At least once each winter, I seem to need to start a post by talking about weather. Chicago deserves some of the credit here. One morning last week, it was 0 degrees F. when I left for work. Zero. The high that day was 11 degree F. Throw in the inevitable stiff winds and the five or six blocks to and from the El at both ends of the commute, and you develop a deep appreciation for hearty, simple, stick-to-your-ribs fare. Like this lentil dish.
Lentils often are served up in soups. Here, they appear in a thicker, almost stewlike form, with just enough liquid to moisten the dish. A fennel bulb (plus fronds), some carrots, Italian sausage, an onion and garlic add to the satisfyingly rustic quality of this wintry meal. It comes together quickly enough for a weeknight, but can be cooked ahead, tasting even better the next night.
Lentils with Fennel and Sausage
1-1/2 cups lentils
6 cups water
3 carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal
salt and freshly ground black pepper
canola or olive oil
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
1 fennel bulb with fronds, about 3/4 pound
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1. Combine lentils, water, carrots, 3/4 teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of pepper in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until lentils are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking water, and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, drizzle some oil in a skillet and brown sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. When sausage is just cooked through, transfer it to a paper towel-lined plate.
3. Also meanwhile, trim the fennel bulb. Slice off the bottom and the stalks, reserving the fronds. Use a vegetable peeler to remove any brown spots from the outside, then halve the bulb lengthwise and core it. Halve lengthwise again and slice crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. If you’re not sure how to do this, videos abound on the internet.
4. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large, deep skillet or sauté pan over medium flame. Sweat the fennel bulb and onion in the pan, stirring often to avoid browning, for about 10 minutes. Add the fennel seeds and garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add lentils and sausage to the pan, stirring to combine. Add a little of the lentil cooking water to the pan to moisten everything, starting with 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Cook until everything is heated through, 3 to 4 minutes.
5. While the lentil mixture is heating, quickly chop 3 to 4 tablespoons of the fennel fronds. Stir half into the lentils, along with the red wine vinegar. Spoon into individual serving bowls and top with remaining fennel fronds. Serve.
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