My new cast iron pan and I are getting better acquainted with each other, and every couple of days I’ll jump at the opportunity to make things in it. I think part of the fun of having a cast iron pan comes from this love for caramelising things-you know, browning something like a skin on-chicken leg so it can develop a nice brown crust all over. The reason a cast iron pan is great for this is that it conducts heat more evenly everywhere and manages to retain it for longer since it’s a tough, sturdy thing to have in your kitchen, especially if you want to take your cooking game to the next level. But why stop at meat? I tried one of my favourite creamed leek recipes in the cast iron pan and it was absolutely incredible. So obviously, I went a step further and tried it with fennel, which again turned out pretty great.
What I love about this baked vegetable recipe is how easy it is to adopt other vegetables to it. Mushrooms? Sure. Spinach? Hop right in. Chicken going to waste, shred and add! It’s all about building that initial flavour base in your pan. Another reason I choose to go with cast iron for something like this is that the lovely flavours cling to the pan as a vegetable or juicy piece of meat cooks on it. Deglazing it with a vinegar and thickening it with cream ensures that all those bits and bobs of flavour stuck to the bottom surface in the final creamy baked dish. Think about a mac and cheese whose béchamel sauce started its life in the bottom of a pan that has had a mix of mushrooms, bacon and chicken cooking in it. That’s a lot of good flavour that’s going to make your Mac and cheese taste incredible.
Coming back to this recipe, this works for leeks and fennel mostly, but you can adapt it to asparagus and mushrooms, chicken and bacon, cauliflower steaks etc. The breadcrumbs and parmesan are compulsory.
Pan-Baked Creamy Leeks Or Fennel
Yield 4 as a side
This particular baked dish recipe, while endlessly adaptable is made with fennel or leeks here. I use a cast iron pan to give both a nice golden coloured crust before finishing it in the oven.
Fennel 3 medium-sized bulbs, fronds trimmed or 4 medium-to-large-sized Leeks
Vegetable oil 3-4 tbsp, divided
Dried mixed herbs 1 tsp
Onion 1 medium-sized, finely chopped
Garlic 2 cloves
White wine 1/2 cup
Cream 1 cup
Sugar 1 tsp
Red chilli flakes 1/2 tsp, or more
Breadcrumbs 1 cup
Mixed nuts 1/2 cup (preferably cashews, walnuts and/or almonds) finely chopped
Parmesan 1/4 cup grated
Lemon zest to garnish
Salt to taste
Trim the fennel fronds and set the fronds aside to garnish later. Quarter the fennel. If using leeks, chop the leeks into 5-6cm sized batons and set aside.
Heat a cast iron pan with 1-2 tbsp of vegetable oil over high heat and when hot add the fennel pieces letting the fennel nicely caramelise on each side. This process should take a total of 10 minutes with tossing it periodically to get a good colour going on all pieces. For leeks, this process will be faster. If using leeks, once there is a deep golden colour on all sides of the leek, transfer the leeks to a plate and set aside. Do the same for the fennel once it has coloured.
In the same pan, add 1-2 tbsp of oil, reduce the heat slightly, and add to it the finely chopped onions and garlic and saute till the onions are starting to get brown on the sides. Add the dried mixed herbs, red chilli flakes, toss once and splash in the white wine. Increase the heat to full if and let the wine evaporate till it is half its quantity. Turn the heat down and add in the cream, the sugar and a good amount of salt. Turn the heat up slightly cooking the cream till it doesn’t look as loose as it did when you poured it in. Check the seasoning and add the fennel or leek back to the pan.
Transfer the cast iron pan to the oven to bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 35-40 minutes at least, or until the cream has reduced to nothing and everything is quite soft. Take the pan out carefully since it will be very hot and sprinkle over the breadcrumbs, nuts, parmesan and a bit more chilli flakes. Drizzle over 1-2 tbsp of oil. Put it back in the oven directly under the heat source to broil for five minutes or until the top has crisped up and is a golden brown. Take it out of the oven, add some lemon zest to garnish and serve.