Recipe Review

This Vegetable Gratin Is a Must on My Traditional Thanksgiving Menu

published Nov 8, 2022
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Carrot and Fennel gratin
Credit: Photo: Jenny Bravo | Food Stylist: Catrine Kelty

Do you ever see a recipe and know, before you even make it, that you’re going to be madly in love with it at first bite? That is exactly what happened with this Fennel, Carrot, and Leek Gratin. From the very first time I made it, I could not get it out of my head. So I made it again the following week, and then again shortly after that. That was a year ago and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve made it since. And just thinking and writing about this gratin right now makes me want to drop everything and make it again.

Between the hearty vegetables, the creamy sauce, and crisp, nutty topping, it is sublimely cozy and comforting. Plus, it screams fall. Most of all, though, it’s the addition of the fennel — which is the true star of the dish — that wins my heart. If you’re a fennel-lover like me, you’re in for a real treat with this one, and if you’re still on the fence about fennel, this is the dish that’s likely to win you over. My family can attest to it.

Credit: Photo: Jenny Bravo | Food Stylist: Catrine Kelty

What Makes This Gratin So Special

Of course there are the gratins that are all about creamy, cheesy goodness and skew towards decadence. But that style is not my favorite, and this is not that gratin. Yes, there is a creamy sauce here, but it’s more supporting role than main attraction. This gratin is all about the vegetables. And while there are three different types (fennel, carrots, and leeks), there is no question that the fennel is the star. I love fennel and I’ve eaten it every which way, but nothing holds a candle to this method. The thin strands are cooked into soft, tender submission, mellowing its once assertive flavor. Paired with carrots, herbs, pecans, and crunchy breadcrumbs, it goes from really good to totally extraordinary. And it’s not just me who thinks so. 

Credit: Photo: Jenny Bravo | Food Stylist: Catrine Kelty

A New Thanksgiving Tradition

I knew from the first time I made it last fall that I had to include it on our Thanksgiving table. Just the thought of dragging my turkey through the creamy sauce, and loading a carrot and slinky strand of fennel onto my fork, made my mouth water. In theory, it sounds like a simple task to add one more side to the menu. But you see, my family is made up of Thanksgiving traditionalists through and through. Give them sage and herb stuffing, classic mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, green beans almondine, cranberry sauce, and crispy roasted Brussels sprouts, and they are happy as can be. They don’t want any wild cards (when I made a Thanksgiving salad, I was the only one who touched it; even Ina’s green beans gremolata didn’t go over well). 

And this is where I feel a little conflicted. I host my family every year for Thanksgiving and it feels hugely important to me to cook and serve a meal that appeals to the whole family. At least mostly. But in doing so, I sometimes feel like I’m leaving myself out. I love the classics as much as my family, but I also love to slot in something new that I really love and feel excited about.

So that’s precisely what I did last year. I made a fennel gratin, planned for all the ways I’d eat the leftovers (it’s great with a fried egg!), then quietly slid it onto our Thanksgiving table. My husband, whose love for fennel continues to blossom and who’d already had this side a handful of times, mentioned to my mom (another fennel-lover) that she had to try it. Heads lifted around the table to see what the excitement was about. And after my mom dished some out for my grandma, more relatives began to try it. The leftovers I was excited about never happened, because before long the casserole dish was empty.

For those around the table who’d never tried fennel or weren’t quite sure about it, this was a great gateway dish. And it was all thanks to the familiar slices of carrot.