Sometimes simple is best. It’s the hallmark of Italian cooking in almost every instance. 2 or 3 fresh ingredients, sometimes even less, treated as little as possible. Today’s recipe is no different. It relies on two main ingredients, fresh fennel and lump crab meat. Now, unless you’re close to the ocean and are willing to cook, crack and separate fresh crab, then a canned version will have to do. Don’t worry, there are excellent fresh crab options available in canned form. Just be certain to choose premium claw or lump as they will contain the largest pieces of meat.
Penne with Fennel, Chiles and Crab
1 pound lump crab meat
1 medium to large sized head of fennel
Dried Calabrian Chiles to taste
3-4 tablespoons of salted butter
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
Split the fennel bulb in half, remove the core and reserve the fronds. Cut into quarter inch dice. In a pan large enough to hold the finished pasta, warm a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and saute the fennel until it softens but does not brown; about 6-8 minutes over medium heat. Season the fennel with salt and pepper.
At this point, begin boiling the water for the pasta. In the time it takes to cook the pasta to al dente, your condimento will be finished. I used Calabrian Chiles for this dish which are quite spicy and somewhat savory in flavor. If you can find those, I highly recommend keeping them on hand. Otherwise, just use fresh crushed red pepper flakes.
Once the fennel softens, add the crab to the pan and stir through so it warms. You can taste to adjust seasoning. Add the Calabrian chile flakes and continue to stir through while the pasta finishes cooking.
As the crab warms through, the condimento will be rather dry or “tight”. Add the butter and enough seafood stock to create the proper consistency. It shouldn’t be watery, but reflect an almost satiny, creamy texture. I probably used 1/2 cup of the Seafood stock. If you need more liquid than that, use some of the pasta cooking water; otherwise you risk making the dish taste too “fishy”.
Just before the pasta is finished, chop the reserved fennel fronds and add them to the pot.
Once the pasta is transferred to the pot containing the condimento, toss through and serve immediately. If you have any brave guests, you can pass more crushed chile on the table, but please, Dio Mio….no cheese! Senza formaggio! This is about the decadence of the crab, the spice of the chiles and the subtle sweetness of the fennel. Delizioso!
What to drink with this wonderful dish? Well, you’ve got to have some cool, semi-sweet fruit to offset the flames of this dish. We tried a nice Vermentino and a Soave Classico from two wonderful producers. More on that later. But for now, try this dish. You can temper the heat as needed and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Tutti a tavola!