Fennel Gratin

I haven’t transformed this blog into a cookbook review, but seeing as February’s one of those months when people choose to dine in* more often than out, I thought I would tell you about this one. No doubt the best cookbook we’ve been given in the last year (thanks Mum), the Balthazar cookbook presents the very best of Franco-NY-bistro fare as expertly executed in the establishments of Keith McNally across the pond. I have to warn you that you will salivate whilst perusing its pages. Wear a bib.

The below is a recipe from the book which we can’t leave alone. It is such a simple vegetable dish, it makes you wonder how you’d ever managed without it. Velvety and comforting, it warms one’s very core with its fragrant creaminess, going very well alongside roast meat and dark green vegetables, with baked fish and counterbalancing the salt on a crispy roast pork belly…with anything, really – or perhaps, on a duvet night, all on its own.

I feel a little guilty about how I’ve neglected the cauliflower cheese combo since meeting this one, but it is ever so slightly more sophisticated whilst remaining as simple. It employs another champion of the vegetable patch that withstands this chilly side of the year: fennel.

Fennel Gratin (Serves 6)

6 fennel bulbs, outer layer removed, cut into slices 5mm thick
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper (black will do)
125ml double cream
60g Gruyère cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/Gas Mark 4.
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and blanch the sliced fennel for 5 minutes. Drain, toss with the salt and pepper and spread into a buttered 15x25cm casserole or gratin dish. Pour in the cream, toss to coat, then settle the fennel into an even layer. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle the grated Gruyère over the top and slip the dish under the grill until the cheese browns to a crisp coating, about 3 minutes.

fennel gratin

* You may notice that the pictures this week do not do the fennel justice (above was nicked from the book – hence grainier than the real thing). I could have sworn I took some but I can’t immediately find them. You will probably get them with a recipe for pavlova, in July. Instead, scattered are some pics of the magnificent Hansen & Lydersen smoked salmon (more about that soon) and some other bits that the BSG and I ate on Feb 14th. We dined in, handsomely.

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Marmaladies

Adieu, grey January; Monday of the year, full of food-guilt, short-lived resolutions and tax self-assessments. Only a week old, February already seems a little brighter and with this, the first truly sunny day of the year, the spirits are lifting and thoughts are turning to the great outdoors. In fact, I am sure that the birds are singing just a bit louder today.

Of course, January wasn’t all bad. There was the sparkle of a few important birthdays, an engagement and the first instalment of what’s to be an annual ritual: a marmalade cook-up with Ma-BSG (let’s just call her Lady Marmalade). This is an inner circle I am proud to be part of; each February her amber jars are eagerly awaited by regular lucky recipients.

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We used a secret family recipe (yup, I’d have to kill you), which employed nice old-fashioned things like muslin but this one in Skye Gyngell’s wonderful new book How I Cook will do nicely as it looks like typical, sunny, Antipodean simplicity and she always makes beautiful things (even her name is pretty). Roll on you summer days, so I can get me to her wonderful cafe at Petersham Nurseries and sip wine under the canopy amongst the flowerpots.

Please, PLEASE don’t shirk on the sugar (I did and ended up adding it later) – I know it seems an awful lot but those Seville oranges are bitter critters so it won’t be over-sweet and besides, the sugar has to fulfil the much useful task of SETTING the jam; you do not want goop. You will make a lot of marmalade, but it makes great presents and puddings, is fab with cheese, sausages or bacon and if all else fails just eat it à la Paddington Bear.

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Seville Orange Marmalade 
(makes about 2.5kg – that’s a lot of jars. Time to clean out that fridge…)

1 kg Seville oranges
3 litres water
2 pinches of salt
About 2kg caster sugar

Scrub the oranges clean then finely slice the fruit into pinwheels, using a sharp knife, leaving on the skin but removing all pips and the central pithy membrane.

Put the fruit, water and salt into a large preserving pan and place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer gently until the peel is soft; this will take 1.5-2 hours. Remove form the heat and leave to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a large ceramic or glass bowl, cover and leave to stand in cool place for 24 hours.

The following day, measure the fruit and water into a clean preserving pan. Bring to the boil and for every cupful of mixture, add a cupful of sugar. Bring back to the boil.

Cook steadily for 20 minutes or so until setting point is reached. To check, put a teaspoonful of the marmalade onto a chilled saucer. (Make sure you take the pan off the heat first and let the mixture catch its breath here.) Leave it for a minute, then push with your finger – if the surface wrinkles and the marmalade appears to be setting it is ready. Take off the heat and remove any scum from the surface with a skimming spoon.

Leave to stand for 5 minutes then stir gently to distribute the fruit. Spoon into warm sterilised jars (wash them thoroughly then stand them on a baking tray in a cool oven for 20 minutes) filling them almost to the top. Cover the surface with a wax-paper disc or baking parchment and allow to cool, then seal the jars and store in a cool, dark, dry place (the BSG’s prize pickle shelf has had to be reorganised).

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