P1150719Ten years ago at an Oxfam fundraising dinner, The Hungry One got a little carried away. We were slightly boozed, out with our closest friends and feeling flush. We left at the end of the night with a new addition to the household.

Over the past decade the tissue paper swaddled bottle of Penfolds Grange has been hidden safely through many raucous dinners. It’s remained undisturbed through deaths, marriages and births.

We decided it was ripe to crack. Welcome the greatest #firstworldproblem – what does one eat with the most valuable wine you’ve ever tasted?

Red meat was the general conclusion. Lamb could work, but we fixed on a classic steak night at home. Rib eyes on the bone, my favourite tomato, onion and tarragon salad, greens, sweet potato fries and a gratin would round out the table.  As for the gratin, a trio of cauliflower, leek and fennel were what came to mind. Nothing too creamy, but with a little hint of anise, mild leek sweetness and an umami nudge from parmesan.

The gratin is a relatively simple affair; the fennel and leek are first softened in the pan and then gilded with a cauliflower cream- the ‘cream’ is a regular supporting player in this kitchen- a simple puree of blitzed cauliflower with a touch of milk (though almond milk would work if you were after something dairy free) and a twinkle of salt. It’s silken and slow carb, comforting yet sultry. I’ve used it in cauliflower mac and cheeses (recipe here) and often employ it as a substitute for mashed potato in fish pies or under braises.

I had a vision for this night, full of homely elegance and reflection as we would sit back with the friends who were with us when we bought the wine and have stood by us through so much.  It was going to be perfect.

Life has a way of muddling things. It had been a busy day. We’d spent a good portion of it in hospital with The Hungry One (he’s fine, but it wasn’t the most fun way to spend a Saturday). We contemplated cancelling, but thought better- if a brief rankle with mortality doesn’t make you want to sip from a cup of the good life, then what will? Later, the house saw four adults busy with conversation, wrangling two adorable small folk through their suppers, attempting to extract the brittle cork from the bottle and pleasantly distracted while preparing the rest of dinner.  When we finally sat down, there were things that once would have irked me. The steaks were a touch over, tougher than intended. My sweet potato fries were baked in a different baking dish to one I usually use and came out flailing and limp. I plum forgot the green salad in the fridge and the chocolate almond and raspberry torte at pudding had languished in the oven and was more brittle than perfect. But the wine? It glossed over every other sin and more.  We could have eaten dirt with plastic spoons and it would have still sung. Mellow, yet bold, elegant and grand. It had posture. If it was a man, it would be six foot tall, with its shoulders held back, dressed in a charcoal suit and carrying a bunch of long stem roses while waiting for a steam train.

But there was still one outstanding presence on the hastily set table. The gratin was a lovely foil. It had presence and a willowy softness, and a bite from the parmesan and almond crust. If it was a dame, it would be wearing cream silk and gloves have an arsenal of witty comebacks at the ready.

I realised when we packed everything up and slinked off to bed that I completely forgot to even get dressed for dinner. I sat down to eat while still wearing the grey sweater I threw on to cook and clean that afternoon. But I drank that wine at a table with people I cherish, while our two boys slept in adjacent rooms – one clutching a firetruck, the other, a forlorn blue bunny. The night may not have looked the way I first dreamed it, but it was still perfect.

So now, that bottle is gone. I’ve officially tasted the good life. And I’m ruined – in the best, possible way.

Fennel, Cauliflower and Leek Gratin

P1150725Serves 4-6

This is lovely as a side dish for any sturdy protein, from steaks, to roast lamb. It would also work well with pink fish or a bronzed roast chicken or turkey.

Shopping/foraging

P11507102 tbsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
1 leek, roots trimmed and green ends discarded, washed, halved and cut into 5 mm coins
pinch salt flakes
2 fennel, roots and stems cut off, some of the fennel tops reserved
600 ml of cauliflower cream (made from a 550 g head of cauliflower, blitzed in a blender until it is the size of grains of rice and steamed with 50 ml of milk for 12 minutes until soft, then pureed in a blender or food processor until silken smooth)
30 g parmesan, grated
30 g flaked almonds

Here’s how we roll

1) Add one tbsp of olive oil, garlic, leeks and salt to a medium dutch oven, or oven safe frying pan over a medium heat. Sautee for 5-7 minutes until the leeks have softened.

P11507112) Remove the leek and garlic from the pan. Cut the fennel into 1.5 cm thick wedges. Add the remaining tbsp of olive oil to the pan and arrange the fennel in a single layer around the pan.

P11507133) Place on the hob and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally until the fennel has begun to soften and can be pieced with the tip of a knife.

4) Return the leeks and garlic to the pan and stir to combine.

P1150714 5) Pour the cauliflower cream over the top of the fennel and leek. Top with grated parmesan and the flaked almonds.

P11507166) Place under the grill and grill until the top is burnished and the cauliflower cream is bubbling. Serve hot, with a green salad and your choice of protein on the side.

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