Let’s just blame this one on my (Great) Aunt Marion.
When I was a kid, I loved going to her home for the holidays… because not only would the classic southern holiday favorites be on the table representing nicely and deliciously, there was always a wildcard on the buffet. Aunt Marion would read something in a cookbook or magazine or she would stumble upon an unfamiliar item at the market; she would buy it; and bring it home to cook. The family would approach with some trepidation because, seriously, holidays are not the day to try something new… but that never stopped Aunt Marion. It also never stopped the family from, at least, trying the “newness.” Aunt Marion was a great cook and she was one of those cooks that you trust with whatever she puts on the table; because you know it’s gonna be good and you don’t want to miss out on it.
Every holiday, I set out a wildcard on the buffet table. I sometimes blame it on my boredom to keep from repeating the same traditional holiday foods; I sometimes blame it on using whatever is freshest in the market. The truth of the matter is that putting out a wildcard is a tradition in my family just like having a Baked Smoked Ham at Easter… and for that, I blame my Aunt Marion, my Great-Aunt who was also a great cook.
Easter 2011 Wildcard: Fennel Gratin
Until I became a teenager, I was only familiar with fennel as a spice that flavors Italian sausage. Therefore, when I came across huge fennel bulbs at the market, I was intrigued. Fennel plays a major role in Mediterranean and Italian cooking. It has a crisp, firm texture with a clean, juicy fresh flavor which reminds me of anise and fresh celery. You can eat fennel raw or cooked.
I would become an adult before I would actually buy the fennel bulbs and cook them. Today, fennel, the spice and fresh bulbs, are always present in my cabinet and refrigerator. I use the fennel seeds to flavor fresh pork, chicken, and to top flatbreads, bread sticks, and Foccacia. I thinly slice fresh fennel bulbs and toss it with salad greens, marinated black olives, and orange segments for a salad; I sauté it with green beans; or I cut into quarters, season, roast and serve as a side dish with just a shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano. I worked at a restaurant where they would slowly poach fennel in the oven covered in olive oil… this process rendered the vegetable meltingly sweet and tender and produced a lusciously fragrant fennel spiked olive oil (which can be used for salad dressing, sautéing vegetables, searing fish, or tossed with pasta).
My Recipe: Fennel Gratin w Tarragon and Lemon serves 8 – 10
2 large fennel bulbs, core and stalks removed and thinly sliced, approx 8 cups
1 med yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 garlic clove, finely minced
1 T olive oil
4 T unsalted butter, separated
3 T all-purpose flour
2 c unsweetened soymilk, unsweetened almond milk, or dairy milk
4 oz grated Fontina cheese
2 oz grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 T fresh tarragon, finely chopped
1 T lemon zest
½ c unseasoned breadcrumbs
kosher salt, to taste
ground white pepper, to taste
grated fresh nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375-degrees;
Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; add olive oil; sauté onion until it becomes soft and translucent, approximately 5 minutes; add minced garlic and sliced fennel; sauté until fennel softens, approximately 15 – 20 minutes; season lightly with kosher salt and ground white pepper; set aside and cool
In a sauce pan, add 3 T of unsalted butter; melt over medium heat; add all-purpose flour and thoroughly combine using a whisk; cook mixture for 2 – 3 minutes to make a white roux, stirring constantly
DO NOT ALLOW ROUX TO DARKEN IN COLOR… this will effect presentation and taste
Add soymilk (almond or dairy) to roux, slowly and constantly stirring so that no lumps form; cook mixture over medium-low heat for approximately 6 minutes, constantly stirring, until sauce starts to thicken and no longer tastes like raw flour
The sauce should be thick; but not so think that you can lay a brick with it; if it is too thick; just add a few tablespoons of water to loosen up a little to maintain a creamy, smooth texture
Fold sautéed fennel mixture into the sauce; taste and adjust seasoning accordingly; pour into a shallow casserole dish; and set aside
In a medium sauté pan, melt remaining unsalted butter over medium-high heat; add breadcrumbs, tarragon, and lemon zest; remove from heat and sprinkle over fennel mixture; top with Pecorino Romano; bake for 20 – 25 minutes until the edges are bubbly; and the top is a deep golden brown.
Fennel Gratin was not only my wildcard, it also played the role of the “creamy, cheesy” component of the Easter lunch buffet. I am not a huge fan of macaroni and cheese therefore; I do not make it often. I like to hold out and wait until there is a gift bribe in place before I start shredding the sharp cheddar cheese.
And while making this gratin again will not require a bribe, I think my Great-Aunt Marion would agree after seeing the empty casserole dish that I had played the traditional wildcard nicely and deliciously.
always in good T.A.S.T.E – cause you gottatastethis!