August 26th, 2022
Before I get to the recipe I want to express my thoughts to my fellow Nelsonians reading this. Our city and region have suffered from intense weather this last week with severe flooding and slips. It is going to take a long time to recover with so much damage to properties and infrastructure. A huge ngā mihi / thank you to the Nelson Tasman Civil Defence and emergency response teams who worked tirelessly to ensure everyone’s safety. And also to those who showed up to help others (even complete strangers) to clear mud and silt, and over-burdened drainage pipes. It has been humbling to read and hear the stories this week. Thankfully our property was unaffected, even with a water source at the edge of our property. Although it was definitely touch-and-go at times as the water level rose higher than I (and other locals) have ever seen it. I hope you are doing okay, and if required getting the support you need.
And to the recipe, a simple and comforting vegetable side to add to the menu this week.
Late winter/early spring can be a lean time on the produce front, although the slow-growing winter produce is starting to catch up as the days lengthen and warm. In a week spring will arrive and with it faster growth of all things green – including the weeds! Warming meals are still on the menu while the evenings are cold and dark.
Today I share a creamy savoury gratin using the first of the fennel bulbs from the garden that have finally reached a harvestable size. Fennel bulbs are a garden staple as they seem to thrive in my garden climate, self-germinating around the garden when I leave a few plants to flower into their fabulous umbrella plumage. I have noticed the price of leeks has come down in recent weeks at the vegetable shops (of course this will be somewhat locational), and are of a good size. In this dish I use the whole leek, white part and green leaves – see my tip below for preparing and cleaning.
The recipe uses breadcrumbs, a pantry staple and one that is easy to make at home. With a regular sourdough bread baking routine, I always have fresh bread on hand to whizz up some breadcrumbs for a meal. Here is a quick guide to homemade breadcrumbs – per cup use about 3 slices of bread (can use gluten-free bread).
First, cut away any tough crusts (this will depend on the age and type of bread). Lightly toast the bread slices to dry the crumb a little, then cool completely on a toast rack. Roughly tear the toasted bread and place it into a food processor. Blend into breadcrumbs.
Fresh breadcrumbs are best used fresh. Or they can be frozen in a ziplock bag for 3 months. They can also be dried on a tray in a cooling oven (or set to 50ºC) for 1 hour. Store dried breadcrumbs in a sealed container in the pantry and use within 3 months.
Leek and Fennel Gratin
- ½ cup (125ml) milk (I used oat milk)
- ¼ cup (60ml) cream
- 1 bay leaf (optional)
- 1 large leek (about 400g), greens included
- 1 medium fennel bulb (about 400g)
- 3 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1 tbsp butter
- Salt and cracked pepper
- 2 tsp flour - can use gluten-free
- 40 g about 1 cup loosely packed finely grated parmesan cheese
- 1 cup (about 120g) breadcrumbs (see above for homemade)
- 1 garlic clove, finely grated
- handful of fennel greens, finely chopped
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves or ½ tsp dried
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC (fan 160ºC).
- Pour the milk and cream into a saucepan, add the bay leaf and gently heat until bubbles form at the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat and set aside to infuse.
- Wash the whole leek as described in the introduction, then cut into 1cm slices.
- Remove the stalks from the fennel, setting aside any small tender greens for the crumb. Quarter the bulb, then roughly slice.
- In a shallow ovenproof pan (or cast iron frying pan) heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil and the butter over a moderate heat. Add the prepared produce, season with salt and pepper and saute for 6-8 minutes until softened.
- Sprinkle over the flour, stirring over the heat, then pour in the hot milk and cream (compost the bay leaf). Mix over the heat for 1-2 minutes until the sauce thickens. Check the seasoning adding extra salt or pepper as needed. Remove from the heat and add the grated cheese, stirring until melted.
- In a bowl combine the breadcrumbs, garlic, chopped fennel greens, thyme and remaining 2 tbsp olive oil. Spoon this over the creamy mixture to create an even crumb. Place the pan into the oven and cook for 20 minutes until the crumb is nicely golden and sauce bubbling around the edges. Serve alongside pan-fried fish and roasted vegetables.
*Recipe first published 20th August 2022 on Stuff.co.nz.