Meatless spaghetti meat sauce

I read an article today about a woman looking for ways to make some of her cooking healthier. Her signature lentil soup, for instance, used sausage for flavor and texture, and it took a little ingenuity to come up with an acceptable substitution.

That got me thinking about a discovery I made many years ago when I was trying to reduce the amount of meat (and attendant fat) in the household diet. I was able to substitute lentils and ground poultry for sausage and hamburger in a number of recipes, but spaghetti sauce made with these instead of Italian sausage just tasted, well, anemic. Even if they had the right texture, the flavor wasn’t quite right.

To my immense disappointment, boatloads of garlic didn’t do it, though it did make us all very safe from vampires and people sitting next to us in public places. (I love garlic and generally subscribe to the belief that it’s not possible to have too much in any recipe. I have learned the hard way that not everyone shares my religious leanings on this.) Something was still missing.

I finally found that the one ingredient that separates Italian sausage from all other sausages, mild or hot, is fennel seed. I subsequently determined that adding fennel seed, lightly crushed with my mortar and pestle, made even meatless spaghetti sauce taste like, well, like meat sauce. Hearty and savory and rib-sticking good.

So there you have it: the greatest secret of my kitchen. And if you want to know real joy, grow your own fennel — it’s a beautiful plant (I recommend the bronze foliage variety) and is a preferred larval food for Black Swallowtail butterflies. Just be sure you harvest those seeds; it self-sows freely and sends down deep tap roots.

Black Swallowtail butterfly larva

Bon appetit and happy gardening!


8 responses to “Meatless spaghetti meat sauce

  1. I know what you mean about spaghetti sauce without Italian sausage. I also discovered fennel seed. I put it in my coffee grinder. Ha! Fragrant! It makes ground turkey taste like Italian sausage! I would love to grow it but I live in an apartment. My brother grows herbs and I bring home bouquets for my table and use the herbs in my cooking. I will have to suggest that he plant some fennel for us. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      The coffee grinder — what a great idea! Thank you for reading my post, and for passing along your own “secret” tip. (I may grind some up just so I can wallow in the aroma…)

  2. Love fennel seed! And the last time we grew fennel, the bulbs didn’t develop well enough to cook, but the seeds were great. My cilantro always seems to bolt, but the coriander seeds …..great! When I worked at the bakery, my old boss used to make vegetarian chili. Instead of using beef, he used to make small balls of falafel and pop them in. They tend to break up, but they add meat-like texture to the chili….and a nice spicy flavor too. You never even miss the beef.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      I’ve never tried to grow bulb fennel, just the one with the beautiful bronze foliage. The stalks are great for grilling salmon — a layer of them between the fish and the grill keeps the fish from burning (and falling through the grate) and imparts a lovely flavor to it. (I learned that from Nancy DuBrule, garden goddess extraordinaire.)

      Mmmm…falafel…what a great idea! I never thought about that. The texture would be just about perfect. Thanks for the suggestion! And thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. I’m excited to try this. And I love Carol Ann’s suggestion about fennel in ground turkey. I have two coffee grinders – one for coffee and one for spices. I grind my own cumin and coriander seeds. MMMMMM!

    Another synchronicity. I was just about to write about my Polenta Puttanesca. I will in a day or two.

    I grew ordinary fennel and dill last year. Both are lovely plants. And fennel bulbs are so delicious roasted.


    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Ooo! Looking forward to reading about your Polenta Puttanesca. I love polenta, and I never make it. Maybe I will be inspired by you to launch myself in a new culinary direction. 🙂

  4. Attn: If you decide to try falafel, prepare them like the instructions say on the package……mixing, forming and browning them in a pan first before adding to your recipe.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Good point. I was wondering this but hadn’t gotten around to following up and asking you. Thanks for anticipating my tendency to take unauthorized (and ill-advised) shortcuts…

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