I don’t usually like to lead with nutritional information (like Michael Pollan, who wrote about it in his great book Food, I’m drawn to cultures that aren’t obsessed with knowing the nutrients in everything, but celebrate whole, delicious foods for the sheer pleasure of it), but if you’re vegan like me, you need to pay attention to those little powerhouses called lentils. Self-effacing, never calling attention to themselves, they shy away from center stage and let others take all the glory. Here’s the lowdown if you need a refresher course on what these guys will do for your health. But let’s not forget our taste buds!
My antennae go up when I stumble on a new idea for lentils, and that’s what happened this past cold and endless winter, when I was desperate for hot soup to keep things cozy, and found this recipe for Kabocha French Lentil Soup by Rebecca Stevens on one of my favorite blogs, 101 Cookbooks. I loved it dearly, and made it with religious regularity for the rest of the season.
Inspiration struck in the spring when I was scouting around for ideas for veggie burgers (I’m always scouting around for ideas for veggie burgers). I decided to try to incorporate the unique flavors of Rebecca’s soup into a lentil burger. I kept tinkering with the idea, making changes and improvements with each batch, but even before they were perfected, we kept remarking about how delicious they were, so I knew I was on to something. I consider this still a work in progress, but it’s too good not to share as is.
You can make these with plain old garden-variety brown lentils. To infuse each ingredient with flavor, I cook the lentils and diced yams together (they will cook in about the same amount of time) with the spice bundle, and then I leave the spice bundle in as they’re cooling to extract all possible deliciousness from it. I tried many different ways to bind the mixture before frying, like soaked flax seeds and sweet rice flour, but they came together best when I used brown rice flour. They are still delicate and might not hold up to grilling, although I haven’t tried it. They gain strength in the refrigerator, so if you’re going to try grilling, I’d suggest making the mixture the day before and refrigerating it for 24 hours.
For some of you, star anise, fennel seeds and fennel powder (‘ground fennel’) might not be as easy to find as they are for me here on the east coast, but they are essential to the flavor, so I urge you to find them somehow if you want to try this. There are no substitutes! Look in the bulk spices in your local health food store, or try an Asian market. If all else fails, they are available online. Penzey’s is one good source for high-quality spices.
These have become a staple in our house. Because of the natural sweetness of the yam and the fennel and onion, these will caramelize beautifully as you cook them, gaining even more flavor. I hope you enjoy them!
Lentil Burgers with Fragrant Spices (vegan + gluten-free!)
(with flavors inspired by Kabocha French Lentil Soup by Rebecca Stevens of SoupLove and posted on 101 Cookbooks)
Makes 6 – 8 medium burgers
¾ C. dry green lentils, cooked with star anise + ginger (about 1½ cups cooked; see directions below)
1 lb. yam, cubed and simmered with star anise + ginger (see directions below)
1 star anise
About 6 thin slices of fresh ginger
1 – 2 Tbs. olive oil for mixture and more for frying burgers
2 tsp. fennel seeds
1 yellow onion, diced
½ fresh fennel bulb, diced (optional but very good)
1 Tbs. freshly grated ginger (microplane is preferable)
2 tsp. fennel powder
juice of 1 lemon or lime
1/3 C. brown rice flour
¾ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Place the star anise and the ginger slices in a bit of cheesecloth and tie with cooking twine.
Wash lentils and put them in a pot with cubed yams (peeled or unpeeled, it’s up to you) and the spice bundle. Add about 2 cups of water (you’ll drain the excess, so don’t worry about the amount; just make sure you have enough to cover everything). Cook for 15 – 20 minutes, until lentils and yams are soft. Check frequently to make sure they don’t overcook and become mushy. Place in sieve and allow them to drain well while you’re preparing the rest of the ingredients. To extract maximum flavor, you can leave the spice bundle in until the last minute.
Dice the onion and fennel. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the fennel seeds. Allow to toast slightly but don’t allow to burn. This is quick; probably less than a minute, so don’t fall asleep. Now add the onion and fennel and sauté until slightly caramelized (6 minutes or so). Add the grated fresh ginger and sauté for another minute or two. Remove from heat and let cool slightly before continuing.
Remove the spice bundle and place the lentils and yams in a food processor with the onion-fennel mixture. Add fennel powder, lemon or lime juice, brown rice flour, salt and pepper. Pulse several times to break the mixture down somewhat, but stop when just combined. Don’t let the processor run freely or you’ll end up with a big unmanageable glob. Taste for seasoning now and make any adjustments necessary.
Transfer to a bowl and place in refrigerator for at least an hour (preferably more) to allow the brown rice flour to absorb some of the moisture. You’ll have a much more cooperative mixture after it has had some time in the refrigerator. Overnight is even better. If you don’t cook all these the first night, save the uncooked mixture in a jar in the refrigerator and cook as needed. Fry in olive oil.