Back in the days when we went to a school far, far, away from our house, we used to occasionally give rides to a nice fellow in the 9thgrade who needed to make the same commute.  He had been schooled in manners and conversation and was carefully polite at all times, so he was not exactly relaxed but still a pleasure to have in the car.  He and my oldest nephew were about the same age, and said nephew was looking into a nature/survival camp that I knew this boy had attended, so one morning I asked him about it.  He warmed to the topic, especially when describing the day at camp when they made mustard from scratch.  “That stuff was amazing,” he said, genuinely enthusiastic and energized by the recollection.  “One whiff cleaned the boogers right out of your nose.”

I thought of him yesterday, when I fell prey to a chic and gourmet-looking recipe for mustard.  You know that old saw about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing repeatedly, but expecting a different result?  This is how I sometimes feel about recipes.  I do love recipes, and thanks to them I have arrived at some lovely places.  I have a handwritten recipe card from a dearly departed friend, and one of the instructions among the sparse few given is “batter will look curdled but this is OK.”  Love that.  Love when a recipe alerts you to the likelihood that you may think you have botched it when it’s going just as it should.  I also like a recipe that warns you of actual pitfalls for disaster, and that gives you remedies to hold in reserve.  I like a loose guideline, like most of Nigel Slater’s breezy “this is how I do it but do it how you like” instructions, that empower you to make things just the way you want to eat them, and I like a schoolmarm to hold me accountable step-by-incremental-step when I am doing something complicated.

It is always possible that someone’s tastes will differ from mine, and that a recipe that causes them to write swooning words of praise will turn out to emphasize or omit the very thing I dislike or rely upon.  But this can generally be spied from a distance and corrections made for personal preferences.

Here is what I don’t like: recipes that trick you into thinking something will turn out better than it sounds, and recipes that omit either necessary warnings or crucial information.

It seems to be a rule of the universe that I only fall prey to these when they require a significant cash outlay for ingredients I may never find a use for again or which I will waste, or which will produce a monstrous quantity of something inedible.  To wit, the gluten-free version of my revered and cherished Jim Lahey Overnight Bread, not perpetrated upon me by that walking saint but by another (this has to be the triple crown title-holder for Worst Smelling Food, Most Costly and Ultimately Useless Ingredients and Most Haunting Bad Flavor); a very pricey roast pork that was too salty even for the dogs, and the mustard mentioned above.

About the nostril thing, I can attest that my young passenger of years back was totally on the up and up.  About how good the outcome would be, I cannot say the same about the recipe-writer.  The mustard and I have had 24 hours to recuperate, though and I begin to suspect one of the problems with the recipe is that it forgets to tell you to let it mellow for a spell before you throw it out.  It tastes significantly better today than it did yesterday, which is a low bar but still gives me hope.

Maybe you can see how this leads us directly to potatoes.  Here is how: my mom gave me a new cookbook and I immediately felt a pull towards a fennel and potato dish.  I thought I had more of the things it required than I turned out to have, by which time it was Sunday afternoon and I was not going back to the store.  I made the necessary adjustments for limitations of ingredients, and a few more for taste and the future health of the arteries.  It was delish.  Now you can see the whole arc of reason, right?  Thought so.

What is brilliant about this recipe is that it saves the harried cook from painstakingly layering potatoes and their seasonings by mixing it all in a bowl first, which custom-coats each slice of tater.  I cut the heavy cream called for with half and half, and lacking the specified onion went with garlic, which seems right.  Onions are always sweeter than I expect them to be, and the fennel is plenty sweet too—garlic kept things on a nice savory track.  Not a speck of it was left over.

fennel and potato gratin
heavily adapted from Lisa Caponigri’s Whatever Happened To Sunday Dinner?
  • 1 large (soft-ball sized) fennel bulb
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3-4 large russet or baking potatoes
  • 1 c heavy cream, divided
  • 1 c half & half
  • 2 ½ c coarsely grated fontina (about half a pound), divided
  • 1t sea salt
  • fresh pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350.  Oil or butter a heavy, shallow baking dish (I used my big enameled cast iron one, which is about 10x14).

Trim any stalks from the fennel bulb, slice off the bottom and remove the outer layer if it is bruised or grubby. Split it in half lengthwise and then slice it into about ½ “ strips.  I ended up with about 3 cups.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.  Sauté the garlic for a minute, then add the fennel and cook, stirring regularly, until it is just tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, scrub and thinly slice the potatoes—no more than ¼ “ thick.  In a large bowl, combine ½ c of the cream, the half and half, 2 c of the cheese, and the salt and pepper.  Add the potatoes and toss to combine.

When the fennel is cooked, toss it in with the potatoes.  Dump this mixture into the prepared baking dish and press everything down with a spatula to even it out and submerge as much as possible.  Drizzle the remaining cream and the reserved cheese on top.  Not all the potatoes will be under the level of the sauce, but the top ones should be dressed with a topcoat of cream, between what was clinging to them and what you have just added.

Bake until browned and tender, about 1 ½ to 1 ¾ hours.  If the top is browning too quickly, reduce the oven heat to 325 for the last half hour of cooking.  Let stand about ten minutes before you serve it.