After a long weekend of excess (crab cakes, scrapple *gasp*, and Hershey kisses at the beach with dear friends; a four-course 30th birthday dinner capped off by chocolate cake from Billy's; croque madame and attitude for Sunday brunch followed by bottles of beer and our first run of Ben's backyard grill on Sunday afternoon... are you feeling ill yet? I know I am), I was in dire need of a healthy meal to reassure me that I wasn't about to die of a coronary at the ripe old age of 28. I scoured my binders for something to fit the bill.
Sometimes a recipe comes along that is just what it seems: straightforward to prepare, reasonably healthy, and tasty to boot. There isn't much to say about recipes like that, and I often ignore them on the blog, in favor of food that packs a bigger punch. But it isn't fair to those simpler recipes, and I often find that people in search of easy cooking are partial to that kind of food anyway. Luckily for me, the recipe I chose to make was all of the above, and just the ticket for dinner.
The LA Times reviewed Diane Morgan's Thanksgiving cookbook several years ago, and excerpted a few of her recipes in the paper, including one for a gratin of fennel and tomatoes. Although this is apparently meant to be a holiday dish, I found it just as delicious in spring (though I do see how perfect it would taste alongside a roasted bird and a few dozen other dishes). It's quite flavorful, but the cooked fennel is creamier and less aggressive than its raw version. Combined with the tomatoes and onions and garlic, it melds into a soothing, yet healthy dish.
One change I'd make is to toast the breadcrumbs in some olive oil or butter so that when the gratin bakes in the oven, the topping crisps up instead of staying dusty and dry. Eating a plateful of this for dinner with a slice of bread made me (and my arteries) feel right as rain.
Gratin of Fennel and Tomato
Serves 10 as a side dish
3/4 cup dried bread crumbs
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, halved and cut in 1/4-inch slices
6 fennel bulbs, trimmed of stalks, halved, cored and cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 (28-ounce) can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toast the breadcrumbs in an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. Heat the onion in a very large (16-inch) skillet over medium heat, and swirl to coat the pan. Cook the garlic and onion until soft, but not brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the fennel and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the fennel has softened and is beginning to brown, about 20 to 25 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a shallow 3-quart oven-to-table casserole or gratin dish.
4. Combine the breadcrumbs, grated cheese and lemon zest in a bowl and sprinkle evenly over the fennel mixture. The gratin can be made up to this point 6 to 8 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate, then bring to room temperature before baking.
5. Bake the gratin until heated through and the topping is crisp, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.