Ocean City Today

Rigatoni with fennel, sausage and peperonata

Food For Thought
By Deborah Lee Walker | Nov 02, 2017

(Nov. 3, 3017) The word “casserole” is used extensively, but do we really know what defines a casserole? Let us delve into the specifics that determine the popular dish.

The following qualifications are necessary for a dish to be considered a true casserole. First and foremost, a casserole is an oven-baked meal that relies on the magic of the oven to transform various ingredients into a tasty, cohesive meal. In addition, the actual casserole dish itself is meant to be used as the serving vessel.

During the postwar years, Campbell’s Soup Company starting promoting casserole recipes for its creamed soups. As a result, Americans considered casseroles a convenient way to prepare meals.

Home cooks were greatly influenced and taught to rely on canned goods and prepackaged foods; unfortunately this style of cooking negated a healthy atmosphere for the average family. This particular style of cooking reached its height of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. However, this trend eclipsed culinary creativity and ultimately led to its demise.

Every ending has a new beginning. It took time for the negative connotations associated with casseroles to win their way back into the graces of everyday menus. Making a great casserole is not an easy task; it is imperative to build flavors so that they meld into a delicious dish. Every ingredient has a specific purpose that heightens the overall experience.

Baked rigatoni with fresh fennel, sausage and peperonata is a modern take on traditional casseroles. Fennel is at its peak in the fall and parlays wonderfully with the fennel in the sausage. The anise flavor of fennel brightens the overall dish and adds a fragrant twist to an Italian classic.

When preparing fennel, remove the green stem and leaves, saving them to flavor or garnish dishes. If using the bulb, discard the outer layer. It has a tendency to be dry and discolored.

It is important to note that fennel can be eaten raw but the cut of the vegetable is very important so that it will not be tough; shavings and matchstick cuts are suggested.

Peperonata is a popular stew on the island of Sicily that consists of bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic sautéed in olive oil. This sauce combined with fresh fennel and sausage is an aromatic delight. Add rigatoni, fontina cheese and mozzarella and the end result is a delectable, sophisticated casserole.

Football season is in full swing and basketball is underway. Basked rigatoni with fresh fennel, sausage and peperonata is an innovative twist on sausage and peppers. This hearty casserole is perfect for hungry fans and requires little fuss when it comes to cleaning up. Also, this dish holds up well and is great for leftovers. Enjoy!

Baked Rigatoni with Fennel, Sausage and Peperonata


¾ pound rigatoni

4 tablespoons good quality extra-virgin olive oil

1 ½ pounds sweet Italian sausage, casings removed and crumbled

1 fennel bulb cut into matchsticks

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 large yellow onion, chopped

2 red bell peppers, seeded and cut into matchsticks

2 orange bell peppers, seeded and cut into matchstick

2 yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into matchstick

2 poblano peppers, seeded and cut into matchsticks

2 tablespoons balsamic glaze (can be purchased at your local supermarket)

few pinches baking soda

1 cup prepared tomato sauce

3 teaspoons each dried oregano and basil

1 to 2 teaspoons dried red pepper seeds

1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 cups shredded fontina cheese

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook for ½ of the recommended cooking time. Drain thoroughly and place in a large bowl.

3. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add half of the olive oil and cook sausages until lightly browned. Remove sausages from pan and set aside.

4. Add the remaining olive oil and sauté fennel, garlic, onion, bell peppers and poblano peppers for 10 minutes.

5. Stir in balsamic glaze, baking soda, tomato sauce, oregano, basil, dried red pepper seeds and cream. Season with salt and pepper and cook until sauce has slightly thickened.

6. Transfer to bowl with pasta and thoroughly combine. Add 2 cups of fontina and again mix well.

7. Transfer the pasta mixture to the prepared dish and top with remaining fontina and mozzarella. Bake until the top is golden brown and the sauce is bubbly. Serve directly from the dish.

* The vegetable mixture looks like it will be too much. Just remember the vegetables will reduce with heat.

Secret Ingredient - Comfort. “In any given minute we have two options: to stay forward into growth or to step back into safety.”

— Abraham Maslow

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