I know, it’s supposed to be spring. Pah. The daffodils are popping up their sunny yellow heads all over the garden and I hope they’re enjoying the rain, because I’m not, hence this rather wintry but very comforting and flavour-packed supper.
The meatballs are what I rather naffly call cheatballs, because they are made with sausage meat: if you can find Italian fennel sausages half the work is done for you. Mine were flavoured with black pepper so I added some lightly ground fennel seeds. Any good meaty sausage will work though.
Also, a 1lb/450g pack of sausages goes a long way, making it an economical meal - I got 26 meatballs out of mine, easily enough to feed four people. As I was cooking for two I used half one night with a tomato sauce, served over pasta, and the rest for this recipe. Vegetarians might like to try a crisp Glamorgan sausage or two on the side, rather than incorporated in the dish, or just skip the sausage element altogether.
It’s a one-pot (but as you’ll see, not a one-pan) dish though a crunchy salad is a welcome addition.
Lentils, Fennel, Meatballs (serves 2 generously, 4 at a pinch)
About 225 g good quality sausage meat
2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
1 dessertspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed (optional)
170g Puy-style lentils
1 large bulb of fennel, trimmed and quartered, any fronds reserved
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 sticks of celery, trimmed and chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
500ml chicken, veg or ham stock (it should be well seasoned but not overly salty)
A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
Lemon juice, a small spritz
Crème fraîche, to serve (optional but good)
Skin the sausages, put the meat in a bowl and mix through the fennel seeds, if using. Form into walnut-sized balls. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and brown the meatballs. You don't need to cook them all the way through, just get some colour on them. Set aside on kitchen paper. Keep the pan handy.
Quarter the fennel bulb, discarding any really tough outer leaves, the fingers at the top (keep the fronds for garnish) and the base. Cut out the core, leaving just enough to hold it together. Put the frying pan back on the heat and quickly sear the fennel on each side. Set it aside, wipe out the pan and keep it nearby.
Chop the onions, celery and carrot and in a medium-sized pan heat another tablespoon of oil. (I know this is a second pan but the lentils need to be submerged to cook and it's easiest in a deeper saucepan.) Add the veg, sprinkle lightly with salt and fry gently until soft and the onions are translucent and beginning to turn golden.
Rinse the lentils to get rid of any dust and grit, drain well, then add to the pan with the onion mixture. Stir to coat, then tuck in the fennel quarters.
Pour in the stock, bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the lentils and fennel are tender and much of the liquid has cooked off but it's still a bit soupy. Check and adjust the seasoning.
Now, and you can hate me for this if you like but you'll thank me in the end, transfer everything back to the frying pan, trying not to break up the fennel quarters. Push the meatballs into the mixture and cook gently until they're hot and cooked through, about 10 minutes at a simmer.
Stir through a handful of roughly chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve, if you like, with a small dollop of crème fraîche and a scattering of the reserved fennel fronds.