Have you ever seen a recipe and knew, even before making it, that you were going to be madly in love with it from the first bite? That’s exactly what happened with it Fennel, carrot and leek gratin. From the first time I did it, I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I did it again the following week, then again shortly after. That was a year ago and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve done it since. And just thinking about and writing about this gratin right now makes me want to drop everything and do it again.
Between the hearty vegetables, the creamy sauce and the crunchy hazelnut filling, it is sublimely cozy and comforting. Plus, it screams fall. But above all, it’s the addition of the fennel – which is the real star of the dish – that wins my heart. If you’re a fennel lover like me, you’re in for a treat with this one, and if you’re still on the fence about fennel, this is the dish that might win you over. My family can attest to that.
What makes this gratin so special?
Of course, there are the gratins which are all about creamy, cheesy goodness and lean towards decadence. But this style isn’t my favorite, and it’s not just gratin. Yes, there’s a creamy sauce here, but it’s more of a supporting role than a main attraction. This dish is everything on vegetables. And although there are three different types (fennel, carrots and leeks), there is no doubt that fennel is the star. I love fennel and have eaten it all over the place, but nothing beats this method. Fine strands are baked into a soft, tender tenderness, softening its once assertive flavor. Accompanied by carrots, herbs, pecans and crunchy breadcrumbs, it goes from very good to totally extraordinary. And it’s not just me who thinks so.
A New Tradition of Thanksgiving
I knew from the first time I did it last fall that I had to include it on our Thanksgiving table. The very thought of sliding my turkey into the creamy sauce and loading a carrot and a sprig of fennel onto my fork made my mouth water. In theory, it sounds like a simple task to add another side to the menu. But you see, my family is made up of Thanksgiving traditionalists through and through. Feed them sage and herb stuffing, classic mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, green beans with almonds, cranberry sauce and crispy roasted Brussels sprouts, and they’ll be happy at possible. They don’t want jokers (when I made a Thanksgiving Salad, I was the only one to touch him; same Ina’s Green Bean Gremolata did not go well).
And this is where I feel a bit conflicted. I host my family every year for Thanksgiving, and I find it extremely important to cook and serve a meal that the whole family enjoys. At least most of the time. But in doing so, I sometimes feel like I’m excluding myself. I love the classics as much as my family, but I also like to incorporate something new that I really loving and feeling excited.
That’s exactly what I did last year. I made a fennel gratin, provided for all the ways I’d eat leftovers (it’s great with a fried egg!), then slipped it leisurely onto our Thanksgiving table. My husband, whose love for fennel continues to blossom and who had had this side a handful of times before, mentioned to my mom (another fennel lover) that she had to try it. Heads lifted around the table to see what it was all about. And after my mother used it for my grandmother, other parents started trying it. The leftovers that excited me never arrived, because before long the casserole was empty.
For those around the table who had never tried fennel or weren’t quite sure, this was a great starter dish. And it’s all thanks to the familiar carrot slices.