Can't Cook? Fake It. Easiest French Recipe, Ever.


Sometimes you have to cook to impress. Fortunately, there are dishes out there that are so deceptively delicious that no one will ever have to know that you whipped it up in ten minutes using the bare minimum of ingredients.

This is one of those recipes.

Fennel is a bulb, related to dill, that grows wild all over the place, especially in northern California. It has a sweet, licorice-like taste when it's raw, and is enjoyed throughout much of mainland Europe and even parts of Asia as a part of fine cuisine.

In its wild form, fennel's fronds are popular with swallowtail caterpillars. I used to work at a wildlife refuge in the East Bay outside San Francisco, and part of our job was to go out hunting for swallowtail cocoons in the fennel fronds. We would collect cocoons, and safely hatch them in our butterfly house, then release them when they butterflies were strong enough to fly.

Swallowtail caterpillars are voracious eaters, and in the springtime, you can see them snacking like little potheads with the munchies on wild fennel all over the Bay Area.

[By the way, if you take this fennel dish to a dinner party, you can use this tidbit to impress the host. "You know," you can say sagely, "Wild fennel fronds are a favorite of the swallowtail caterpillar.... what's that? Oh, no. This isn't wild fennel. No caterpillars were harmed in the making of this dish." And then you can chuckle a bit, and everyone with think that you are awesome and wise.]

I stole this recipe from Three Black Skirts, a cute little book by Anna Johnson. She claimed that the recipe was basically what French women cook when they don't feel like cooking. I don't know if this is true or not, but I've made it dozens of times, and it's always a hit.

Basic recipe:

  • Three or more bulbs of fennel
  • Heavy cream (pint or less)
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Remove fennel stalks (the green part at the top - hack it off) and slice off the very bottom of the bulb. Save some of the fronds for garnish. Wash and thinly slice the fennel bulbs. Combine all ingredients in a glass baking pan. Bake at 400 degrees F for as long as it takes for the fennel to become soft and the top to brown.

That's pretty much it. The amount of cream you use is up to you, but I don't ever let the cream cover the raw fennel, since the fennel will collapse and reduce as it cooks. I like a lot of salt, but some people don't, and I'm addicted to cracked black pepper, so I use a lot of that.

What you end up with is sort of a fennel au gratin. The fennel's sweetness and heady scent is tempered by the cream and the heat of the oven, and it's tender and succulent. It's usually served with a loaf of crusty French bread and far too many glasses of white wine, but it doesn't have to be limited to that serving style (although, if that also sounds like a good dinner to you, be my guest!). If you show up to a dinner party with a warming dish of baked creamy fennel and some kick-ass artesian bread, you'll be a gourmet hit! And it shouldn't cost more than $10, including the bread.

The great thing about simple recipes is that you can embellish them and make them your own. Here are some optional ingredients that can be tossed in to change the dish's character. You can use creamy fennel as a topping for baked fish or chicken, or add cream cheese and gruyere and make it into a dip, or even use it as a pasta sauce.

Optional ingredients - use one at a time or combine as desired:

  • dill weed
  • basil
  • crumbled bacon
  • sliced onion
  • crushed garlic
  • lemon zest
  • tarragon
  • thyme
  • chopped hazelnuts
  • sliced sunchokes
  • anchovies
  • bay leaves
  • pink pepper
  • feta cheese
  • crab meat
  • parsley

The options are limitless, really. Herbs and spices make a big difference in such a versatile dish.

A note about price: Fennel bulbs can be bloody expensive. It all depends on the time of year that you get them - they're usually best and cheapest during the summer. But shop around - farmer's markets usually have the best prices. Don't buy the fennel if it's too brown and bruised on the outside.

On a side note, this dish can be made without fennel if you want to use something else more zippy - like Walla Walla Sweet onions. They're not available year-round either, but they cook up beautifully in this creamy dish, and really are sweet.

(Bulb picture by Debra Samuels. Caterpillar picture by Shelly and Roy.)

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Will Chen's picture

You must be the coolest dinner guest ever.  =)

Andrea Karim's picture

Yes, people gather around me at any and every event, just to hear me expound upon the wonders of nature and the origins of our meal.

In my head, anyway. They gather around in my head.

Guest's picture

does it totally breakdown so you can use a spoon, or must you cut into it?

Andrea Karim's picture

If you cook fennel long enough, it will come apart fairly easily. You don't really have to cut it with anything - if you've sliced it thinly enough, it'll just pull apart. It won't be as solid at a dish like potatoes au gratin, though.

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