Spring has well and truly arrived to the Adelaide Hills. The fruit trees that have stood bare all winter are now adorned in their blossomy gowns, sending out their petals on the gentlest breeze and scattering them like confetti. The sunshine is warm and delicious while the sun’s high; in the early evenings, a chill still sets into the air, and we know we’ll enjoy a few more nights yet with the fire roaring.
It’s at this exquisite time of year that fennel makes its appearance in the garden, and it’s as if mother nature created it with these golden days and frosty nights in mind. Raw, it’s crunchy, fresh aniseed flavour is delicious finely sliced into a fresh salad of raw greens and segments of late winter orange. But roasted to caramelised perfection it makes the ultimate warming comfort dish, lending itself perfectly to this hearty lentil base.
The lentil part of the dish is adapted from one I learnt from Simon Bryant, one of our local Adelaide food celebrities, of The Cook & The Chef TV series fame, and author of Vegies. I think Simon’s just awesome because one, he creates incredible recipes that let plant foods shine in their own right; two, he’s got a great ethical conscience around food and its production; three, he genuinely cares about the health of kids and young people; and four, when I summoned my courage and invited him to join us for the launch of one of the kitchen garden programs I am involved in, he said yes without hesitation, and showed up, despite hills weather so dark and wintery it was as if the sun had forgotten to rise.
Like I said, he’s awesome. And you’ll think so too, once you’ve tasted these lentils.
Caramelised Fennel with Lentils – serves 4-6
- 2 large fennel bulbs
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 onions, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 cups cold water
- 300g puy or french-style lentils
- few sprigs thyme, tied into a bunch with kitchen string
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 tsp sea or river salt flakes, plus extra for sprinkling (if using fine salt crystals you’ll need much less)
- 1/4 cup verjuice (or white wine)
Preheat oven to 200°C
Trim the fennel, and cut the bulbs into quarters lengthways. Remove the cores, then cut the rest into 1.5 cm strips. Put into a colander and rinse under cold water, to remove any traces of soil that may have been caught between the fennel’s inner layers.
Drain the fennel well, then place into a large baking dish. Toss through 3 tbsp of the olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and pop into the oven. Bake until well caramelised, opening the oven door now and then to let out the steam. Don’t worry if some of the ends of the fennel strips start to blacken ever so slightly – these little bits are just delicious!
Once the fennel is in the oven, place a large saucepan over medium heat and add the remaining oil. Sauté onion until soft and translucent, then add the garlic. Cook to soften.
Add the water to the pan to cool it, then pour in the lentils. Toss in the thyme and bay leaves and stir the whole lot together. Cover, bring to the boil then simmer gently until the lentils are tender but not mushy, and the liquid has reduced.
Remove the thyme and bay leaves, then stir in the sea salt and verjuice.
Serve immediately topped with strips of caramelised fennel.