Did you know that the term gratin originally referred to the crust that adhered to the cooking receptacle and was scraped off? Its derivation is from the French word gratté which means scraped or scratched.
Now a gratin is more commonly referred to when describing the golden crust that forms on the surface of a dish when it is browned in the oven or put under a grill. A gratin is also associated with toppings of cheese, breadcrumbs or egg and breadcrumbs. As a method it’s a great way to protect the food underneath the crust from overcooking or drying out, whilst creating an intense flavour, and sometimes crunchy texture, on top.
This gratin is a French classic (although it wouldn’t look out of place in Italy) using the combination of ripened tomatoes, the wonderfully aniseed-like fennel and of course being of Gallic origin, garlic. It is topped off with a crunchy and cheesy topping which wowed my other half and two ankle biters.
Serves: 4 as a side or 2 as a main. | Preparation: 20 minutes | Cooking: 35 minutes
For the filling:
1kg Fennel bulbs | Note that the total yield of fennel will be less once the core, stems and outer layer have been removed.
1 Large Red onion | Thinly sliced.
½kg Ripened tomatoes | Use nice ripe tomatoes such as a Roma or a beefsteak tomato. No need to use heirloom or anything similarly luxuriant.
2 cloves Garlic | Crushed.
4 tbsp. Olive oil |
For the topping:
60g Coarse bread crumbs | I make my own. For this recipe I used multigrain bread blitzed in a food processor until the breadcrumbs were coarse. White bread can be used.
70g Grana Padano cheese | This cheese is not as strong as Reggiano Parmesan, but still adds a strong bitey edge to the topping. Ensure that it is made in Italy if you want great flavour.
1 small lemon Lemon zest | Grated.
1 clove Garlic | Crushed.
Preheat your oven to 200 deg. C (400 deg. F). Put the kettle on to boil. Take a 21 cm square gratin dish and grease it with butter or olive oil.
To prepare the fennel remove the stems, fronds and any tired looking outer layers. Remove any tough core at the bottom of the fennel bulb. Cut the fennel length ways and then thinly slice.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a low to medium heat. Add the onion and soften for about 4 or 5 minutes. It’s important not to brown the onion as browning will impart a deep caramelised flavour that doesn’t work with this dish. Now add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the fennel and cook this until it has softened and has taken on a golden hue. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes.
The kettle should have boiled by now. Take the tomatoes and carefully score the bases with a cross. I do this with a small sharp paring knife. Put the tomatoes in a bowl and pour over the hot water from the kettle. Leave for about 25 seconds and then remove the tomatoes carefully and plunge them into a bowl of cold water (with ice). If the tomatoes were ripe the skins will be gagging to be removed. Peel the tomatoes, roughly chop them and add them to the fennel and onion. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft. Season and taste; as French chefs will tell you “taste, taste, taste!”
For the topping add the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, lemon zest and crushed garlic to a bowl. Mix with that fine tool they call the hand.
Line the gratin dish with the cooked vegetables and evenly sprinkle the gratin topping over them. Put the gratin in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the topping looks golden brown (easier to see with white breadcrumbs) and has a crispy texture. Serve immediately. Bon appétit!
– I served this with a pan fried pork loin chops (these have the characteristic T-bone shape).