French in a Flash: Crispy Creamy Fennel Gratin


[Photograph: Kerry Saretsky]

I have not forgotten the first time I, as a six-year-old vegetarian, stuffed my first bite of potato gratin Dauphinoise into my mouth at La Duchesse Anne near Woodstock, New York. So memorable was the occasion that I continued ordering the side dish as a main course for the next 23 years. But now that I know how to cook for myself, and it's been almost 25 years, I thought it might be time to brush up the old classic and give it a bit of edge.

This is not a hard dish—not nearly as hard to get right as the original potato version. But it's different, and I like that. Instead of potatoes, start with anise-scented, crisp, bright fennel, thinly sliced. Heat that briefly in cream thinned slightly with water, and cover under a snug blanket of breadcrumbs, Pecorino Romano, and herbs. Bake until the fennel is soft and mellow, the cream is bubbling, and the topping is a crispy crust.

Fresh from the oven, this dish is not as heavy as the original scalloped potato, but it's still comforting while being light and complex. It's the perfect side next to a grilled steak, or, in my childhood fashion, as the main event accompanied by a fresh green salad.

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