YOU GUYS. WE DID IT. We made it to SPRING.
No matter how much we love winter—and we do—there’s always a sense of accomplishment when we make it through another one and spot the first daffodils on the other side.
And that same moment is right about the time we get the urge to start cooking for sunnier days, for evenings that don’t require 5 or 6 layers of clothes (several of them sweaters) just to run to the car or walk down the block, and for the crops of produce that are starting to pop onto the market scene. One warm afternoon sets something off in us: the need for something new, something fresh, something springy—in color and flavor.
So we go green (and a little purple). And herby. And tangy. We grab: fennel, spring onions, thyme, potatoes, lemon, and cheese—wonderfully salty and sharp goat’s milk feta.
And though we’re dreaming of summer fairs and jean shorts and snow cones already, there’s still a chill in the air, so we layer everything up and make the whole thing a little creamy for something that’s hearty, but still packed with flavor and freshness.
Gratins are beautiful things. They’re easy but look gorgeous, they come together snappily but they keep you satisfied long after you clear the plates. And they can be made out of all sorts of things—most of which are usually pretty inexpensive. All great stuff.
Need to use up the mix of vegetables floating around your fridge? Got a little cheese? Gratin. Want to make something impressive and tasty for guests, but don’t want to be in the kitchen when they arrive? Gratin. Need to bring something awesome to a potluck? Gratin. Want something that will fill you up but won’t empty your wallet? Gratin.
There are gratins for all occasions and seasons, for sure, but this one’s our pick for spring: delicate flavors perked up with some zest and crunch—filling and a little decadent, but still bright. And if you’re not sure you like fennel? This is definitely the way to find out that you do. It’s mild and delicious, and once you’re sold on it, you’ll find yourself throwing it into all kinds of dishes.
* * * *
Spring Gratin with Feta, Fennel + Lemony Bread Crumbs
Notes: If you can’t find goat’s milk feta, cow’s milk or sheep’s milk feta will work deliciously, too!
- 1 shallow 2-quart casserole dish
- A mandoline is useful, but not necessary (we don’t always use ours for this)
- A large sauté pan
For the gratin
- 3 1/2 pounds (about 3 large) russet potatoes, scrubbed, sliced into 1/16-inch thick rounds with skin on
- 3 bulbs of fennel, thinly sliced, core removed, with some fronds reserved and chopped
- 1 tbs fresh thyme
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 3/4 pound goat’s milk feta, crumbled
- 2 bunches spring onions (ours was just under a pound), sliced vertically into quarters, then chopped into 2-inch pieces
- 1 1/2 cups half & half or whole milk
- 4 cloves garlic, grated (a microplane works great here) or crushed and minced
- salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper to taste
For the bread crumb topping
- 3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- zest of one lemon
- 1 tbs butter
- salt and black pepper to taste
* Pre-heat oven to 375 °F. Grease your casserole dish with butter and set aside.
* Sauté spring onions and fennel together in olive oil over medium heat. Season with salt and black pepper, and cook until softened, about 20 minutes. Stir in fresh thyme and set aside.
* While the onions and fennel are cooking, add the milk or half & half, a nice pinch of cayenne pepper, and garlic into a small pot and warm over low heat. Stir occasionally until the milk is hot (but not boiling!) and the garlic becomes fragrant. This will happen fairly quickly. Remove from heat and set aside to steep.
* In your casserole dish, layer:
- 1/3 of the potato slices, sprinkled with a pinch of salt and a pinch of black pepper, followed by
- 1/2 of the fennel-onion mixture, topped with
- 1/3 of the feta, sprinkled with some fennel fronds
* Repeat this layering a second time, then top with a final top layer of potatoes, sprinkled with a little salt and pepper.
* Pour the garlic-infused half & half or milk evenly over the gratin. Scatter the last of the feta on top.
* Cover the casserole dish with a piece of parchment paper, then wrap tightly with foil. Bake for 1 hour.
* Meanwhile, make the bread crumb topping: Toast bread crumbs and zest in melted butter over medium heat. Stir to coat the crumbs evenly with butter, and continue stirring to keep from burning. When the bread crumbs are golden brown, remove from heat and pour into a bowl. Season with salt and black pepper. Once they’ve cooled, stir in Parmesan. Set aside.
* When the gratin has baked for an hour, remove the foil and parchment and bake for another 20 minutes uncovered or until the potatoes are tender. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the potatoes and feta and bake for 15 minutes more.
* Let the gratin rest and cool a little for about 10–15 minutes so it doesn’t fall apart when you slice it. Garnish with remaining fennel fronds, and serve.
© 2015 Lee and Lou Cook. All rights reserved.