Blog

Fennel and Ham Gratin

Last Wednesday, when I was running my errands at the Greenmarket, I saw a couple of fantastic items that inspired me to create a dish that I’d been wanting to try: Fennel and Ham Gratin.  Arcadian Pastures had this gorgeous ham on display.  Their other meats looked great as well, and they are on my list to try the next time I have those items on my shopping list.  To me, you really can taste the difference when using organic and humanely-raised meats in your dishes.

Another item that has been cropping up in the market the past few weeks is fennel.  I managed to find a double-bulbed one, sort of like a double-yolked egg, I guess.  Fennel, like leeks, is one of those vegetables that I didn’t really get to know until I lived in Europe, where it appears more often in various dishes.  This certainly wasn’t something that my parents would dare try on us as kids.  They preferred to keep to the green beans-peas-corn-salad rotation.

When I lived in Italy, an older woman who took in students from the program on which I was studying would have a family lunch on Sundays.  She would have her boarders, some of her own family members, and various guests to come over for lunch.  There, she would fix more traditional Bolognese homestyle (or casalinga) recipes.  One day, she made a sort of a Fennel Gratin.  Being a guest, and adhering to my mother’s iron-clad rules about proper behavior even thousands of miles away, I politely took a serving and tasted it.  I don’t really like licorice so I had been intimidated by this vegetable; however, when cooked, it develops a subtle, mellow anise flavor, and we became friends at first bite.

For this dish, I wanted to pair that property of the fennel with the meatiness of the ham.  To pull it together, I decided to wrap it all in a flavored Béchamel and to top it with some great cheese that I had also found at the Greenmarket.  Valley Shepherd Creamery sells a variety of styles of these products, some of which are close in flavor to more traditional European trademarked ones.  Their display every week just draws me in, even as I try to limit my overall dairy consumption due to dietary concerns.  I opted to use the cheese that was closest to Comté.

Then, it was just really a matter of pulling everything together in one dish and throwing it into the oven so that the cheese could get a gooey and melted.  In one bite, you get the meaty, smoky ham with the slightly licorice-y perfume of the softened fennel all wrapped around creamy wonderful sauce.  I wish my parents had served us every vegetable dish this way.  All that is really needed to accompany it is a side green salad and some crusty bread.
Fennel and Ham Gratin

Prep Time: 25 minutes to prep and make Béchamel
Serving Size: 4 portions

Ingredients:
Butter to grease pan
2 cups Fennel Bulbs, sliced*
1 cup chopped, sliced Ham
1/2 cup Comté or Gruyère Cheese, grated
Béchamel recipe (see below)

Assembly:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit / 180 degrees Centigrade / Gas Mark 4.  Butter an 8-inch by 8-inch pan.  I highly recommend using this technique.  Toss together sliced fennel and ham in the pan.

Pour the Béchamel over the fennel and ham mixture, making sure to cover everything.  Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top.

Place in the oven, uncovered for 25 minutes.  Check at this point to make sure that the top of the dish has not gotten too dark or the cheese has not started to burn.  If not, leave for another five minutes and then remove from the oven.  Let it sit for five minutes before serving.

Fennel and Ham Gratin

Béchamel (classic white sauce) – for step-by-step photos on how to make it see here

Prep Time: 10-15 minutes

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups Whole Milk (do not use low-fat or skim)
1 clove Garlic, peeled and cut in half
1/4 Onion, peeled and cut in half
1 Bay Leaf
1 pinch ground Nutmeg
3 Tbsp Unsalted Butter
1/4 cup Flour
1/2 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp Pepper (white is preferable but not mandatory)

Assembly:

Make the Infused Milk by putting the milk, garlic, onion, bay leave and nutmeg into a small saucepan and cooking it over low heat until small bubbles start to form around the edges.  Do not let the milk come to a boil!  Pour the milk mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a heat-proof measuring cup and set aside to add into the roux for the Béchamel.

When the milk is ready to be removed from heat, the bubbles will look like this.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour and let cook for 2-3 minutes until it is completely incorporated into the butter, and the mixture is very light golden brown, do not let it get too dark. This is a roux.

Gradually add the milk, at first one tablespoon at a time. Whisk into the roux. Let all the milk get absorbed into the butter-flour mixture. It will start to resemble the paste that you used in elementary (primary) school. Do not let it stick to the pan; add more milk if this happens and stir.Using a non-stick pan is not necessary, but paying attention to it is.

Then, continue to add more milk, still one tablespoon at a time. Whisk constantly.  As it is soaked up into the roux after each addition, it slowly becomes creamier and smoother. At this stage, it looks like a purée.  At this point, it is possible to start adding the milk in slightly greater amounts, until all the milk has been added.

Continue to stir thoroughly after each addition of milk or the sauce will develop lumps. After all the milk has been added, continue to whisk mixture and let cook for 2-3 minutes more until it starts to bubble. Remove from the heat.  Add salt and pepper. Taste.

*Kitchen Witch Tips:
I had no idea what to do with the fennel stems and fronds that were left from the bulbs.  I used as much of the stems as seemed tender and then was left with a pile of debris in my sink that wafted a licorice-like aroma through my apartment (I know, I can hear the black jellybean lovers in my family exclaiming: “You say that like that’s a bad thing!”).  Fortunately, Serious Eats had already addressed this topic, and readers weighed in with what to do with these leftovers.  Their responses are here.