Several years ago, at my aunt Penny’s house, we had a memorable lunch for which she made Yotam Ottolenghi’s fennel gratin to go with a mouthwatering spring lamb. Never before had I tasted such a silky mass of tumbled, sweet, caramelised fennel, and I had three helpings. Skip to February, when I was trying to imagine a not-quite-vegetarian cassoulet, and that gratin sprang to mind. New-season garlic, pancetta and lots of soft white beans led to a deliciously spring-in-your-step dish to combat some of that April cool.
New-season garlic, fennel and thyme cassoulet
This can easily be made vegetarian by omitting the pancetta and using vegetable stock and a different cheese, but if you do so, consider adding a little white miso to the base for an extra umami kick.
Prep 15 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
3 heads new-season garlic
3 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed (about 800g net weight)
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 shallots, peeled and quartered through the stem
100g smoked pancetta or lardon cubes (optional)
2 bay leaves
¼ bunch thyme, picked
Zest of 1 lemon
2 x 400g tin cannellini or haricot beans, drained and rinsed
150ml white wine
250ml chicken stock
For the crisp topping
100g dried breadcrumbs
20g caster sugar
60g parmesan, finely grated
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. Bash open the heads of garlic and remove the outer layers. Top and tail the fennel, remove the outer leaves if they are looking old (reserve the thick stalks for stocks or salads), then cut the bulbs in half and cut across into thick slices.
Heat a large, wide saute pan over a high heat and add two tablespoons of the oil. Saute half the garlic, fennel and shallots in the fat until rich and golden on all sides, then season generously and transfer to a wide baking dish large enough to hold everything later. Add another two tablespoons of oil and repeat with the rest of the vegetables (depending on the size of your pan, you may have to do this in more than two batches).
Saute the lardons in the same pan and saute for about five minutes, until they release their fat and turn pale gold, then transfer to the vegetable dish.
Scatter over the bay leaves, thyme (save some for the top) and lemon zest, then add the beans, mix well, pour in the wine and stock, and season.
Toss the breadcrumbs, sugar and parmesan with the reserved thyme leaves and scatter on top. Drizzle with the remaining oil, cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Uncover, bake for 15-20 minutes more, until the top is golden, crusty and looking tempting, then remove and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Serve with a salad, or alongside a plate of sausages or roast chicken legs, and lots of fresh bread to mop up all the juices.