I had never heard of Elizabeth David when I first opened a Penguin edition of her French Provincial Cooking , browsing in the University Bookstore. I was a junior in college, and though I had been cooking for myself and with my housemates for several months, I was pretty unsophisticated. I was already reading cookbooks as if they were novels, but there were fewer then. It was a long time ago.
French food to me meant fancy restaurant food- I had no previous idea of the range of French country food- real food, eaten by real people, daily, as well as for special occasions. I was mesmerized, and, of course, I bought the book. I read it over and over again, looked for the ingredients and tools she talked about, and tried out as many recipes as I could. She has stuck with me, all this time; more than any other writer on food, she is the voice in the back of my head.
Then, as now, I was struck by the economy of her recipe writing- straighforward and personal. Sometimes it seemed that the instructions were too simple to be true, but they worked. My favorite Elizabeth David recipes are usually the simplest. This recipe for a fennel gratin is so spare that it is practically not a recipe at all, the same is true of her method for toasting almonds, and quite a few others.
Somehow, if you do just what she says, it is more delicious than you would have expected. The sharp clean taste of the raw fennel, which I love in a fennel slaw, is mellowed and transformed. This gratin makes an excellent side dish for meat, poultry, bean, or tomato based main dishes. It is also great with fish. Is there something edible I have left out here?
This is all you do. Preheat oven to 425F. Trim off the tough stalks and root end of each bulb, and slice each in half lengthwise. Parboil until tender in well-salted water, drain, and place in a buttered oven proof dish, cut sides down. Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese, freshly made breadcrumbs, and ground pepper, and dot with butter. Bake until top is browned nicely (15-20 minutes, usually) and serve. I put a few of the uncooked fennel fronds on top, because I think they are pretty.
All you have to remember to do is use good butter, real parm, and your own breadcrumbs, all of which actually matters.
Adapted from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. by Elizabeth David