Giving a helping hand to the harried host


It's become routine for me to respond to casual dinner invitations from good friends by offering to bring a homemade dish to the meal. I am not the only one. Lately I've noticed that more and more guests seem to arrive at informal gatherings with a contribution.

It seems to be a trend -- one with a logical explanation. Most of our friends lead hectic lives trying to balance demanding jobs, children's schedules and community commitments with entertaining. Finding time to plan and cook an entire meal can seem like a Herculean task, but when others volunteer to bring part of the night's fare -- a salad, a side dish or a dessert, for example -- then the stress factor is reduced and playing host for a supper or dinner seems much more manageable.

I've transported countless appetizers, soups and desserts to such parties, but lately, when I have asked what I can bring, people have requested side dishes. Often they have a main course in mind but welcome suggestions for accompaniments.

Most recently, I prepared a saute of green beans, fennel and shallots for such a potluck-style get-together. French haricots verts, or tender young green beans, are blanched, then refreshed under cold running water and set aside. Fennel bulbs and shallots are cut into wedges, drizzled with olive oil and roasted until golden brown and slightly crisp around the edges. At serving time, these pre-cooked vegetables, which can be readied several hours ahead, need only to be sauteed a few minutes until hot.

This winter vegetable trio would make a stylish and delicious garnish to roast racks of lamb, roast chicken or baked ham and would make any host grateful for your friendship.

Saute of Green Beans, Fennel and Shallots

Serves 6

2 fennel bulbs (about 1 3/4 pounds total with stalks)

3/4 pound medium shallots

5 tablespoons olive oil for roasting vegetables, divided

4 teaspoons kosher salt plus more if needed, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound haricots verts (French-style small green beans) or young tender green beans

fleur de sel sea salt, optional

Line a large, heavy baking sheet with foil. Cut off and discard lacy stems from fennel bulbs. Halve fennel bulbs lengthwise, then cut out and discard tough inner cores. Cut each fennel half lengthwise into 1/2 -inch-wide wedges. Spread fennel wedges on baking sheet.

Peel shallots and halve lengthwise. (If some of the shallots are exceptionally large, quarter them.) Spread shallots on baking sheet with fennel. Drizzle fennel and shallots with 3 tablespoons olive oil and then toss vegetables until coated well with oil. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper.

Place on center rack of 450-degree oven and roast, stirring with a wooden spoon every 10 minutes, until vegetables are tender and browned, about 30 minutes. Remove and set aside. (Vegetables can be roasted a day ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate.)

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add beans and 3 teaspoons salt. Cook until just tender, 5 minutes for haricots verts and 6 to 7 minutes for tender young green beans. Drain beans in a colander and place under cold running water until cool. Pat beans dry. (Beans can be prepared 1 day ahead. Wrap in a clean kitchen towel, then in a plastic bag and refrigerate.)

When ready to serve, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy skillet set over medium high heat. When oil is very hot, add all the vegetables and cook, stirring constantly until heated through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and season to taste with fleur de sel or additional kosher salt. Serve mounded in a shallow serving bowl.

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