Fennel and apple parmesan gratin
While many of you may have had the good sense to use the last month or two to rein in the eating and drinking, to prepare body and mind for the impending onslaught of midweek work parties, batch mincepie baking and excessive eating, I failed to do so. As a result, I don’t feel at all prepared for the festive season. But ‘tis the first of December and, ready or not, a month of inevitable overindulgence is upon us. So slip on your stretchiest trousers and let today’s comfort cooking ease you in gently.
Fennel and apple gratin with parmesan crust This gratin is indulgent enough to stand on its own as a main course, served with a light green salad to cut through the creaminess. Sweet vermouth adds an extra dimension, but can easily be replaced by another sweet white wine.
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/ gas 6. Remove the fronds from the fennel bulbs and set aside, then cut each bulb lengthways into eight wedges. Fill a large saucepan with a litre of water, bring to a boil on a high heat and add a teaspoon of salt. Blanch the fennel wedges for 10 minutes, then drain into a sieve placed over a heatproof bowl, to reserve the cooking water.
Meanwhile, peel and core the apples, then slice them thinly (use a mandoline, if you have one) about 2mm thick. Put the apples in a 30cm x 20cm baking dish, along with the fennel, vermouth, cream and 100ml reserved cooking liquid. Season with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper, and toss everything together until well combined. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes, until completely softened.
Meanwhile, prepare the panko crust by combining all the ingredients with a quarter-teaspoon of salt, a generous grind of black pepper and the reserved fennel fronds.
After 45 minutes, take the dish from the oven and remove the foil. Top with the panko mixture and bake, uncovered, for another 20 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbly. Leave to rest for 10 minutes, then serve.