Sausage and Lentils with Fennel (a tasty fennel trifecta)
Fennel is one of those things that I have wanted to like for a long time. You know the feeling when you think you should like a flavor, and it’s mildly distressing that you can’t in good faith say that you truly do? That was me and fennel. I kept thinking “Maybe I just haven’t prepared it the best way. Maybe this was a bad bulb. Maybe I didn’t eat it at the peak of flavor. Maybe I cut it too thickly. Maybe this wasn’t the right recipe to try it in.” Excuses, excuses.
Part of the reason I’ve wanted to like fennel so much is because I think the plant itself, with its creamy white ribbed bulb and feathery green fronds, is a thing of pure beauty. And I’m definitely not a picky eater; there are few foods I dislike, so how could I not like something as pretty and supposedly tasty as fennel? The problem lays with licorice. That is one flavor solidly on my “disliked foods” list, and I guess my wariness of licorice-y flavored things always got in the way of me giving fennel a real fighting shot.
All that has gone out the window recently, though. Inspired by my love of lentils, I was looking for new things to cook with them and came across this recipe on epicurious.com, from the January 2007 issue of Gourmet magazine. It is delicious — and it has fennel in three (!) different forms! A fennel trifecta, you could say. Nothing like going whole hog on this fennel thing, right?? The tasty little French le puy lentils are sauteed with carrot, celery, onions, garlic, fennel seed, and diced fennel bulb; chopped feathery fennel fronds are tossed in at the end, and you serve it with some slices of browned sausage on top (for which I used turkey sausage — and the fennel used in the sausage seasoning was, I think, a good match.) The fennel wasn’t overpowering at all, actually it was rather nice and sweet in the dish; we’ve really been enjoying it paired with a slice of crusty bread and a glass of red wine…yum!
I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this. I’m smiling right now as I think of this dish! I think I’ve just taken my first step towards actually, honestly liking fennel as an ingredient. Bolstered by this positive fennel encounter, who knows where I may venture next…thinly sliced crunchy raw fennel in a salad? Perhaps…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Sausage and Lentils with Fennel
Adapted from Gourmet magazine, January 2007. I use one sausage link per person; the original recipe has a bit more.
1 cup dried lentils (preferably French green lentils)
4 1/2 cups cold water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 medium fennel bulb, stalks discarded, reserving fronds
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 lb sweet Italian sausage links (4 links)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar, or to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling (optional)
Bring the lentils, water, and 1/2 tsp salt to a boil in a saucepan, the reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are just tender, about 15 minutes (check at 15 minutes and simmer a bit longer if they’re not fully yet cooked.) You want them to be tender, but not falling apart. When they’re tender, drain them in a colander but reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
While the lentils simmer, dice the fennel bulb into 1/4-inch pieces, and chop 2 tbsp of the fennel fronds. Heat 3 tbsp oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat until hot, then add the onion, carrot, fennel seed, fennel bulb, and remaining 1 tsp salt. Saute the vegetables until they’re tender, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the sausages in a separate pan in the remaining 1/2 tbsp oil over medium-high heat until they’re golden brown and cooked through. Transfer to a cutting board and let them rest for about 10 minutes.
When the vegetables and sausage are cooked, stir the lentils into the vegetables (adding some of the reserved cooking water if it looks too dry) and warm them over medium heat until heated through. Stir in the parsley, pepper, 1 tbsp vinegar, and 1 tbsp fennel fronds. Taste and season with additional salt or pepper if needed.
Slice the sausage links on the diagonal. Divide the lentils among 4 plates, mounding them slightly. Arrange the slices of sausage over the lentils, and garnish with the additional tablespoon reserved fennel fronds and a drizzle of olive oil, if you like.