On Friday night a small group of us headed to the country, to a house that stands atop a ridge with views of Lake Eildon on one side and the snow caps of Bulla on the other. The house is the shape of the ridge and made of wood the colour of the dry grass that covers the paddocks. Sarah was unable to come (a tiny tragedy). she was busy last minute in the city, styling a food shoot for the three days we lounged by the fire knitting and reading books. We arrived to the country house in the dark cold, and spent our first hours trying to heat the tall ceilinged rooms with only damp wood and kindling. We could see our breath even right by the fire.
This recipe is perfect for freezing weather, it comforts and it needs the oven on. A necessity in this depths of winter. The fennel becomes so creamy and sweet, with the crunch (and extra sweetness) of the crumble. The acidity of the tomatoes breaks through the richness of the dish and brings it to wintery perfection.
Our friend Bec first served us this gratin as part of an all encompassing feast, feeding so many people, two tables had to be pushed together and chairs were improvised and mismatched. Her feast was before winter really fell, before snow capped mountains could be seen from country retreat windows. When putting the oven on was just fun, not a necessity to keep the chill from our bones.
Fennel and Cherry Tomato Gratin
Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, By Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi
2 medium fennel bulbs, sliced super thin
a little olive oil
1 tbsp thyme leaves, plus a few whole sprigs
3 garlic cloves crushed
100g Parmesan cheese, grated
300g cherry tomatoes, on the vine
salt and pepper to taste
300g plain flour
50g caster sugar
200g cold salted butter cubed
Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the fennel in a bowl with a splash of olive oil, thyme leaves, garlic, salt and pepper and mix. Transfer to an ovenproof dish, (we halved the recipe and used one of my grandmother’s Le Creuset oven proof frypans), anything that looks pretty, with a low edge, will work. Pour the cream over the fennel.
Combine the ingredients for the crumble topping in a bowl, rubbing the butter into the sugar and flour with your fingertips, until there is no butter left and the mix resembles breadcrumbs. Add the parmesan to the crumble mixture. Sprinkle mixture on top of the fennel.
Cover the dish with foil and bake for 45 mins. Remove the foil and arrange the tomatoes on top, along with a few thyme sprigs. Return to the oven and bake for another 15 mins or until the fennel is soft, the crumble is a golden brown and the tomatoes are cooked.