However, even if you're not keen on fennel, it'd be worthwhile making this Gratin dish - so long as you're keen on the combination of Lasagne and salad - as it makes a very satisfying (and rather more lightweight) alternative, that does a similar job.
Hubby was rather disappointed that the fennel seemed to have lost the majority of its flavour in the cooking process, however I quite liked that it had been rendered more subtle than in other recipes. Fennel is one of those ingredients that seems to either be right up there at the front of the ingredient choir singing in a piercing tenor, or can be muscled out of the way by a big deep voiced bass of a tomato (for instance). In this dish, however, I felt it added to a harmonious whole by providing the freshness and lightness that the rich sauce required.
As a springtime dish, I think this one absolutely fits the bill perfectly. Not as heavy as the casseroles and stews we've been relying on to warm us both inside and out whilst the winter slowly progresses on ponderous feet. This Gratin provides just enough comfort in its creamy sauce, robust chicken and cheesy goodness that we're happy to tuck into the accompanying salad and welcome the advent of fresh, uncooked vegetables into our lives again. Croutons of crunchy baguette pair with the earthiness of the walnuts, while our spirits are lifted by the wholegrain mustard and zing of cayenne pepper.
Did I like it? Yeah, it was okay. LOL No, it was lovely!
Of necessity, I made some changes to the original recipe (which I found in a BBC Good Food magazine, but it doesn't appear to be on their website) as I was cooking the chicken from raw. As such, it needed a lot longer in the oven so I didn't bother with the pre-cooking of the fennel and didn't add the topping until 25 minutes baking had passed by. I also drizzled the topping with a little extra virgin olive oil, both for flavour and to encourage the croutons to crisp without going hard.
As an alternative to the laborious process of making a Lasagne, this would definitely get my vote. I could see it being popular as a suppertime dish for an evening meal with friends, accompanied by a light, crisp white wine.
Even without the wine, everyone here cleared their plate and declared it to be a very great success.
This recipe has been entered into the Recipe Lion March Blog Hop competition!
CHICKEN & FENNEL GRATIN (feeds 4)
2 bulbs of fennel
3 chicken breasts, skinless & boneless, cut into strips
2 tbsp plain flour
350ml semi-skimmed milk
2 rounded tsp wholegrain mustard
pinch of cayenne pepper
100g strong mature cheddar
6 slices baguette
30g walnuts, roughly chopped
a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
1. Pre-heat your oven to 190degC/375degF/Gas5.
2. Trim the tops from the fennel, reserving the frondy bits to chop for the sauce. Make sure that the fennel is washed well, as dirt can hide inbetween the layers. Trim the bottom root part away, then cut in half and remove the remainder of the core and discard. Slice into thin pieces and sprinkle into the bottom of a gratin dish.
3. Trim any fat from each chicken breast and slice into decent sized even slices that will lay on top of the fennel comfortably. Arrange the slices so that the majority (or all) of the fennel is covered.
4. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour. Stir well and cook for a couple of minutes, but don't allow to brown. Slowly add the milk, a little at a time, whisking like mad to avoid any lumps. Increase the heat slowly - stirring and whisking all the time - until the sauce thickens and begins to boil. You are looking for a sauce that is the consistency of a thick double cream. One that will coat the back of a spoon, but still liquid enough to pour. Reduce the heat immediately.
5. Add the mustard and cayenne pepper, then two thirds of the grated cheese. Stir well until the cheese is dissolved and the mustard and cayenne are evenly distributed.
6. Add the chopped fronds from the fennel and adjust the seasoning (salt, more than pepper) if necessary. Pour the sauce over the chicken and encourage it into the corners, so that every little bit of chicken and fennel is sealed under a blanket of sauce.
7. Put into the oven to bake for 25 minutes.
8. In the meantime, you can prepare the topping by cutting the baguette slices into small crouton squares and running a knife through the walnut pieces to reduce their size.
9. Once the 25 minutes are up, remove from the oven just long enough to sprinkle the croutons, walnuts and cheese over and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil across the top.
10. Replace into the oven and bake again for another 25 minutes, or until the top is browned slightly and crunchy and the sauce is bubbling.
11. Serve with a mixed salad.