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.
Bon appetit and happy gardening!