In the winter, I love fennel like I love a summer tomato. Amid all the in-season root vegetables that commandeer the produce section, fennel is a sparkly gem of fresh, bright flavor. It’s always in my fridge since it’s versatile and inexpensive. I use it lieu of celery for soups, stews and braises. Sometimes I serve it raw and thinly sliced in salads. Most often I cook it slowly and simply, transforming it into a sweet, fragrant match for a myriad of dinners from roasted chicken to bouillabaisse. And don’t forget the bright green, feathery fronds; they’re a beautiful and flavorful garnish for everything from pasta dishes to cocktails.
This gratin is fantastic. It’s true, anything baked with heavy cream and Parmesan cheese is bound to be delicious, but fennel has a particular affinity for the two ingredients. As Will and I discovered last weekend, this dish is especially satisfying at 2am when you’re kinds sorta drunk. We arrived home after romping from restaurant bar to restaurant bar across the city (our favorite way to eat and drink NYC) threw our coats on the couch and headed straight for the kitchen. Without a thought we bypassed the bowl of pistachios on the table and the bag of TCHO baking chocolate on the counter and reached into the refrigerator for a foil-covered casserole dish. We scooped leftover fennel gratin into two bowls, patiently waited 2 minutes for the microwave to do its magic, and then devoured the warm, sweet, tender fennel, gooey with cheese. We didn’t talk until we were done eating. “Well that was good,” I stated. “So good,” Will replied. Simultaneously we stood up and reached for the remaining leftovers to give the gratin another go. Scoop, microwave, eat (silently), smile. Cuddle, kiss, sleep.
Easy Fennel Gratin
Serves 4-6 (as a side dish)
- 1 whole fennel bulb, stems and fronds (1 to 1.5 lbs)
- 1.5 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 garlic clove, finely minced or grated on a microplane
- 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, divided
- Freshly cracked pepper
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 3/4 cup of breadcrumbs
- 3 springs of thyme, leaves stripped from the stems
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Pluck the bright green feathery fronds from the fennel bulb. Roughly chop and set aside. Cut the stems from the bulb, and roughly julienne. Cut the bulb in half, and then each half into eight wedges. Whisk together the heavy cream, salt, garlic and 1/2 of the Parmesean cheese. Toss the fennel wedges and cut stems into the mixture. Pour into a 9×9 baking dish (or similar). Crack fresh pepper evenly over the top of the gratin.
Bake the fennel for 20 minutes at 375 degrees. While the fennel is baking, melt the butter in a small saucepan. When the butter is melted, add the thyme leaves and let cook for 30 seconds. Add the bread crumbs and mix well.
Turn the oven down to 350 degrees after 20 minutes. Pull out the baking gratin and top with the breadcrumb mixture. Bake for 20 minutes more.
Let cool for a few minutes before serving and garnish with the chopped fennel fronds.