Monday, December 10, 2012

Total Decadence (aka Potato-Fennel Gratin)

Excuse my flash. In real life, this looks like actual food rather than like something from Madame Tussauds Gratin Museum.

I am bad about posting holiday recipes, and this is because of a certain kind of short-sightedness: every year on this or that holiday, I think, “Oh, I won’t take pictures of this, because it’s already too late to post the recipe for this or that holiday.” The fact that the same holiday will come around again the next year is somehow lost on me. And so you can never know about my Thanksgiving stuffing or my Christmas gravlax. Or, until now, my Christmas Potato-Fennel Gratin. And by “my,” I mean Ina Garten’s. And by “Christmas,” I mean 10 Jews and a ham. (Technically it’s 5 Jews, 4 half-Jews, and a lapsed Catholic, but that doesn’t sound as catchy.)

Oh Potato-Fennel Gratin, I wish I could quit you!
 Last year, I made my Rosemary-Parmesan Butternut Squash Gratin instead, and there was a near mutiny. It was excellent, it was, and everyone could admit as much, but it was not traditional and, therefore, Bad and Wrong. And so I will not be trying any funny business this year. It will be the ham, which I love, because, please—you could baste it with dirt and it would still be delicious. And this, which is like oozy, molten mac and cheese, but disguised as a legitimate vegetable side dish. The fennel melts into the potatoes in the loveliest way and, after their long stint in the oven, you have basically talked 3 potatoes into soaking up an entire pint of cream. Plus, it is rich enough to serve as a main course for any vegetarian daughters you might have. I made it this past week because we happened to have a large bulb of fennel, and what was supposed to be 10 servings fed the four of us with only enough leftover for one person’s lunch. And this was alongside a ginormous pot of short ribs. My thighs’ thighs are rejoicing.

A little cheese never hurt a person! Did it?
Potato-Fennel Gratin
This is adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa cookbook and it is obscenely good and ridiculously rich. Serve it with a side of defibrillator.

2 small fennel bulbs (or 1 large one)
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 pounds russet potatoes (3 or 4 large potatoes)
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream (I use 2 cups cream mixed with 2 tablespoons milk, because otherwise I have to buy a quart of cream instead of a pint, and then I’ll just put it in my coffee for a week and be fatter than I want to be.)
2 1/2 cups grated (1/2 pound) Gruyère cheese (We are not big fans of Gruyère. If you’re not either, then use something melty but nutty, like an aged gouda or Parano. I like to use that aged Dutch cheese that we always taste (and taste again, just to be sure) at our Whole Foods: Robusto.)
1 scant teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 10-by-15-by-2-inch (10-cup/lasagna-sized) baking dish.

Remove the stalks from the fennel and cut the bulbs in half lengthwise. Remove the cores and thinly slice the bulbs crosswise, making approximately 4 cups of sliced fennel. Saute the fennel and onions in the olive oil and butter on medium-low heat for 15 minutes, until tender.

Peel the potatoes, then thinly slice them by hand or with a mandoline. (I slice them thin but not crazy thin. As you may know, I am in love with my inexpensive Japanese mandoline.) Mix the sliced potatoes in a large bowl with 2 cups of cream, 2 cups of cheese, salt, and pepper. Add the sauteed fennel and onion and mix well.

Pour the potatoes into the baking dish. Press down to smooth the potatoes. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of cream and 1/2 cup of cheese and sprinkle on the top.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours, until the potatoes are very tender and the top is browned and bubbly (sometimes I let it get deeply, darkly brown, and it is so good that way). Allow to set for 10 minutes and serve.

The ingredients look strangely innocent.

Some onions. . . 

and fennel. . . 

and potatoes. . .

layered in a pan with some cream and cheese. 

But then something happens in the oven.

And you will never be the same.


  1. A little cheese never hurt a person! Did it?

    Hilarious. :)

  2. Aw yeah. And I just happen to have a fennel bulb lurking in the veggie drawer. Bow-chica-bow-wow, food porn!

  3. Hmmm... this seems like a good contender for the Christmas Eve potluck brunch we attend every year. Does it still taste fantastic once it cools down a little? (And yes, I am starving now, thank you very much!)

  4. Hello lovah....Oh my word...I am going to make the SNACK out of this dish.

  5. You've made me a all of it (dirt-basted ham, 10 servings of fat with a side of "veggies," feeding the thighs)

  6. Melanie7:44 PM

    I am in love with your Japanese mandoline, as well! Is it really that color? It's beautiful! Sigh... (Says the woman who forms emotional attachments to inanimate objects more often than she'd like to admit, even to herself.) <3

  7. I'm drooling on my chin's chin.

  8. Ohhhhhh.... May I brag, please? Please?
    I make my own Gouda cheese out of my own goat milk (that I squeeze every single morning from the teets of my lovely goats). I age it in my cheese cave (aka crawl space underneath the bath room, but cheese cave sounds more sophisticated), and sometimes, I have one year aged gouda in there. So I shall make your dish with this cheese of mine, and I am sure my family of five will loooooooove it. Thanks for posting!

  9. Anonymous12:09 PM

    I had to laugh - that's exactly what we do with the Robusto in our Whole Foods. I'm always a little worried I'll get a raised eyebrow when we return for the "just to be sure" taste...

