cup freshly-grated pecorino cheese, plus more for sprinkling at the table.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Heat the stock and saffron over medium heat in a saucepan and reduce by half, about 15 minutes.

While the stock infuses and water comes to boil, heat a large deep skillet with extra-virgin olive oil, a couple turns of the pan, over medium heat. Add the fennel seeds and toast for 1 minute. Add the meat, onions, oregano, red pepper flakes and paprika, plus a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper.  Raise the heat to medium-high.  When the meat is brown, add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Add tomatoes and crush, then bring the sauce to a bubble, reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes.  While the sauce cooks you can think about starting to cook the pasta — you want it just about al dente, which can take anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes depending on what it says on the package.  Don’t worry if the sauce has cooked its 15 minutes, you can turn it off and wait for the pasta to finish.

When the pasta is ready, save a cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.  Add the infused stock to the sauce. Toss in the drained pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat and mix in the pecorino and the basil.  Taste for salt, and add some pasta water if it’s too dry.  Serve in shallow bowls and drizzle each portion with a little olive oil, then top with a little more cheese.

* Mushroom version:  use 2 pounds of portabello mushrooms instead of the pork.  Cut the caps into large pieces, then pulse them in the food processor until they’re chopped up but not ground up.  Add the mushrooms instead of the pork.  The mushrooms will give off a lot of water, and you want this to boil away and the mushrooms to brown a little.  This can take about 10 minutes, so be patient.  Finish the recipe as directed.

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