Sometimes simple is best. It’s the hallmark of Italian cooking in almost every instance: two or three 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.
Photo: John Fodera
Penne with Fennel, Chilis, and Crab
- 1 pound lump crab meat
- 1 medium- to large-sized head of fennel
- Dried Calabrian Chilis, to taste (or fresh, crushed red pepper flakes)
- Seafood stock
- 3-4 tablespoons of salted butter
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Salt and 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 sauté 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 Chilis 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 chili 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 chili on the table, but please, Dio Mio….no cheese! Senza formaggio! This is about the decadence of the crab, the spice of the chilis, and the subtle sweetness of the fennel. Delizioso!
*Resist the urge to discard some of the fennel fronds. There are always a lot and it always looks like too much, but it never is. I’ve always found myself wanting more of them. They add a brightness and wonderful color to the dish.
What to drink with this wonderful dish? Villa Matilde Falerno del Massico Bianco DOP: The 2018 is a deep straw color in the glass and upon opening is immediately expressive with aromas of white peaches, pineapple, citrus, and lemon grass notes. Bright and crisp on the palate, the stone fruit, minerality, and tropical notes echo the nose. Stays fresh through the finish where the zest lemon peel notes round out this 100% Falanghina. This also paired perfectly with seafood risotto. 90 points.