Recipe: Creamy casserole ideal for a winter meal
Out of the oven and topped with fresh fennel fronds, this casserole works as a vegetarian entree or can serve as a side dish to any meat.
Fennel is one of those plants that can be categorized as a vegetable, herb or spice, depending on which part is used. The bulb can be sliced into salads raw, or sautéed or baked, while the fronds can add depth to salads, and the seeds are used in many savory cooked dishes.
My farm box fennel inspired a hunt for new recipes, and the one here (found on the New York Times Cooking site) was a perfect warming combination for these cold February nights. The raw veggie is mildly licorice-tasting, but baked it mellows considerably. We enjoyed the casserole alongside grilled pork chops and steamed broccoli, but the beans-fennel-cheese combo would be an excellent vegetarian entree, served with a green salad and some whole wheat bread.
Notes: I used one can of cannellini beans and one of navy beans, since either works. I think the smaller beans puree more easily, but go with what you have. Also, I forgot to add the Parmesan shreds to the bread-crumb topping before putting it on the beans, so I sprinkled it on top, which worked just fine. The fennel-fronds garnish adds visual interest and a flavorful zing to the dish.
Creamy white bean and fennel casserole
Serves 4 to 6
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large fennel bulbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 leek, white and light green part only, trimmed and thinly sliced, optional
2 (14-ounce) cans white beans, such as cannellini, navy or great Northern
1/2 cup heavy cream, half and half or whole milk
Zest from 1 lemon, divided
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup or more grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Trim the stalks and tough root end from the fennel bulb, reserving some of the fresh fronds for garnish. Cut the bulbs in half lengthwise, then in thin slices across.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced fennel, seasoning with salt and pepper, and sauté until softened but not limp, 10-12 minutes. Stir in the garlic and, if using, the leek, and cook, stirring, another 1 or 2 minutes.
To prepare the sauce, pour 1 can of beans and its liquid into a blender. Pour in the cream or milk, 2 tablespoons olive oil, the lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon of the lemon zest. Purée until smooth.
Drain and rinse the other can of beans in a colander. Stir the rinsed beans and the puréed mixture into the skillet with the cooked fennel. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
For the topping: Place the panko crumbs in a small bowl with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in the remaining lemon zest, the Parmesan and more pepper, and toss to coat. Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the beans and fennel in the pan.
Bake the casserole until bubbling and golden on top, about 15 minutes. (Broil the top 1-2 minutes more if you want it crisper.) Roughly chop the reserved fennel fronds, sprinkle them over the casserole, and serve.
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For week of Dec. 3:
Make the most of gaps between raindrops. This is a busy month!
* Windy conditions brought down a lot of leaves. Make sure to rake them away from storm drains.
* Use those leaves as mulch around frost-tender shrubs and new transplants.
* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.
* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.
* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they're dormant.
* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.
* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.
* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.
* Plant one last round of spring bulbs including daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas. Get those tulips out of the refrigerator and into the ground.
* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers such as California poppies.
* Plant such spring bloomers as sweet pea, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.
* Late fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from fall and winter rains.
* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.
* Plant garlic and onions.
* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.
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