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.
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.
LOVE this main dish inspired by classic Eastern European cabbage rolls. The super-cozy bake from recipe developer Asha Loupy takes a spin from the lasagna handbook—a Polish Lasagna if you will. Blanched cabbage leaves are stacked with spiced beef ragù and lemony herbed rice for a casserole that’s chock-full of all the flavors of cabbage rolls, without the rolling.
Asha shows us two tricks for the perfect cabbage roll casserole—no mushy rice or soggy bottoms here, thank you. First, reduce the tomatoes until they reach a thick, almost paste-like consistency. This ensures that you’ll get neat slices, without a runny, liquidy sauce. Second, parboil the rice (as you would for tahdig or biryani) and sprinkle it lightly between the layers. This gives the grains room to cook to fluffy perfection while baking.
It took both of us two full hours from start to finish, so it’s not necessarily a quick, easy weeknight meal. However, some make-aheads are the meat sauce, parboiling the rice, and blanching the cabbage leaves up to three days ahead. Cover and chill separately. Then when ready, assemble the casserole just before baking.
If you are not a red meat eater, switch out the ground beef for ground turkey or even plant-based meat to make it vegetarian.
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for pan
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1 large head of savoy or green cabbage
1¼ cups long-grain rice (such as basmati)
1 lemon, zested over cooked rice (see Step 7)
8 oz. crème fraîche
8 oz. shredded, low-moisture mozzarella
Heat oven to 400°. Start by prepping the beef filling. Coarsely chop 1 large bunch dill (you should get about ¾ cup), then crush and finely chop 3 large garlic cloves. Transfer a third of dill and a third of garlic to a large bowl. Add 1½ lb. ground beef or plant-based meat, 1½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¾ kosher salt, and ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper and mix with your hands to incorporate. Set remaining dill and garlic aside separately.
Heat 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-high until shimmering. Add half of beef mixture, dropping into pot in small clumps. Cook, undisturbed, until deeply browned underneath, about 5 minutes (or about 3 minutes if using plant-based meat). Stir and continue to cook 1 minute (it’s okay if the meat is not fully cooked through, it’ll finish cooking in the sauce). Using a slotted spoon, transfer beef to a plate. Repeat with remaining beef mixture. Wipe out pot.
While the meat is cooking, finely chop 1 large onion.
Heat 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil in same pot over medium. Add onion and remaining 1½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¾ tsp. Morton kosher salt. Cook onion, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until softened and starting to turn golden, 6–8 minutes. Add ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon, and reserved garlic, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds.
Return beef mixture to pot and add one 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes. Break up meat and tomatoes into smaller pieces with spoon. Add ½ cup water and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is cooked off and mixture is just a little looser than tomato paste, 20–25 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, line a large rimmed baking sheet with kitchen towels and bring a medium pot of generously salted water to a boil. Using a paring knife, cut about 1″ deep circle around core of 1 large head of savoy or green cabbage. Gently pull off 16–20 cabbage leaves, cutting away from core if needed. (Save any extra cabbage for another use.) Cut a small V in the bottom of each leaf, about ½” big, to remove the thickest part of the fibrous stalk. Working in batches of 3–4 leaves at a time, cook cabbage until just pliable, 10–15 seconds. Transfer to prepared baking sheet with tongs. Pat leaves dry.
Return water to a boil, add rice, and cook, stirring occasionally, until barely al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain rice and rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking. Shake rice well to remove most of the water, then transfer to a medium bowl. Finely grate zest of 1 lemon on Microplane over rice and add reserved dill; mix well to combine.
Rub bottom and sides of a 9×13″ deep lasagna dish with oil. Cover bottom of dish with a single layer of cabbage leaves, overlapping slightly. Set ½ cup sauce aside and spread half of remaining sauce over cabbage. Sprinkle half of rice mixture evenly over sauce. Top with another layer of cabbage leaves, then remaining half of sauce, and remaining rice. Top with a final layer of cabbage leaves.
Spread 8 oz. crème fraîche evenly over cabbage. Dollop reserved sauce on top. Grate 8 oz. low-moisture mozzarella on the large holes of a box grater and sprinkle over. Cover dish with foil and set on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes. Uncover dish and increase oven temperature to 425°. Continue to bake until cheese is golden brown and bubbling, 18–20 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving. Garnish lightly with dill fronds.
Any leftovers can be cooled, sliced into squares, packed in lock-n-locks with a tight lid and refrigerated for up to 5 days.
Do ahead: Meat sauce can be made, rice can be parboiled, and cabbage leaves can be blanched 3 days ahead. Cover and chill separately. Assemble casserole just before baking.
Here’s a lighter version of Eggplant Involtini that focuses on the eggplant. Baking instead of frying allows you to skip the salting and draining step, since the eggplant’s excess moisture evaporates in the oven, and it means that the eggplant’s flavor and meaty texture are not obscured by oil and breading. This was sooo good, we can’t wait to make it again!
Swapping the usual ricotta-heavy filling for one that’s boosted with a generous dose of Pecorino Romano means we can use less filling without sacrificing flavor. Lastly, make a simple but complementary tomato sauce in a skillet, add the eggplant bundles to it, and finish it under the broiler, which decreases the number of dishes required—always a plus in our book!
Of course we put our own spin on the dish, first by utilizing the pieces of eggplant cut away before planking them. What a waste it would be to discard all of that—about 3 cups worth! So we cubed those leftover pieces into about a 3/8″ dice and sautéed them in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil until softened before adding the tomatoes to the same skillet.
Now here comes the real twist. We added very thin slices of prosciutto on top of the eggplant slices before spooning on the cheese filling. Of course this step makes it no longer vegetarian, but that extra ingredient added even more depth of flavor. And we served ours with a side of gemelli pasta, which negates the low-carb factor, if you’re not concerned with that aspect.
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, hand crushed coarsely in their juices
1 slice hearty white sandwich bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
8 oz. whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 ½ oz. grated Pecorino Romano cheese
¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
4 oz. very thin slices of prosciutto, cut in half crosswise (optional)
Slice each eggplant lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick planks (you should have 12-15 planks). Trim rounded surface from each end piece so it lies flat.
Cut up those leftover rounded pieces into a 3/8″ dice and sauté them in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil in your large skillet until softened, about 5 minutes.
Adjust 1 oven rack to lower-middle position and second rack 8 inches from broiler element. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and spray generously with vegetable oil spray. Arrange eggplant slices in single layer on prepared sheets. Brush 1 side of eggplant slices with 2 1/2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Flip eggplant slices and brush with 2 1/2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Bake until tender and lightly browned, 30 to 35 minutes, switching and rotating sheets halfway through baking. Let cool for 5 minutes. Using thin spatula, flip each slice over. Heat broiler.
While eggplant planks cook, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the diced eggplant in same broiler-safe skillet over medium-low heat until just shimmering. Add garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in hand crushed tomatoes and their juice. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Cover and set aside.
Pulse bread in food processor until finely ground, 10 to 15 pulses. Combine bread crumbs, ricotta, 1/2 cup Pecorino, 1/4 cup basil, lemon juice, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in medium bowl.
With widest ends of eggplant slices facing you, place a half slice of prosciutto, if using, on the wide end of each plank. Next, evenly distribute ricotta mixture on bottom third of each slice. Gently roll up each eggplant slice and place seam side down in tomato sauce.
Bring sauce to simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 5 minutes. Transfer skillet to oven and broil until eggplant is well browned and cheese is heated through, 5 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Pecorino and let stand for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon basil and serve.