This weekend I publicly confirmed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am a vegetable obsessive: in the middle of a relaxing countryside walk I bolted for a mobile farm shop. Not that I really mind; even though I enjoy a good steak or tender, slow-cooked lamb, I could quite happily go vegetarian most of the time. To me, the range of flavours and textures in veggies is something to get excited about. Unfortunately there are still some things I struggle with and, up until very recently, fennel was one. I have successfully overcome taste aversions by constantly having a little taste; I once went from hating rocket to craving it in under a week. And the same thing has just happened with fennel. Little by little I started to enjoy subtle hints of fennel seeds then one day I tasted a fennel and spinach gratin and was instantly smitten. I’ve not been able to get it out of my head ever since. On the back of this success there’s still hope for mushrooms and aubergine!
There’s something very more-ish about the caramelised, sweet fennel covered in cream and the crunchy cheese crust. The flavours are a subtle blend, no one ingredient dominates which makes this perfect introduction for anyone weary of fennel or greens. You can substitute chard or winter greens for the spinach, they all taste delicious. According to the original recipe the gratin is intended to be a side dish (it would be fantastic alongside roasted pork) but my mum and I enjoyed it as a main with chorizo roasted cauliflower and buttered potatoes.
Fennel and spinach gratin
Serves 4 as a side (I halved this for 2)
- 2 bulbs fennel
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp fennel seeds, ground
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 400g spinach or chard
- 100ml creme fraiche
- salt and pepper
- 50g fresh breadcrumbs
- 50g grated parmesan
- zest of 1 lemon
- a handful of parsley, chopped
Peel the tough outer skin from the fennel and cut into 12 thick wedges.
Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan and fry the fennel over a high heat until golden. Turn down the heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes until soft. Stir from time to time and add a little water if the fennel sticks.
Add the ground fennel seeds and garlic and continue to cook for a further 5 minutes.
Meanwhile blanche the spinach for 1-2 minutes in boiling water, strain and dunk in cold water. Wring out as much liquid as possible and chop.
Stir the cooked spinach and creme fraiche into the fennel and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into an oven proof dish.
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan, lemon zest and parsley then sprinkle it over the fennel and spinach.
Bake for 15 minutes until the breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.