Swiss Chard and Fennel Gratin

Red, yellow, white, green- rainbow swiss chard creates a bouquet of colors unlike any other leafy vegetable. Last year I picked up a flat of chard plants on a whim, wooed by the bright colors but completely unaware of their use in the kitchen. The plants thrived, producing an abundance of leaves all summer long which to my utter delight were even tastier than spinach. We sautéed the chard with garlic, sesame oil, and red pepper flakes. We used it in place of escarole to make a classic Italian white bean soup. I even discovered that the stems could be stored in the freezer and used throughout the winter in place of celery, providing a nuanced herbal flavor in homemade chicken stock.

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This year I started rainbow swiss chard from seed and happily it is growing in abundance once again. When Charles of 100 Miles mentioned a memorable swiss chard gratin he recently encountered in France, my ears perked up and my mouth watered. He promised to search for the recipe but my tastebuds became impatient and a dinner party created the perfect excuse to make a gratin. I looked around and discovered an Alice Waters recipe for swiss chard gratin adapted by The Wednesday Chef. Perfect. Scrolling through the comments on The Wednesday Chef one person suggested pairing this gratin with fennel. Brilliant!

Making Homemade Bread Crumbs

Making Bread Crumbs

Making the Swiss Chard and Fennel Gratin

Making the Gratin

The gratin came together easily- a savory combination of fresh swiss chard, sautéed fennel, and spring onions. Wrapped together in a warm cream sauce, and topped with freshly toasted bread crumbs along with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese this gratin was better than any creamed spinach that has crossed my lips. As we were clearing the table after dinner, I spied my father-in-law eating the remaining gratin straight out of the dish with the serving spoon. I felt a brief twinge of jealousy until I remembered the rows of chard still standing in the garden. While we don’t eat many things repeatedly at our house, this is one recipe that I will be making again and again!

Swiss Chard and Fennel Gratin

Swiss Chard and Fennel Gratin (Printable Recipe)
Adapted from Alice Waters and The Wednesday Chef

Serves 4 (Next time I’m going to double this!)

Ingredients:
2 bunches of chard (18 ounces)
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
4 teaspoons melted butter
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup diced onion (spring onions are wonderful)
1 fennel bulb, diced (fronds removed)
Salt
2 teaspoons flour
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup whole milk
A few strokes of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Directions:
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the middle.

Rinse the chard well, and remove stems. Set aside half of the stems and place the rest in a freezer bag for use in another recipe. Slice the stems into small thin pieces. Place a large pot filled with salted water over high heat and bring it to a boil. Add the sliced stems and cook them for 2 minutes. Next add the chard leaves and boil until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain the leaves and stems and allow them to cool.

While chard is cooling, spread out the breadcrumbs on a foil-lined baking sheet. Pour 4 teaspoons of melted butter on top of the bread crumbs, and toss until they are well coated. Place baking sheet in the oven and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until the bread crumbs are lightly toasted. Remove sheet from oven, and leave the oven turned on.

Once the chard is cool, gently squeeze out any excess water from the leaves. Transfer leaves to a cutting board and coarsely chop.

Place a large saucepan over medium heat, and melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in the pan. Add diced onion and fennel to the pan. Cook stirring frequently until onion and fennel become translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir the chard into the pan along with salt to taste. Cook for 3 minutes. Sprinkle the flour on top of the mixture, and stir well to prevent lumps. Add cream, milk, and nutmeg to the pan and continue to cook stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes. You want to have a small amount of liquid on the bottom of the pan, not enough to coat the whole bottom, but enough to keep the chard from lumping together in a thick mass. If necessary add more milk. Taste the mixture and add more salt if desired.

Butter a 9×9 baking dish. Transfer chard mixture into the dish and spread it out evenly. Cut remaining butter into bits and spread it across the top of the chard. Sprinkle breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano evenly on top of the chard. Place dish in the oven and bake until the gratin appears golden and bubbly, about 20-30 minutes.

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