Weekday dinner inspiration: Ziti with Sausage and Fennel, and more

Mon | Meatless meal

Use whatever pizza base you'd like — a Boboli crust, refrigerated dough or homemade — for Mushroom & Fontina Pizza. Saute a couple overflowing cups of sliced mushrooms, a combination of button and baby bellas would be nice, and minced garlic in olive oil. A few shakes of dried Italian seasoning plus coarse salt will boost the flavor. Drain the 'shrooms on paper towels to remove excess liquid. If using a Boboli crust, layer it with shredded Fontina cheese and then arrange mushrooms on top. Bake at 400 for about 6 minutes. If base is raw, bake for about 6 minutes first, then proceed with toppings. Pizza is ready when cheese is melted and bubbling.

Tues | Fun with fennel

Ziti With Sausage and Fennel (recipe below) mixes two classic Italian ingredients for a quick weeknight meal. The hollow ziti provides a nook for the sauce to pool and the fennel boosts the flavor and texture. Serve with a green salad loaded with veggies.

Wed | Rotisserie chicken

Shred the white and dark meat for a fast Chicken Noodle Soup. I like to cook the noodles separately and then add them at the end so that they don't get soggy. For the soup, saute onions in a bit of olive oil, then add diced carrots and celery. Let them cook for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add four cups of chicken broth and a cup of water, along with a teaspoon of dried thyme. Stir in shredded chicken and let cook through, then add cooked noodles. Serve with biscuits.

Thurs | Sweet heat

Here's a sweet idea to help use up a few pantry items, including a jar of salsa. To make Spicy Salsa Chicken, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place 6 boneless, skinless breasts in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Mix 2 cups hot salsa (or with less heat depending on your tastes) with ⅓ cup brown sugar and a tablespoon each of honey and Dijon mustard. Pour over chicken and bake for 45 minutes. Serve with yellow rice and sauteed spinach.

Fri | Something fishy

It's Florida! Eat fish! There's not a much simpler meal than Baked Fish and Vegetable Packets. Place a 5-ounce fish fillet of your choice (flounder, snapper, grouper) on a square of foil. Layer sliced zucchini, carrots, red bell pepper and onions on top. Sprinkle with olive oil and white wine then top with slices of lemon. Fold the packet securely, place on a baking sheet and slide into a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Serve with brown rice laced with sliced scallions.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter at @roadeats.

>>MODERATE

Ziti With Sausage and Fennel

½ pound ziti

1 fennel bulb, 1 pound or slightly less

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ pound mild bulk Italian sausage

1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and sliced into half moons

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

¼ cup tomato paste

3 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package instructions and reserve 2 cups of the pasta water.

While pasta cooks, prepare sauce in a large skillet. Slice off the root end of the fennel bulb and the stalks with the fronds. Reserve the stalks and fronds. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut out the inner core and slice the bulb halves lengthwise into about ¼-inch slices. You'll probably end up with more than the 2 cups you need.

Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet with high sides over medium flame. Add the sausage and cook for about 2 minutes, breaking the meat up more with a wooden spoon. Push the sausage to the sides of the pan and add the onion in the center. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, then mix the onion and the sausage together. Create a hole in the middle again and add the fennel. Cook for a minute or so, stirring occasionally, then mix with the meat and onions. Season lightly with salt and then clear yet another hole. Add the crushed red pepper and toast for about 30 seconds. Toss to combine and make one final hole. Add the tomato paste and cook until just sizzling, 1 or 2 minutes, mashing it with the back of a wooden spoon.

Ladle in 1 ½ cups of the reserved pasta water. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer the sauce for 5 to 6 minutes. Flavors will develop, the sauce will thicken slightly and the fennel will soften a bit (you want it to remain slightly crunchy, so don't overcook).

Add the pasta to the pan. Cook for 2 minutes or so to let the pasta absorb some of the sauce and finish cooking. Add the fennel fronds and toss to combine. If the dish seems a bit too dry, drizzle on a little more pasta water and mix it in.

Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the pasta and toss it in. Serve immediately in shallow pasta bowls.

Serves 3 as main dish; 5 to 6 as first course

Source: Adapted from Lidia's Favorite Recipes by Lidia Bastianich (Knopf, 2012)

Weekday dinner inspiration: Ziti with Sausage and Fennel, and more 02/12/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 5:33pm]

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