Cookbook #3: Fields of Greens

Adapted from Cookbook #3:  Fields of Greens (1993)

Recipe: Potato, Fennel, and Leek Gratin

From 1992 until 2000, I was a vegetarian.  In that time period, I bought a lot of vegetarian cookbooks, as you will see in the next few months.  A darling housemate of mine in graduate school very kindly donated her Greens Cookbook to me as I struggled to teach myself how to cook (this cookbook will come onto the scene when chanterelles show their heads and we have a little more cash to purchase them).  Anyway,  I have since acquired the next cookbook from that little restaurant located in Fort Mason.  Oh, how I love these two cookbooks (sigh, the mushroom lasagna....).  However, you do need to set aside some time for the recipes.  They are not quick ones.  Neither are they of the humorless vegetarian-bean-sprouts-wheat-germ variety.  But I am not kidding when I say that these are of the set-aside-two-hours variety.  But, lord, how wonderful the recipes are.

Greens was founded in 1979 by the San Francisco Zen Center, and Deborah Madison was the chef with Edward Espe Brown until 1985, when Annie Somerville was granted the golden spatula, and she has been sautéing there ever since.  Madison used to work during lunches at Chez Panisse (that Berkeley staple founded by Alice Waters) with Judy Rogers, who opened the Zuni Cafe (quite possibly my favorite restaurant in San Francisco).  Chez Panisse, of course, has spawned all the places I love to eat:  Zuni, Greens, Olivetos, Ici, and Cesar.  Thank you, Alice Waters.  Just thank you.

Anyway, from the second book from Greens, I have now cooked Potato, Fennel, and Leek Gratin.  This is precisely the kind of recipe I wouldn't normally make:  cooked fennel?  I admit it, I was a cooked fennel virgin until this evening:  I have only had my fennel thinly sliced in fresh salads (preferably with grapefruit).  Never in my imaginings of dinner would I say, "Ah, yes, please, let's cook some fennel."  And, ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that I am a convert. There was a lot of "oh," "yum," "wow," and "mmmm":  this was every bit of savory heaven that you can imagine savory heaven to be.    

As the husband announced, this was a "page 210 for the win."  Seriously, best thing I have made yet, so if you have two free hours (I peeled the potatoes before putting them in, and that took a little while), I recommend cooking what you find below.

4-6 servings

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 large leeks, white parts only, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced, and washed (about 4.5 cups)
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
Salt and Pepper
2 large fennel bulbs, quartered lengthwise, cored, and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs: Italian parsley, thyme, and marjoram
1 cup cream
1 cup milk
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 ounces provolone cheese, grated (about 3/4 cup)
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (about 2/3 cup)
1.5 pounds Yellow Finn, White Rose, or red potatoes
12 Nicoise olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

1.  Heat olive oil in a large skillet; add the leeks, ground fennel, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a few pinches of pepper.  Sauté over medium heat until leeks are heated through, then cover the pan and steam until wilted, about five minutes.  Add the sliced fennel, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt; sauté until the fennel is tender, about five to ten minutes.  Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and toss with the chopped herbs.

2.  While the leeks and fennel are sautéing, pour the cream and milk into a small saucepan; add the bay leaf, peppercorns, whole fennel seed, and herb sprigs.  Steep the cream over low heat for 20 minutes.  Pour through a strainer and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt.

3.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.   Mix the cheeses. Thinly slice the potatoes and layer one-third of them in the bottom of the dish, overlapping the slices and rows as you go. Sprinkle the potatoes generously with salt and pepper, followed by the olives, half the leeks and fennel, and one-third of the cheese.  Make another layer of one-third of the potatoes, overlapping the slices and rows.  Top with the other half of the leeks and fennel and one-third of the cheese.  Top with a final layer of potatoes and pour the hot cream over.  Cover the dish and bake for 40 minutes.  Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake, uncovered, until the potatoes are very tender and the gratin turns golden and a little crisp, another 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with the remaining chopped herbs just before serving.


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