A warm gratin is a bubbling dish of soothing comfort, with the magic all happening as it bakes and bubbles in the heat of the oven. And really, gratins are all about the ingredients, and the creaminess that binds them together; this one is simple as can be.
Thinly sliced ripe tomatoes are joined by the subtle anise notes of fennel, salty black olives, a dollop of crème fraiche and a good grating of Parmesan to top it all off.
A subtly sweet and silky tangle of fennel and cream provides a nice bed for the tomatoes to rest on. When baked together, the tiles of tomatoes soften and slump together just slightly under the heat, their flavor concentrating and intensifying.
After a brief steam (making it softer and less assertive than in raw form) the fennel cooks down even further into creamy pockets of sauce underneath the tomatoes. Crusty and golden brown, the Parmesan topping adds another layer of depth to the dish.
The seductively rich taste of the fennel baked in the creamy sauce is offset by the sweet acidity of the tomatoes and the brininess from the scattered bits of olives.
It’s surprisingly creamy yet light and well-suited for making the slow transition from summer to fall. It’s the kind of dish that will be making a frequent appearance at my dinner table on those sunny days followed by cool evenings as we head into the next season.