Hands down, one of our most favorite side dishes ever! American chef and cookbook author David Tanis‘ homey but sophisticated Cheesy and Creamy Fennel Gratin casserole, incorporates fresh mozzarella, fennel seed, garlic, crushed red pepper and rosemary, plus a hearty glug of olive oil to help the flavors meld in the oven.
To avoid stringy and tough cooked fennel, David explains in his latest book, “David Tanis Market Cooking,” to blanch the fennel for a few minutes, drain, then run under cold water, a process that just barely tenderizes the fennel slices. The result, after baking, strikes the ideal balance between toothsome bite and jammy caramelized onion.
Since many supermarket mozzarellas lack the creaminess of harder-to-find fresh, Milk Street (where we found this recipe) opts for a blend of shredded fontina and provolone. And mixing Parmesan into panko breadcrumbs creates a solid crust that contrasts with the tender fennel beneath. Finally, a sprinkle of fresh parsley adds a pop of color and grassy notes to balance the cheese. This simple combination elevates the dish into something much more than the sum of its parts, and was a perfect compliment to our rack of lamb entrée.
Important: Don’t use a baking dish or pan that is not broiler safe. After baking, the gratin spends a couple minutes under the broiler to brown the topping, so be sure the vessel can withstand the intense heat.
Cheesy and Creamy Fennel Gratin
- 4 medium fennel bulbs (about 2½ lbs. total), halved lengthwise, cored and sliced about ¼ inch thick
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tsp. fennel seeds, lightly crushed
- 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 1 1/2 oz. Parmesan cheese, finely grated (¾ cup)
- 1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 4 oz. fontina cheese, shredded (1 cup)
- 4 oz. provolone cheese, shredded (1 cup)
- 1/3 cup lightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Heat the oven to 450°F with a rack in the upper-middle position.
- In a large pot, bring 2 quarts water to a boil. Add the fennel and 1 tablespoon salt, then cook for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse under running cold water until cool to the touch. Shake the colander to remove as much water as possible, then lay the slices out on a kitchen towel and thoroughly pat them dry.
- In a 9-by-13-inch broiler-safe baking dish, toss together the fennel, oil, rosemary, fennel seeds, pepper flakes and ¼ teaspoon each salt and black pepper; distribute in an even layer.
- Roast until beginning to brown and a skewer inserted into the fennel meets no resistance, 25 to 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the Parmesan, panko and garlic.
- Remove the baking dish from the oven and turn on the broiler. Evenly distribute the fontina and provolone over the top of the fennel, then sprinkle on the Parmesan-panko mixture.
- Broil until the top is nicely browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.
Adapted by Calvin Cox for Milk Street