On my last trip to San Francisco, a friend and I waited two hours (a near record for me!) for a table at Flour and Water. But the anise pasta I had next was worth every minute of the wait. The pasta was coated with buttery, caramelized fennel and served with braised guinea hen. In the version that I recreated below, I used toasted and ground fennel seeds to flavor the fresh pasta, and cooked the chicken thighs over a bed of wine, fennel, onions and garlic. If you don’t have time to make your own pasta, you can make this recipe with regular pasta and throw some extra fennel seeds into your fennel and onions. When you are ready to serve, make sure you have enough liquid in the saucepan so it coats the pasta and doesn’t end up dry. The sauce is the best part.
Anise-Flavored Pasta with Chicken Thighs, Caramelized Fennel, and Spinach, enough for 3 servings (or 2, with a little extra for leftovers)
1 1/2 tbsp. fennel seeds, toasted and ground
1 2/3 cups of flour
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 small fennel bulbs, stalks and fronds removed, and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup white wine
A large handful of baby spinach leaves
Parmesan cheese, for serving
Mix the ground fennel seeds into the flour. To make the pasta by hand, form a mound with the flour on your counter and create a hole in the middle. Add your eggs to the flour well, and with a fork begin incorporating the eggs into the flour. Keep mixing until the eggs are well incorporated. Once the dough has come together, spend 10-15 minutes kneading it until it becomes elastic and shiny. This takes a little bit of muscle.
If the dough is too dry and keeps cracking, add a few teaspoons of water to it and continue kneading. If the dough becomes sticky, you’ve added too much water, in which case, you can just knead in more flour. When ready, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 1 hour. Then, roll the dough out with your pasta maker. If you do not have a pasta maker, no worries, you can make Orechiette with your hands. While rolling out the pasta, make sure to keep it under plastic wrap when you aren’t working with it, so it doesn’t dry out.
Get your pasta water on its way to a boil while you begin cooking the chicken and vegetables. Make sure it is generously salted. It should taste like sea water.
Remove the chicken thighs from the fridge, pat dry, and season generously with salt and pepper. Melt 1 large tablespoon of butter in a large pan over medium high heat and when hot, add your chicken thighs skin-side-down. When the thighs are well-browned (about 5-7 minutes), flip them over. Cook for another 5 minutes, or until browned on both sides. Remove the chicken thighs and reserve.
Add the onions and fennel to the pan and stir up all of the browned bits from the chicken. Cook over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, or until they begin to darken. Add the garlic and stir for an additional minute. Add the wine to deglaze the pan, and then 3/4 cup of water. Place the chicken on top of the onions and fennel, cover, and cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. Remove the lid, and cook an additional 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the second tbsp of butter.
Next, throw the pasta into the boiling water. Fresh pasta only takes a few minutes to cook. Drain and reserve a little of the pasta water.
To finish: Remove the chicken and place under the broiler for a few minutes to crisp the skin again. Watch it carefully. If the sauce needs a little more liquid, add in some of the pasta water. Add the spinach and cook until just wilted. Season to taste. To plate, top the pasta with onion-fennel mixture, and a piece of chicken. Spoon over some extra sauce, and parmesan cheese.