Chickpea & Fennel Gratin
I love beans for a lot of reasons, but my affection definitely derives from their price. Beans are cheap. Even the best beans are cheaper than almost anything else you can buy to eat. And they’re such a great reminder of how inexpensive cooking for yourself is, if you stay aware. Eliminate some of the frou frou trendy ingredients you see in the magazines, and notice, at the grocery store, that quinoa’s price has doubled (!), and you can feast almost every day for a couple of dollars per meal, a price that might allow for an occasional culinary splurge, whether in the kitchen or out.But it wasn’t long before I started loving beans for their taste and easy prep. Cooking up a pot from dried almost doesn’t feel like cooking, your pot’s just simmering there in the background, barely any of your attention needed to make all sorts of meals possible. If you’ve never made hummus from total scratch, that’s a great place to start with bean cookery.
I put a few things in with the beans when I cook them, most importantly olive oil, because it makes the beans creamy. Garlic, onion, and fennel also help add flavor. I’ll eat a bowl of freshly cooked beans with their broth and even more olive oil drizzled on top, and some breadcrumbs if I have them, and that humble bowl is what inspires this far less humble gratin.
That and mac ‘n cheese.
To turn my chickpeas into a proper casserole, I turned a third of them into a sauce, one that would absorb cheese as it melted and also hold the rest of the beans in place. I did this instead of a bechamel, as I would with mac, because that somehow didn’t seem right. For all the olive oil and cheese here, this still has the soul of a light dish.
The best homemade beans are soft all the way through; you don’t want them to have any bite. But the best homemade dinners do have some bite, some texture, and that’s why the topping of this gratin has to be bread crumbs, made fresh and toasted with olive oil, from whatever bread you find around.
- 15 ounces dried chickpeas, soaked overnight with 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar and plenty of water to cover
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 garlic clove, slightly smashed
- Olive oil
- 1 fennel bulb
- 1½ cups fresh breadcrumbs, from 3 slices of fresh sourdough bread
- 1 onion, minced
- 1 stalk celery, minced
- 1 sprig rosemary, leaves removed and minced.
- 1½ cups fresh bread crumbs
- 5 ounces Roth reserve cheese, grated
- Place the chickpeas with the bay leaf, garlic clove and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bring to a boil, skim off any scum that rises, then cook, covered, until all the beans are quite soft, about 60 to 90 minutes, checking often. While the beans are cooking, trim the funnel bulb; add a handful of trimmings to the pot of beans. When the beans are done, remove the fennel and stir in ½ teaspoon salt.
- Core the fennel and mince the rest. In a separate frying pan, heat up about ¼ cup of olive oil. Add the minced fennel, the onion, and the celery and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and add to the pot of beans to cook for a few more minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Place the bread crumbs on a baking sheet. Toss with oil and salt and bake for about 10 minutes, until crisp. Combine with the rosemary.
- Scoop out two cups of chickpeas with plenty of their cooking water. Place in the blender and pulse til smooth, adding more liquid from the pot of beans if needed to get the beans smooth. Pour the mixture into a casserole pan, then add the rest of the chickpeas from the pot, leaving the liquid behind (don't toss it! it's delicious!). Add the cheese and fold together. Taste to see if you need more salt.
- Bake the gratin for 15 minutes, until bubbly. Add more bean liquid if it starts to look dry. Top with the bread crumbs and cook for another 10 minutes. Serve with chicken or fish, or just with a crisp salad.