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As a child, I loved the rain. The Indian monsoon was my favorite time of year, no exceptions. What was not to love? There were extra days off from school, there was wading through sometimes thigh-high flooded streets, there was sneaking out for a quick dance through the garden when everything smelled just a little more green and alive. As an adult, though, rain isn’t as exciting. Mostly, it’s in the way. It seems synonymous with inefficiency and delays, or plans that need to be rescheduled, or the sniffles. With this recipe, I hope to reclaim some of the joys of the rainy day. Namely, long, warming, slow cooking. In other words, panade.

Have you heard of panade? I hadn’t either, until a couple years ago. An invention of the French (trust them to claim yet another prize in the food category), it’s the most meltingly delicious layered dream of bread, vegetables and cheese soaked in broth until it becomes puffed, golden and incredibly rich-tasting. I think the right word may actually be voluptuous. One bite and you would swear there had to be more going on than just bread and stock. You’ll be lifting layers, looking for the cream or the meat that you’re certain must be lurking under there. Instead, the secret is this – long cooked onions (an often under-appreciated kitchen workhorse), and an almost 2.5 hour cook time in the oven, low and slow. Rainy day perfection.

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The results are spectacular and quite showy. This dish is wonderful for a crowd, as a vegetarian centerpiece or a side dish. It’s also great just for two (and a half-pint), with some stewy leftovers saved for the next day. This panade is made for winter. So cancel your plans for the afternoon, start up a pot of onions, and curl up with a good book while this beauty bakes. Your house will smell so good, you’ll almost need to leave and take a walk around the block, downpour be damned.

PS: Yes, the cooking instructions on this one are long, but I chose to keep it close to the author’s original recipe. Judy Rodgers wrote about food with warmth and reverence, and just reading her instructions makes the dish seem more inviting.

Swiss Chard and Onion Panade

Recipe adapted from Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced yellow onions
Up to 1/2 cup mild-tasting olive oil
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Salt
1 pound Swiss chard (ribs removed), cut into ribbons and washed well
10 ounces day-old rustic bread cut into rough 1-inch cubes
4 cups vegetable stock
6 ounces Gruyère, grated

Place the onions in a deep 4-quart saucepan and drizzle and toss with oil to coat, about 1/4 cup. Set over medium-high heat and, shimmying the pan occasionally, cook until the bottom layer of onions is slightly golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Stir and repeat.

Once the second layer of onions has colored, reduce the heat to low and stir in the garlic and a few pinches of salt. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a pale amber color and tender but not mushy, another 20 minutes or so. If at any point the onions look as if they may dry out, cover them to trap some of the moisture in the pan. Taste for salt. You should get about 2 1/4 cups cooked onions.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Wilt prepared chard in batches: Place a few handfuls of leaves in a wide skillet with a drizzle of oil and a few pinches of salt. Set the pan over medium heat and stir the leaves until they are just wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste for salt and set aside.

Toss and massage the cubed bread with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a generous 1/4 cup of the stock and a few pinches of salt, to taste.

Choose a deep 3 quart baking dish. Assemble the panade in layers, starting with a generous smear of onions, followed by a loose mosaic of bread cubes, a second layer of onions, a wrinkled blanket of chard, and a handful of the cheese. Repeat, starting with bread, the onions and so on, until the dish is brimming. Aim for 2 to 3 layers of each component, then make sure the top layer displays a little of everything. Irregularity in the layers makes the final product more interesting and lovely. Drizzle with any remaining olive oil.

Bring the remaining 3 3/4 cups stock to a simmer and taste for salt. Add stock slowly, in doses, around the edge of the dish. For a very juicy, soft panade, best served on its own, like a soup or risotto, add stock nearly to the rim; for a firm but succulent panade, nice as a side dish, fill to about 1 inch below the rim. Wait a minute for stock to be absorbed, then add more to return to the desired depth. The panade may rise a little as the bread swells.

Cover the top of the panade with parchment paper, then very loosely wrap the top and sides with foil. Place a separate sheet of foil under the panade or on the rack below it, to catch drips. Bake until the panade is piping hot and bubbly. It will rise a little, lifting the foil with it. The top should be pale golden in the center and slightly darker on the edges. This usually takes about 1 1/2 hours, but varies according to shape and material of baking dish and oven.

Uncover panade, raise temperature to 375 degrees, and leave until golden brown on top, 10 to 20 minutes. (If you aren’t quite ready when your panade is, re-tent the surface with parchment and foil and reduce the heat to 275 degrees. You can hold it another half hour this way without it overbrowning or drying out.) Slide a knife down the side of the dish and check the consistency of the panade. Beneath the crust, it should be very satiny and it should ooze liquid as you press against it with the blade of the knife. If it seems dry, add a few tablespoons simmering chicken stock and bake for 10 minutes longer.

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