Finocchio. Italian for Fennel. But I think of it in my head as “Fin-noch”, as the person who introduced me to it was Sicilian, and they seem to have a habit of dropping the last vowels from words. She served it in thin wedges, often just handed to you, after a meal as a digestive. “Mangia, Mangia, the fin-noch, hace la calma de estomago.” The fennel calms the stomach. I have no idea if there’s any truth to it, but she believed it did, so we did. It did seem to make just a bit more room in there for cannoli. Fennel has made itself known on a much wider scale now. You can buy it in almost any grocery store, and find hundreds of ways to cook and prepare it. I’m a bit stuck in a rut with it, repeating favorite preparations over again and again. I love it sliced thinly into salads, and am crazy for a softly braised version I do, and this one. But I almost always cut a bit off to nibble on while I’m cooking, you know, to “calma de estomago”.
I rarely break out the mandoline, but I truly believe that the paper-thin slices you can get from one enhances the dish. Texturally, they seem to melt a bit into each other which in my mind makes the flavor more integrated. You still taste both the fennel and potato, but it’s not sharp, distinctive bites of each. But by all means, break out the knife and slice away if you don’t want or have one to use. The recipe will be just as delicious. I would also use your prettiest oven to table dish that you have, a casserole, a gratin dish, whatever you have will work, I just wouldn’t try to bake it in one dish and then transfer it to a serving dish. The prep work on this is the longest part of it, after that, this gets put together in a few minutes. I’m confident you’ll enjoy this dish, as will anyone you serve it to. A toasty melting top with the comforting taste of potatoes and cream, balanced by a light, herby flavor working its way past the cheese. Final disclaimer: It’s very rich. Yes, it has cheese, cream, and butter. No, you shouldn’t eat this every day, nor should you eat the whole thing in one sitting. Yes, it’s not going to be a part of any known diet plan. But make it anyway, try it, and then make it when you’re having friends over or celebrating something with a decadent meal.
Let me know how this works for you. Did you do anything differently and how did it do? I’d love to hear your variations.
- 2 small fennel bulbs
- 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 pounds russet or Yukon gold potatoes (about 4 or 5 big potatoes)
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 2 1/2 cups grated Gruyère cheese (1/2 pound)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon of hot sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Butter the inside of a 10-by-15-by-2-inch (10-cup) baking dish.
Remove the stalks from the fennel and cut the bulbs in half lengthwise. Remove the cores and thinly slice the bulbs crosswise, making approximately 4 cups of sliced fennel. Saute the fennel and onions in the olive oil and butter on medium-low heat for 15 minutes, until tender.
Peel the potatoes, then thinly slice them by hand or with a mandoline. Mix the sliced potatoes in a large bowl with 2 cups of cream, 2 cups of Gruyère, salt, pepper, hot sauce, mustard and nutmeg. Add the sautéed fennel and onion and mix well.
Pour the potatoes into the baking dish. Press down to smooth the potatoes. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of cream and 1/2 cup of Gruyère and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 1 1/2 hours, until the potatoes are very tender and the top is browned and bubbly. Allow to set for 20 minutes and serve.
Notes: This can be made a day ahead and reheated, covered for 30 minutes in 350 degree oven. Before you put it in the oven, take a spoon and at the corner pull a bit away from the side of the pan and peek down to see how moist it looks. If it still looks very creamy, put it in as is, if it looks a little dry (the potatoes can absorb more liquid sometimes) then slowly pour about 1/4 cup of half n half around the outside of the dish and poke some small holes in the middle and pour over. You want a moist and creamy dish.
If Gruyère is outrageously priced where you are, then use swiss cheese. You might want to cut it back just a bit as the flavor is stronger yet. If you don’t like the strong flavor, Emmental or Comte’ would be wonderful. Actually, any cheese you like would be okay. Gruyère is my choice and I think it sets off the other flavors as well. Again, your dish, your choice. Have fun!
Adapted from Ina Garten – Barefoot Contessa