Olives Add Zing to this Provençal Dish
When I think about the flavors of Provence, I think of sweet tomatoes, fragrant herbs, and salty olives. Oh, there are plenty of other Provençal foods, too. But for me, these three ingredients conjure the essence of southeastern France.
Fennel is also popular in Provence. That isn’t surprising, since it plays so nicely with tomatoes and olives. And the longer you cook it, the sweeter and mellower it becomes. So it’s a no brainer to combine all these ingredients in a gratin. Topped with flavorful cheese, they make a great sidekick for roast or grilled meat, chicken, or seafood.
This flexible dish is ideal for busy schedules. You can make it partially ahead. Plus, it tastes equally good hot from the oven or cooled to room temperature, so no split-second timing is required.
And the flavor? Well, you’ll think you’re in the south of France. Without having to buy a plane ticket.
Recipe: Fennel and Tomato Gratin
This recipe directs you to start the fennel and tomato on top of the stove. Then put them into a baking pan, top with cheese, and finish cooking in the oven. Easy.
Part of this recipe may look familiar: It incorporates some of the initial sauce-making steps from the Pasta with Shrimp and Fennel recipe we posted earlier this week. But this recipe calls for more fennel (double the amount, in fact) and the tomato remains chunky rather than being cooked into a runny sauce. And the olives and cheese take the flavor of this dish in an entirely different direction.
There are numerous recipes for fennel gratins, although many don’t contain tomato, as mine does. This recipe was adapted from Martha Rose Shulmna’s Mediterranean Harvest.
Prep time for this dish is about 10 minutes. Active cooking time adds another 20, plus you’ll need at least 30 minutes of unattended cooking in the oven. Figure total time as an hour, or maybe a bit more.
This recipe yields 6 to 8 side dish-sized servings (it works as a main dish too; see Notes). Leftovers keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few days.
- 2 medium fennel bulbs (you want at least 4 cups of chopped fennel)
- 1 medium onion (a large onion works too; I like yellow onion in this dish, but the kind isn’t important)
- 2 - 4 cloves of garlic (to taste)
- 2 tablespoons pure olive oil (the cheap stuff)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 cup pitted olives, preferably a mix of green and black
- ½ - 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (to taste)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or other herb of choice; see Notes)
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained (you can also substitute whole tomatoes)
- ~3 ounces Gruyère cheese, freshly grated (see Notes about the quantity)
- 1 or 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese (ditto)
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Rinse the fennel and remove the stalks and green tops, and dry. Roughly chop some of the green fuzzy fronds, and reserve them for garnish (optional). Using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, slice off the root end of each bulb. Cut or peel off the outer part of the bulbs if they’re tough. Cut the fennel bulbs in quarters lengthwise, and then cut into thin slices across the width.
- Peel the onion and cut in half lengthwise. Slice thinly, parallel to the equator. Peel the garlic and slice thinly (you can also mince, but I like to use distinct pieces).
- Heat a large skillet (preferably nonstick) over medium heat for at least 2 minutes. When hot, add the oil, and wait until it’s warm (it will ripple slightly). Add the fennel, onion, and garlic, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté on medium-low until the onion is fully translucent and begins to brown (about 10 minutes).
- Meanwhile, pit the olives if necessary and chop them roughly.
- When the onion is ready, add the olives, crushed red pepper, and thyme. Sauté for a minute, then add the can of tomatoes (if the skillet isn’t large enough, transfer the whole thing to a sauce pan). You’ll have a thick mix of fennel, onion, and tomato. Simmer for 10 minutes (longer, if you wish; see Notes).
- While the fennel-and-tomato mix is simmering, grate the cheeses.
- After the fennel/tomato mix has simmered for at least 10 minutes, scrape it into a 2- or 3-quart gratin or baking dish, smooth the mixture, and sprinkle the grated cheeses on top. Bake for 30 minutes or a bit longer, until the mixture is hot and bubbly, and the cheese is nicely browned on top. (If the dish is ready to go but the cheese isn’t quite as brown as you like, run the gratin under the broiler for a few minutes.)
- Serve with a garnish of chopped fennel fronds, if desired.
- You can simmer this longer than 10 minutes (Step 6) if you wish; you’ll develop a slightly richer flavor. If you do this, you’ll need less time in the oven – basically enough to melt and brown the cheese.
- Instead of dried thyme, you could substitute dried (or fresh) marjoram, oregano, or herbes de Provence (a mix that usually includes savory, fennel, basil, thyme, and lavender). Or use some fresh basil.
- My recipe calls for two cheeses atop this dish: Gruyère and either Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano. You can go with just one cheese if you wish, but a mixture is nice. Exact measurements aren’t critical. You can use anywhere from 3 to 5 ounces of cheese (total), depending on your taste.
- For a nice variation, toast some bread crumbs (about a cup) and add them to the cheese. This mix will create a slightly crusty topping.
- You can add anchovies to this dish if you like. Use a 2-ounce can packed in olive oil (drained). Add the anchovies to the skillet at the beginning of Step 6, sauté for a couple of minutes until they dissolve, then add the olives and other ingredients.
- You could also add capers (maybe 3 tablespoons) along with the anchovies (add them with the olives in Step 6). Capers will make this dish not only Provençal-style, but more specifically Niçoise-style (Nice is a city in Provence, on the coast near the border with Italy).
- There are several make-ahead strategies for this dish. The easiest is to prepare it through Step 6, then cool the tomato-and-fennel mixture and refrigerate it until you’re ready to continue.
- Or you can put the mixture into a baking dish and top with cheeses, as directed in Step 8. But instead of baking, you can let it cool, then cover and refrigerate, and bake it when you’re ready.
- This dish really does taste great at many different temperatures. It’s excellent hot from the oven, but it’s still scrumptious half an hour later (when it’s still warm), or even after it has rested for a while and cooled to room temperature.
- Although this is meant to be a side dish, the cheese makes it work as a main dish, too (serving 3 or 4). You’ll probably want to serve it with a salad, and maybe some nice bread or rolls. Add a bottle of wine, and you have a festive dinner!
“What a feast of fennel we’ve enjoyed these past few weeks,” exclaimed Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she forked her Fennel and Tomato Gratin. “We had some wonderful Braised Fennel. And that Fennel Soup with Shrimp and Beans was out of this world. Speaking of shrimp, the Pasta with Shrimp and Fennel was also delish.”
“And the Shaved Fennel Salad,” I reminded her. “What a great way to start a meal!”
“How could I forget!” she said. “That salad might be the best dish of them all. Although this gratin is a definite winner, too.” She forked another mouthful, then paused to savor. “So, any more fennel recipes on tap?”
“One, possibly two — we’ll see. But we’re going to take a break from fennel, for a couple of weeks at least. I’m itching to cook something else.”
Mrs K R reached for the gratin dish and spooned seconds onto her plate. “Yeah, the produce manager at our market must think we’re on some sort of weird fennel-soup diet,” she mused. “Of course, I’m loving this. But it might be nice to have a change. We haven’t done anything chocolate for awhile.”
“Right. We’ll do that soon. Not next week, but soon,” I promised.
“The week after, then,” said Mrs K R. Firmly. “It’s been decided.”
That’s Mrs K R! She knows what she wants, and she knows how to get it.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Fennel Soup with Shrimp and Beans
Shaved Fennel Salad
Pasta with Shrimp and Fennel
Old School Macaroni and Cheese
Tuna Noodle Casserole
Soupe au Pistou