  10. This looks aaaaaaaamazing. Thank you!

  11. My mom has taken to making this same dish for almost every occasion, and we never stop her.

  12. My friend john makes this but with kale in it, which he swears is part of the 'recipe', but I am certain he added to make us all feel just ever so slightly better about the cup o' cream and pound of cheese...but I do not even care, it is so extremely deeeelicious I can barely keep from shouting at the table!!!!!! People, loves, make and eat! this potato dish

  13. A couple of comedians and...CATHERINE NEWMAN make me laugh out loud. Thank you Catherine!

  14. I only meandered by to let you know that I picked up How to Be a Woman and have spent my free moments the last two days guffawing like a frat boy, but now I'm rather growly-bellied.

  15. Oh, this sounds good. We don't have a lot of traditional family Christmas dishes since we were the people eating at the Chinese restaurant. I may have to add it to my own list though.
    I also want you to know that you inspired me to buy a pressure cooker. I bought an electric one, but the promise of beans in under an hour was like a siren song. I will report back about how I feel after using it. I'm still a little afraid of it.

  16. Linda WL4:40 PM

    Yum. Even though my thighs didn't need this, my dear husband made this for my birthday dinner last night. When it came out of the oven I exclaimed, it looks just like Catherine's photo! It was delicious. I am a convert--having grown up eating "fancy" potatoes au gratin from a box...

  17. Anonymous11:05 AM

    This sounds absolutely DELISH. I think it could even be lightened and still be delish, (this from the weight watchers girl).

    Your writing is always a satisfying meal in and of itself, one that does not mean ANY POINTS on my points tracker. :O) Thank you for that.

    Please eat a large plate of this for me.

  18. Anonymous11:25 AM

    I am wondering what some of you are saying to your kids about the tragedy. I see the Catherine-followers as (usually) like-minded parents, and was interested in hearing people's perspective. Maybe some of you want to stay focused on cheesy potatoes (which I can TOTALLY understand! :-) ) but I am having a hard time reconciling my reactions to this and am reaching out in a variety of ways to hear people's ideas.
    I am torn between sheltering/protecting my 13 and 9 year old sons from this and helping them see that beyond compassion, sorrow and empathy for the people involved, we can help them - and ourselves by demanding policy change. I know some people think it should "not be politicized." But isn't it also a form of "politicizing" to ignore or avoid the issues of gun control and mental health care? (The personal IS political, right??) I understand the desire to shield and the desire to join in vigils....but this feels incomplete to me... Any thoughts????

    1. Allyson6:51 PM

      I talked to my kids (9 and 12) about what happened. We haven't yet delved into the "why" of it all. Since my nine-year-old is quite politically aware, I know we will be addressing gun control and mental health care eventually; he just didn't seem ready yet. All he wanted yesterday was to sit on my lap and know he was safe. My 12-year-old is dealing with it by discussing it with her friends, which is ok. I told her I'm here if she wants to talk. Newtown is not very far from here (we're in Westchester County, NY), and it sounds so eerily similar to our little town that it makes it even harder to deal with this.

  19. That looks like a Benriner with "Wonderful sharpness, speed and Completion!" It will also slice your fingers like the most delicate strips of Chateaubriand given the opportunity. I just finished Caitlin Moran's "How to Be a Woman." Loved it!

  20. Shelly9:09 AM

    I made this recipe on Saturday for my husband as a test run for Christmas. He loved them (and so did I) so it is on the menu. For what it is worth, I didn't peel the potatoes because I'm too lazy but because they're so thinly sliced it didn't seem to matter. Thanks for posting this. I hadn't had au gratin potatoes in years and years because I hated how my mom's tasted. These definitely aren't "your mother's au gratin potatoes".

  21. Kimberly10:09 AM

    I made this last night, amazing. Try it with smoked gouda, it made my house smell awesome! Your fennel bulbs must be huge, I had a big one and it only made 2.5 cups chopped. But it was still wonderful, thanks for all of your recipes, we could not make it through the holidays w/o you!

  22. Anonymous4:27 PM

    I made it last night! Divine sweet onion and fennel wreathed the cream-soaked potatoes. I didn't have 4 cups of fennel but I made it anyway. And it was delish! How can you go wrong with butter and cream? Comfort food at its finest. And this week we all need a little comfort!

  23. Anonymous2:06 PM

    I've just slid this dish in the oven, waiting for the alchemy to transform mere vegetables and dairy products into something wondrous. Thank you, Catherine! It's part of our Christmas Eve feast. For everyone round your table, 1/2 Jews, lapsed Catholics, crazy Aunt each I wish you joy and good food shared with folks you love. ~SandraLee Z

  24. Made this for guests for Christmas dinner. Had a brief panic when I looked at my 2 fennel bulbs and didn't think they could possibly chop into 4 cups worth; made an emergency run to the (surprisingly open on Christmas) grocery store for 5 more bulbs. Of course, when I got home and actually started chopping, I realized that my 2 bulbs actually made 3.5 cups. sigh. Oh well. Now we can make this dish again with all our extra fennel....which is great because everyone LOVED the potatoes! This recipe is a keeper!

  25. Oh man. This recipe was the BEST Christmas present ever. THANKYOU. It was insanely good with our Christmas dinner.

  26. I made this for Christmas dinner and it was wonderful. I used the slicing attachment thing on the Cuisinart and the potatoes were done in 2 minutes flat. (Don't have a mandolin and would kill myself attempting to slice that thinly). Such a great recipe-- we keep jokingly calling it a "fennel dish" and talking about preparing all vegetables in this way. Cream, potatoes and cheese makes everything more delicious!