The best thing about a panade is that you can make it in the morning to serve at dinner that night. In fact, you should make it in the morning because it’s better when it’s been sitting around a while to stiffen up. Please don’t tell the germ police, but we leave this out on the counter until every last bite is gone, which is never very long anyway. Try it scooped out in thick slices at room temperature.
Preheat oven to 325°F.
In the bottom of a medium saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter. When the foaming subsides, add the leeks, a sprinkling of salt, and a generous grind of pepper. Let the mixture sauté for a few minutes until the leeks loosen up, relax, and start showing their true nature. Add the flour and stir until the butter absorbs everything dry and lifeless in the pot. It should glisten with the excitement of what’s to come. Add the milk and bring to a boil. At this point, the mixture should thicken a little and look a little alluringly viscous. Remove from the heat and add 2 cups of gruyere and the nutmeg. Set aside to cool a bit.
Meanwhile, prepare the chard by removing the ribs and cutting the leaves into wide ribbons. Set the leaves aside for later and turn your attention back to the ribs. Don’t throw them away, but instead dice into ½-inch pieces.
In a medium sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the chard ribs and fennel and cook until it starts to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic slices and cook a few minutes more until you can smell the pungent garlic mixing happily with the earthiness of the chard. Add the chard leaves, cover, and cook until the leaves are wilted. Oh, and don’t forget to add a bit of salt at this stage of the game for good measure. Never hurts. Uncover and let any water simmer out. You want this mixture pretty dry so it doesn’t make your panade too soupy. Zest the lemon, and add the zest, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Set aside.
Now it’s time to start building your panade. Cover the bottom of a large Dutch oven with a slick coating of butter. Layer the bottom with bread, packing it tightly to make a crust on the bottom. Beat the eggs and add to the milk mixture. Pour about 2 cups of this mixture over the bread. Next, add the chard & fennel in one thick layer. Add another layer of bread, and pour the rest of the milk mixture overtop and let it soak in. Press down a little and make sure the bread is moist with the milk. Cover the Dutch oven with the lid and cook at 325°F for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and turn the heat up to 400°F. Remove the lid and add the reserved cup of gruyere and the parmesan. Season the top with a little salt and a generous amount of pepper. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Bake uncovered for about 20 minutes until the cheese is bubbling and the panade is set.
You can eat it immediately, of course, but it’s best left to cool to room temperature and cut into thick slices to eat on cold afternoons with a little radicchio salad or a slurp of soup on the side. For a flourish on Thanksgiving, you could serve this in place of dressing and it doubles as a main dish for vegetarians. Savor with delight and gratitude.