Creamy tomato pasta with fennel and sausage

This pasta celebrates fennel by using it three ways and gets it’s creaminess not from heavy cream but from a dollop of tangy sour cream added at the end of cooking.

My family loves Italian sausage pastas in all forms, and I adore fresh fennel. This pasta is a marriage of the two – just a bit different enough when I want a break from jarred sauce but still easy enough to make on a weeknight.

If you haven’t had fresh fennel – this would be a great entry point! I know some people are put off by the description of fennel tasting licorice-y, but I will say – I am not a fan at all of black licorice but fresh fennel is one of my favorite vegetables. I love it cooked and raw (fennel slaw is BOMB) – it has great texture and such a unique flavor.

How to make creamy tomato pasta with fennel and sausage

This pasta has a relatively simple line-up of ingredients and process, making it an easy weeknight dinner. The sauce all happens in one pot, and the pasta is cooked while the sauce simmers and the flavors mingle.

First, dice your fennel and onion, making sure to reserve the fronds of the fennel (that look a lot like dill) – these will be used as a fresh herb at the end of the pasta. Then prep your other ingredients, including crushing your fennel seeds – see the tips for crushing the fennel seeds below.

If your sausage in casing, like in the photo below, make a slit down the length of the each sausage and remove the casing. This step is not necessary if you are using bulk italian sausage rather than links.

Once your ingredients are prepped, start warming a large, heavy pot – like a Dutch oven – over medium heat, and fill another large pot with water for the pasta.

Once the Dutch oven is preheated, add the olive and cook the onions and fennel until softened. Add your sausage directly in with the onions and fennel, breaking up with a wooden spoon, and cook until no longer pink. Then add the crushed fennel seeds, garlic, chili flakes to taste, and some salt & pepper, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. At this point, your kitchen should smell like heaven and you should turn on the burner under your pot of water.

To the sausage mixture, add the wine and simmer until the wine has reduced by about half, scraping up any delicious brown sausage and onion bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and let the sauce simmer on low until the pasta is done.

Once the water has come to a boil, add a good handful of salt to the water, then add the pasta. Set a timer (or keep an eye on the clock), to cook the pasta to al dente – it will finish in the sauce, so you don’t want it overcooked.

A few minutes before the pasta should be done, add the spinach to the sauce and stir in to wilt. Turn off the heat and stir in the sour cream and butter. Give it a taste and check for seasoning.

Once the pasta is ready, drain it and add it directly to the sauce, giving it a stir to get all the pasta nice and coated. Stir in about half of the chopped parsley and fennel fronds. Then serve up, topping with more herbs and a good amount of parmesan cheese, and ideally providing some garlic bread along side. Enjoy!

Tips and substitutions for creamy tomato pasta with fennel and sausage

  • Use whichever Italian sausage you like. Sweet, hot, mild – they will all work fine here.
  • Fennel swaps. While I really encourage you to use fresh fennel if you can find it, it can be left out, and you would still end up with a delicious sausage pasta. For the fennel seeds, you can leave them out if you can’t find them or are not a fan (I wasn’t a fan of fennel seeds until my 30s), or swap with ground fennel or caraway seeds. You could also substitute in your favorite pasta herb – like dried oregano.
  • Crush those seeds, no mortar needed! You can crush fennel seeds without a mortar and pestle! One option is to put them in a plastic bag and then smash them with a rolling pin or heavy skillet. You can also grind them briefly in a coffee or spice grinder (but make sure you’ve cleaned out any lingering coffee grounds first.) I prefer the fennel not completely ground, so I prefer the crush method.
  • Noodling on noodles. I’ve only made this with tube-y pasta, like rigatoni and penne, but this would probably also be really good with a extra wide pasta, like pappardelle or tagliatelle (with a mountain of fresh grated parm on top, of course.)

Creamy tomato pasta with fennel and sausage

This pasta celebrates fennel by using it three ways and gets it’s creaminess not from heavy cream but from a dollop of tangy sour cream added at the end of cooking.

Ingredients

3 Tbsp olive oil

1 fennel bulb, diced and fronds reserved

1 medium onion, diced

1 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed if in links (I used mild, but you can use sweet or hot as well)

4 garlic cloves, minced

½ tsp whole fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar & pestle

Pinch of crushed red chili flakes (or more to taste)

1 cup white wine

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

4 cups baby spinach (optional)

2 Tbsp sour cream

2 Tbsp butter

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

Reserved fennel fronds, chopped (at least 2 Tbsp but feel free to use however much you reserved)

1 lb. rigatoni or other tube-shaped pasta

Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the diced onion and diced fresh fennel. Sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. (Turn the heat down during this process if they are getting too much color too fast.)
  2. Add the Italian sausage and cook until no longer pink, about 7 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic, fennel seeds, crushed chili flakes, 1/2 tsp salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Sauté 1-2 minutes until the garlic and crushed fennel are fragrant.
  4. Turn the heat up to medium-high, add the wine, and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer until the wine has reduced by about half.
  5. Add the crushed tomatoes and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the pasta is done.
  6. While the sauce simmers, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season the water generously with salt (a good handful of salt) and add the pasta. Cook according to the package directions for al dente and drain.
  7. A few minutes before the pasta is done, add the baby spinach to the pasta sauce, if using, and stir in to wilt. Once wilted, turn off the heat and add the sour cream, butter, and most of the parsley and fennel fronds (you’ll want to reserve some of each to sprinkle on top). Taste and adjust for seasonings.
  8. Add the cooked pasta directly to the sauce and mix to combine. Serve and top with reserved herbs and grated parmesan cheese.

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