Last week, we saw the beginning of fall.

I love this time of year even though the days are getting shorter.  Usually, I would attribute it to the change in weather, but, we didn’t really HAVE a summer this year.  I think it’s the conditioning of 16 formative years of school – getting new clothes, buying school supplies (I think the new notebooks and book covers were my favorite).  In a lot of ways, that felt more like a new year does than the first of January.  My next-door-neighbor’s daughter just started senior school this year and it’s been fun to hear her talk about catching the bus with her friends in the morning, her new classes, new teachers and even moan about the weight of her bookbag.

So, with the fall wardrobe and darker nights comes a change in dinner palette – no more fresh ears of corn on the cob or string beans right off the vine.  Instead, it’s time to start looking at heartier fare – ragus and stews and casseroles.  Things that “stick to your ribs” and warm you from the inside.

This is a great dish – you can serve it fancy by stuffing shells and baking or simply serving it as a sauce.  The lentils are what really rounds it out and gives it a nice velvety texture, so don’t skip them!

Shells Stuffed with Sausage and Lentils

  • Olive oil
  • big pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced or microplaned
  • 1 heaping tsp fennel seeds
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 8 pork sausages (not heavily seasoned), out of the casings
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 can green lentils, rinsed and drained
  • large shells (to stuff) or medium shells (if you want to serve as a sauce)
  • Parmesan or Pecorino or Grana Padano to serve

In a large pan, add a good drizzle of oil – a couple of tablespoons – and add the red pepper flakes while it’s cold.  Then, put it over medium heat – the red pepper flakes will infuse the heat into the oil – when it’s hot, add the onions and fennel seeds and cook until the onions are translucent.  Add garlic and cook for one minute before adding the tomato paste and stirring through.  Pull apart the sausage meat as much as you can and add it to the pan to brown, using a spoon to continue breaking up the meat into smaller bits as it cooks.  When it’s thoroughly cooked, add the tomato and drained lentils and let it simmer for at least 20 minutes or so for the flavors to marry.

If you’re going to serve this as stuffed shells, preheat the oven to 400 F and cook the large shells per the instructions, then line bottom of a medium casserole dish with about 1/4 of the sauce.  Set the shells on the sauce, then fill with a couple of tablespoons of the sauce in each shell and top with a really good grating of cheese then bake for 10 minutes.  If you don’t want to go through the palaver of stuffing and baking, serve the sauce with a good pasta that will hold it, like smaller shells, rigate, radiatori, or rotelle.