I won’t try to dress it up: this was not my finest hour in the kitchen. Before I even went to the market to get the ingredients, doubt whispered quietly in my ear about this recipe. But I ignored it, and walked straight into this culinary mess anyway. For a while, I’ve wanted to make something with fennel. So when I found this recipe on Epicurious.com, it sounded perfect: a lovely sauté of vegetables and lentils, served with sausage. I love French lentils, those green little beauties, and with a chicken sausage substitution, this sounded healthful and unlike anything I’ve made in the past.
Then I read the reviews: many were positive, but with a lot of changes to the original recipe, and there was a small, but conspicuous percentage of bad reviews, most accusing the dish of being boring. I hoped I wouldn’t feel this way, but after making it, I agree with latter. Not only was the end result boring, but the process of cooking this dish was a mess. I don’t know if it was the altitude, my ancient stove, or my own ineptness, but every single step took an inordinate amount of time to complete. I don’t mind a long leisurely recipe, in fact, I love it, but this was just a jumble of too many pans, and an unpleasant feeling of doubt. Every thing felt either rushed or uncertain. For two hours.
Usually, cooking is a feast for the senses: ingredients smell and look good, they sizzle, simmer, and transform into something delectable. This sensory experience was mundane at best. I just knew my trials and tribulations would not trigger a great, big, involuntary “MMmmmm” at the first bite. My suspicions were unfortunately realized. The dish itself was edible, but nothing special. I added a ton of parmesan cheese to it, which was a modest improvement. Even after 40 minutes, the lentils were cooked through, but still not tender the way I wanted them. And the fennel, which I was so excited about, was lost in its surroundings, the sea of boring. I did have a little success with the leftovers: cooking the lentils and sausage in marinara and tossing it with pasta and parmesan, but this does not validate the initial struggle. Below is the recipe as it came from Epicurious.com, with my feeble contributions denoted by italics.
1 cup dried lentils (preferably French green lentils; 7 ounces)
4 ½ cups cold water (or one can reduced sodium chicken stock, and 1 ¼ cups water)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 medium (3/4 -pound) fennel bulb (sometimes labeled "anise"), stalks discarded, reserving fronds
3 ½ tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, cut into ¼ -inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon fennel seeds (optional, according to Psycho Cooker)
1 ¼ pounds sweet Italian sausage links (I used one pound of hot Italian chicken sausage)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar, or to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
§ Bring lentils, water, chicken stock, and (½ teaspoon salt if you’re not using stock) to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until lentils are just tender but not falling apart, 12 to 25 minutes (or 40+ minutes if you’re inept, like me).
§ While lentils simmer, cut fennel bulb into ¼ -inch dice and chop enough fennel fronds to measure 2 tablespoons. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then stir in onion, carrot, fennel bulb, (fennel seeds,) and remaining teaspoon salt. Cover pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes.
§ Meanwhile, lightly prick sausages in a couple of places with tip of a sharp knife, then cook sausages in remaining ½ tablespoon oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until golden brown and cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes (or 20 minutes, plus 5 minutes in the microwave out of paranoia regarding salmonella). Transfer to a cutting board.
§ Drain cooked lentils in a sieve set over a bowl and reserve cooking water. Stir lentils into vegetables with enough cooking water to moisten (¼ to ½ cup) and cook over moderate heat until heated through. Stir in parsley, pepper, 1 tablespoon vinegar, and 1 tablespoon fennel fronds. Season with vinegar and salt.
§ Cut sausages diagonally into ½ -inch-thick slices. Serve lentils topped with sausage and sprinkled with remaining tablespoon fennel fronds. Drizzle all over with extra-virgin olive oil.