Parmesan Fennel Gratin

Parmesan Fennel Gratin  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Parmesan Fennel Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Surprise Italian Party”

The Set-up: Antonia is coming to visit and Ina is surprising her with an Italian themed dinner party.

The Menu: Balsamic Roasted Beef, Parmesan Fennel Gratin, White Bean Arugula Salad, Parmesan Crisps, Limoncello and Ice Cream with Biscotti, Rossinis

0:51 – I heard a rumor once upon a time that Ina was a spy in a former life and with the level of scheming she does around surprise parties I’m beginning to think there’s some truth there…

1:14 – The party is for her friend Antonia and since she’s Italian that’s the theme of the meal. First up: White Bean Arugula Salad.

2:33 – We head outside with Ina for some rosemary and encounter Michael the Florist. “Ciao, Michael!”

3:05 - Back inside where we learn how Ina met Antonia. In a nutshell: Ina heard that Antonia was fun, so she looked her up and the rest was history!

4:27 – The white beans for the salad are coming together and Ina’s tossing them with roasted red peppers and prosciutto.

5:43 – Now Ina gives us a run down of her Party Pro Tips… #1: Keep it really simple., #2: Do as much ahead of time as possible. #3: Make familiar dishes that you know will turn out right. #4: Combine store bought items with homemade.

6:06 – Ina says that the white beans should never be salted while they’re cooking or it makes them tough.

10:26 – Next up: Parmesan Fennel Gratin and Ina is simplifying the process by essentially cooking the fennel twice. Once with wine and chicken stock to tenderize the vegetables and again at high heat.

11:43 – Outside with Michael the Florist again and he’s decided to “add a little drama to the table.” I can’t wait to hear how…

12:18 – As it turns out he doesn’t mean Real Housewives style with wine throwing, but with fig leaves and whole figs. DRAMA!! Oh, Michael you are a delight.

13:52 – We’re back with Ina to make the crunchy panko topping for the fennel gratin. Impromptu French lesson: “gratin” doesn’t necessarily mean cheese, “gratinée” however is a sure sign cheese is involved.

14:20 – Ina observes that she really prefers fennel cooked instead of raw, isn’t it amazing the difference in flavor you can get through the cooking process?

18:29 – Now we’re working on the centerpiece of the dinner Balsamic Roasted Beef

and Ina’s coating an entire filet of beef with a mustard/balsamic glaze. Mmmmm.

19:13 – She says a friend of hers Brent Newson taught her to make this and that he’s the “best caterer in the Hamptons, which is saying something.” High praise?

20:42 – Now she’s coating the glaze with a heavy layer of cracked black pepper – spicy!

21:30 – Ina joins Michael the Florist outside to see is handiwork and cackle over their plot to make Antonia eat dinner with friends. They are the evil geniuses of fun.

21:51 – Ina says she’ll save him some food - wait a second, is Michael not invited to the party? Antonia was a florist before she moved is there a beef here that never really got squashed. Maybe that’s what he meant by “adding drama to the table…”

22:36 – Now for the hors d’oeuvres - Parmesan Crisps (aka frico) and Ina says these hit three of the points on her Party Pro Tips list: Simple, Tested, Made in Advance. Nice.

26:49 – Cocktail time! Rossinis are a mixture of fresh strawberries pureed until smooth, simple syrup, and orange liqueur mixed with prosecco. Sounds heavenly.

27:22 – The guests have arrived and have their drinks in hand while they wait for the guest of honor to arrive… Antonia seems genuinely surprised and delighted this is so, so sweet.

28:02 – Ina puts the finishing touches on the White Bean and Arugula Salad, slices up the Balsamic Roasted Beef, and pulls the Parmesan Fennel Gratin from the oven. It all looks gorgeous, naturally.

29:54 – Last but not least, dessert (Limoncello and Ice Cream with Biscotti a store bought item) and a toast to Antonia.  

Final Thoughts:
This was a great episode to watch right before we have people come for a little holiday gathering this weekend – I need to keep Ina’s Party Pro Tips in mind!

The Italian theme of this dinner was so subtle and elegant. Not a meatball or piece of garlic bread to be found!

Alas, there was no Michael the Florist in sight at dinner. The petals will have to fly another day.

Parmesan Fennel Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Parmesan Fennel Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
Parmesan Fennel Gratin is really straightforward and essentially combines a braising technique with roasting. For the first 35-45 minutes the wedges of fennel are in a covered dish with white wine and chicken stock, then once the vegetables are sprinkled with the panko topping the oven temperature increases to crisp the bread crumbs and partially caramelize the fennel.

Honestly, the trickiest part is prepping the fennel bulbs and fitting them into the baking dish. Since the fennel will cook down a little during the braising process it’s important to snuggle the wedges in fairly tightly. I’d suggest alternating the wider “stalk” ends with the narrower “frond” ends to get a few more pieces in the dish.

Normally I think Ina’s seasoning is spot on, but with this the black pepper was a little too strong for me. I’d probably add a few more dabs of butter and reduce the pepper to 1/2 teaspoon on the fennel and maybe just 1/4 teaspoon in the topping.

Parmesan Fennel Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Parmesan Fennel Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, indeed. I used a medium cutting board, a large casserole dish, a chef’s knife, a liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, and a microplane grater. That’s it!

The Verdict:
Both Mike and I were shocked how much we loved the roasted fennel in the Roasted Pork Loin with Fennel we had for dinner a few weeks ago, so I was really excited to make Parmesan Fennel Gratin. I liked the results in the gratin and it’s really easy to make, but honestly I preferred the caramelized, roasted version from the pork loin. I’d like to try it again, but with a new version that recaptures the depth of flavor we loved so much.

Parmesan Fennel Gratin      | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Parmesan Fennel Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith