Britain may still have been in the throes of rationing, but Elizabeth David – having travelled extensively in the sunnier climes of southern Europe – was unabashed about sharing her love for fresh, unusual produce and a Mediterranean sensibility towards simple but sensual food.
Her cookery books, which from 1950 to 1960 focused on Italian and French food (later she turned more toward English fare, bread and baking), became bibles for a generation of cooks. They introduced a certain rustic, seasonal, Mediterranean approach to eating which is still – arguably – the dominant approach to cooking in this country to this day. The importance of good olive oil, pasta and pesto, how not to be afraid of garlic, what to do with an aubergine… all these David gave us.
She was also notable for introducing the British public to a blessed variety of ways to cook vegetables, beyond the traditional school-dinners approach of just boiling the life and soul out of them. And now a new book, Elizabeth David on Vegetables, with recipes taken from across her cookery manuals, brings together the best of her veggie fare.
David wasn't a vegetarian, but she had a pleasing, refreshingly open attitude to the humble vegetable: that, well, it didn't need to be so humble after all. Cooked properly, it could take a starring role on the dinner table. This new book, compiled by Jill Norman (literary trustee of her estate), features soups and dips, main meals and side dishes – but what's delightful, particularly delving into it when you are a vegetarian, is that the distinction is often vague. A stuffed aubergine can happily be a main dish or a starter or a lively side; potato pie or veggie tart or courgette gratin can stand alone, rather than coming second to a slab of meat.
Many of David's long-standing fans enjoy her books for their travelogue style, vividly evoking foreign markets and restaurants, painting word pictures of vegetables in an unusually eulogising manner: in Venice, "cabbages are cobalt blue, the beetroots deep rose, the lettuces clear, pure green, sharp as glass". Norman has included her digressions – mini-essays or travel sketches – on everything from the truffle season to the history of the spud to Venetian markets (featuring exotic salads, "quite unfamiliar to English eyes," such as radicchio, lamb's lettuce and rocket – oh, were David to encounter the aisles of pre-prepared salads in a modern M&S…).
But David also takes a rather tart tone in her writing, unafraid of scorning inventions such as the garlic press or stock cubes. She could be acerbic and withering in her estimations of sub-standard ingredients or methods, a little bossy about the best way to do things. And yet, her own recipes are often hardly precise… this, I'm sure she would insist, is a result of not babying her reader, assuming a level of experience. The recipes, often written through rather than broken up into 'ingredients', 'preparation' or ' method', are not exactly laid out for the cooking novice. Measurements may have to be gauged by gut feeling; there's no '2cm dice' here.
Ms David's book is stuffed full of the sorts of courgette, aubergine, tomato and spinach-heavy dishes I cook anyway, I have a hunch that we are going to get on – especially as I'm from the measured-by-eye, it'll-be-fine-just-chuck-it-in school of culinary practice. I have a go at the courgette tian, and the rice and walnut stuffed tomatoes. These were two of the more complicated recipes in the book; the tomatoes a little bit fiddly, but they could be speedily adapted to use whatever grain leftovers you have lingering in your fridge, whatever nuts or dried fruit happen to be in the cupboard.
The tian also has a proper list of ingredients, but they're not exactly precise… the difference between 250g and 350g of potatoes is substantial, it turns out, and the resulting dish – golden-brown and delicious, if I do say so myself – would probably have been even better if a bit less potato-heavy. You live and learn.
And that, I suspect, is the point. David's book encourages you to really think about vegetables and how you treat them, but also to be a bit more imaginative. This is rather pleasing for the haphazard cook. And with David's brisk but enthusiastic rough guide to all things fresh and vegetable, everything from courgettes to watercress can confidently take centre stage.
Spaghetti with courgettes
Cut a good quantity (about 750g/1½lb) of small unpeeled courgettes into thin rounds. Sprinkle them with salt and put them in a colander so that the water drains away.
Fry them gently in oil or butter, or a mixture of the two, and when they are soft pour them over the dish of spaghetti or any other pasta.
A way of serving spaghetti which I believe is popular in the south, particularly in Positano.
Enough sauce for four.
Cream of watercress and potato soup
A richer version of the potato and watercress soups found in household cookery all over France. Peel 500g/1lb of potatoes and cut them into even sizes but not too small, or they will become watery. Even so elementary a dish as potato soup is all the better for attention to the small details. Boil them in 1.5 litres/2½ pints of salt water, adding the stalks of a bunch of watercress. Keep the leaves for later.
As soon as the potatoes are quite soft, after about 25 minutes, sieve the whole contents of the pan through the food mill, using the medium mesh, or blend. Mix a tablespoon of rice flour (crème de riz) or potato flour (fécule) to a paste with a little of the soup; add this to the rest, heat gently, and simmer for 25 minutes; sieve again, this time through the fine mesh.
The result should be quite a smooth cream, more cohered than the usual potato soup in which the potatoes always tend to separate from the liquid. Before serving, add a pinch of nutmeg, about 2 tablespoons of finely-chopped watercress leaves and a good measure of cream, say about 150ml/¼ pint. The result is a soup of the delicate colouring and creamy texture of so many of the dishes which charmed me when I first experienced French cooking with a Norman family.
Plenty for four.
Aubergines with garlic, olive oil and tomatoes
2 or 3 average-size aubergines, preferably long rather than round – say about 1.5kg/3lb weight in all – leaves discarded but stalks left intact
500g/1lb of tomatoes
About 4 cloves of garlic
2 scant teaspoons of mixed ground spice – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice
Fresh basil or mint
Approximately 8-10 tablespoons of olive oil
Slash the unpeeled aubergines lengthways and all round, without separating them at the stalk end, sprinkle them with salt. Skin the tomatoes and chop them with the peeled and crushed garlic cloves.
Put the aubergines into a casserole or baking dish with a lid, in which they will just fit lengthways. Put tablespoons of the chopped tomatoes between each aubergine division until all is used up. Sprinkle in the mixed spice, a few cut or torn leaves of basil or mint, a little more salt, a teaspoon or two of sugar.
Pour in olive oil to come at least level with the tops of the aubergines. Cover the pot. Cook in a low oven, 170C/gas 3, for approximately an hour. The aubergines should be soft but not mushy, and the sauce still runny.
Taste the sauce for seasoning and if necessary add more salt and/or spice. Serve cold, with a little fresh basil or mint sprinkled over.
Enough for four as a first course.
Note: this is basically the Turkish Imam Bayildi but without the onions characteristic of that celebrated dish.
Pound a clove of garlic in a mortar; stir in a cup of tahina paste, salt, pepper, half a cup of olive oil, half a cup of water, lemon juice, and coarsely chopped parsley. The tahina should be of the consistency of cream.
In Egypt and Syria, a bowl of tahina is served either with pre-lunch drinks or as an hors-d'oeuvre, with pickled cucumbers, pickled turnips and the flat, round bread (Eesh Baladi) of the country. The tahina is eaten by dipping the bread into the bowl.
Note: this salad can be made more quickly in a food processor.
Grill or bake 4 aubergines until their skins crack and will peel easily. Sieve the peeled aubergines, mix them with 2 or 3 tablespoons of yoghurt, the same of olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice.
Garnish this with a few very thin slices of raw onion and chopped mint leaves. This is a Middle Eastern dish which is intended to be served as a dip for bread, or with meat, in the same manner as a chutney.
Pound 90g/3oz of skinned walnuts in a mortar with 2 or 3 cloves of garlic; season them with a little salt. Add drop by drop at first, and then more quickly, about 125ml/5fl oz of olive oil, stirring until you have a thick sauce.
To be served with fresh bread and raw celery to dip in the aïllade, or as a saucef with any cold meat. Goes particularly well with tongue.
Note: the aïllade can be made in a food processor if you prefer.
Tomatoes with rice and walnut stuffing
8-10 large tomatoes
90g/3oz of rice
A chopped shallot
60g/2oz shelled and chopped walnuts
A dessertspoon of currants
The grated peel of half a lemon
30g/1oz of butter
A little olive oil or extra melted butter
Boil the rice, keeping it slightly underdone. Drain and while still warm mix it with all the other ingredients. Slice off the tops of the tomatoes, scoop out the pulp, add it to the rice mixture, fill the tomatoes, piling the stuffing up into a mound.
Replace the tops, put them in an oiled baking tin or dish, pour a few drops of oil or melted butter over each and bake in the oven at 170C/gas 3; about half an hour should be sufficient.
Enough for four to five.
Tian of courgettes
250-350g/8-12oz potatoes boiled in their skins
Approximately 4 tablespoons of olive oil
A small clove of garlic
Seasonings of salt, nutmeg and freshly-milled black pepper
250g/8oz of courgettes
5 or 6 eggs
2 heaped tablespoons each of parsley and grated cheese
A few spinach or sorrel leaves if you happen to have them
For these quantities you need a dish of 20cm diameter and 5cm deep (8 x 2in).
First, peel the cooked potatoes. Cut them into cubes, put them into the earthenware dish with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the chopped garlic and seasoning of salt and pepper. Let them warm in the uncovered dish in a low oven, 150C/gas 2, while you prepare and cook the courgettes.
The best way to do this is simply to wash them, trim off the ends, and leave them unpeeled except for any blemished parts. Instead of slicing them, grate them coarsely on a stainless-steel grater.
Put them straight into a sauté pan or wide frying pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil (or butter if you prefer), sprinkle them with salt and cook them gently for 5 minutes, with a cover on the pan.
Now break the eggs into a large bowl. Beat them until frothy. Add the chopped parsley and any other fresh greenery you may have – this could include watercress and lettuce as well as spinach or sorrel, uncooked, and simply cut up with scissors – the cheese, salt, pepper, nutmeg, then the warm courgettes.
Last of all, but gently to avoid breaking them, stir in the potatoes. Tip the whole mixture into the dish, sprinkle the top with a little oil and return it, uncovered, to the oven, now heated to 190C/gas 5.
Leave the tian to bake for 25-30 minutes until it is well and evenly risen. The top should be a fine and appetising golden-brown. For serving hot, leave it in the dish, and simply cut it into wedges, like a cake. If you intend to serve it cold, leave it to cool before turning it out on to a serving plate. If it is for a picnic leave it in the cooking dish, put a plate on top and envelop it in a cloth knotted at the top.
A tian made with the quantities given should be enough for four to six people.
This is a quickly-cooked little dish which makes a delicious cold hors-d'oeuvre. The aromatics used are similar to those which go into the well-known champignons à la grecque, but the method is simpler, and the result even better.
175g/6oz of firm, white, round and very fresh mushrooms
2 tablespoons of olive oil
A teaspoon of coriander seeds
One or two bay leaves
Freshly milled pepper
Rinse the mushrooms, wipe them dry with a clean cloth, slice them (but do not peel them) into quarters, or if they are large into eighths. The stalks should be neatly trimmed. Squeeze over them a little lemon juice.
In a heavy frying pan or sauté pan, warm the olive oil. Into it put the coriander seeds, which should be already crushed in a mortar. Let them heat for a few seconds. Keep the heat low. Put in the mushrooms and the bay leaves. Add the seasoning. Let the mushrooms cook gently for a minute, cover the pan and leave them, still over very low heat, for another 3 to 5 minutes.
Uncover the pan. Decant the mushrooms – with all their juices – into a shallow serving dish and sprinkle them with fresh olive oil and lemon juice.
Whether the mushrooms are to be served hot or cold, do not forget to put the bay leaf, which has cooked with them, into the serving dish. The combined scents of coriander and bay go to make up part of the true essence of the dish. And it is important to note that cultivated mushrooms should not be cooked for longer than the time specified.
In larger quantities the same dish can be made as a hot vegetable to be eaten with veal or chicken.
Cooked mushrooms do not keep well, but a day or two in the refrigerator does not harm this coriander-spiced dish. It is also worth remembering that uncooked cultivated mushrooms can be stored in a plastic box in the refrigerator and will keep fresh for a couple of days.
Enough for three.
'Elizabeth David on Vegetables' is published by Quadrille (£20)Reuse content