"How one learns to dread the season for salads in England."
I personally dread the season for salads, meaning summer, here as well, but probably for rather different reasons to those that Elizabeth David goes on to describe - the parlous state of the English salad at the time her Summer Cooking was written -1955. My revised version of this lovely book was published in 1965 and given to me as an anniversary present by David in 1969. Recently arrived in Australia and living in a small flat in Chadstone whilst our first home was being built it was most likely a much appreciated gift. I know that it was/is perhaps my second favourite of her books - the first being French Provincial Cooking.
Today is going to be really, really hot, and I'm afraid I have chickened out of the whole problem by deciding on a day of fasting. So hardly any food at all for me, and David will make himself a salad for his evening meal. I spent some time agonising on what to provide on such a hot day. A salad is the obvious solution but I am not really a huge fan of salads. Although I think I should experiment a little more. After all Nigella's sauerkraut slaw of last night was very different and easy too if not quite mind blowing.
Having decided on my rather feeble solution of no food at all, I then noticed that the next book in my First recipe series is Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking, so I had a look. This is my actual copy - there are a huge number of different covers - the current one features strawberries for some reason. this one features figs - which is somehow very Australian. In fact the combination of the figs with a soft cheese - ricotta? - is very today. And now I have been reminded of the wealth of summer foods that I have joyously eaten in France and Italy, and also of the kind of thing that I could conceivably try again. Because I am sure I have made a huge number of dishes from this beautiful little book. It is a classic, meeting, even without luscious photographs, the criteria for a really good cookbook described here:
“I’m convinced that the very best cookbooks are those that turn a cook loose in the kitchen. They free you to improvise, to respond to the fact that the basil is a little bland or there isn’t quite enough fish to feed four people. They teach you to think on your feet at the same time they take you someplace you have not been before.” Matt Sartwell
I had/have been to some of those places before - the rural and seaside areas of France - as depicted in Elizabeth David's book but back then I was still a novice cook, learning how to make good food from what was available to me, in a tiny kitchen, whilst at the same time being reminded of those romantic places and holidays so far experienced. For this is one of the things for which Elizabeth David is so highly regarded - her ability to evoke nostalgia. Maybe idealised, but that's what we do with our holiday memories is it not?
"After all it is summer. You are on holiday. You are in the company of your own choosing. The air is clean. You can smell wild fennel and thyme, dry resinous pine needles, the sea. For my part, I ask no greater luxury. Indeed I can think of none." Elizabeth David
These days the air is not so clean, but the smells of the herbs of the garrigues, the pines and the sea are still there - well I think they are. Now they are most probably never to be experienced again, but they lie there in the memory and Elizabeth David's writings revive them. Here the summer smells are different of course - eucalyptus mostly with the occasional barbecue but no less nostalgic. But Elizabeth David''s words stirred up such nostalgia of our French holidays, that I went searching for pictures - so here is a selection from our last holiday - here in Narbonne and St Antonin Noble Val - eating the kind of food that Elizabeth David describes.
"Summer cooking implies therefore a sense of immediacy, a capacity to capture the essence of a fleeting moment." Elizabeth David
Her book helps to recapture those moments, not just through the descriptive passages, but also in her recipes.
As I understand it, summer cooking means the extraction of maximum enjoyment of the produce which grows in the summer season and is appropriate to it it. It means catching at the opportunity of eating fresh food freshly cooked. It means appreciation of treats such as new peas, fresh little carrots, the delicate courgettes now home produced and to me as delicious as the finest asparagus ..." Elizabeth David
Seasonality is indeed something that we have lost to a certain extent. Some vegetables such as lettuce and tomatoes are available all year, even strawberries and bananas, but others do indeed have their seasons. Well of course, everything is actually obtainable all year because we can import them from overseas. It no longer takes two or three days to fly from one side of the world to the other. But nevertheless it is best to keep to the seasonal produce of our own land, because of the quality and the cost.
"By summer cookery I do not necessarily mean cold food; although cold dishes are always agreeable in summer, at most meals, however hot the weather, one hot dish is welcome, but it should be a light one, such as a very simply cooked sole, an omelette, a soup of the young vegetables which are in season - something fresh which provides at the same time a change, a new outlook ... My object in writing this book has been to provide recipes for just such dishes, with emphasis on two aspects of cookery which are increasing disregarded; the suitability of certain foods to certain times of the year, and the pleasure of eating the vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat or fish which is in season, therefore at its best, most plentiful and cheapest." Elizabeth David
I shall ignore the first section of the book - several pages on fresh herbs, not because it is not worth the space allotted to it, but because it is not a recipe. The first section is Hors d'œvre and salads. The introduction is mostly a lengthy treatise on how to prepare a green salad and vinaigrette, and technically I guess that this is the first recipe, but I have chosen to focus on the actual first recipe although some would say that it - quoted here in its entirety and a classic in itself, is hardly a recipe either.
“A dish of long red radishes, cleaned, but with a little of the green leaves left on, a dish of mixed green and black olives, a plate of raw, round, small whole tomatoes, a dish of hard (not too hard) boiled eggs cut lengthways and garnished with a bunch of parsley. A pepper mill and a salt mill, lemons and olive oil on the table; butter, and fresh bread. Not very original perhaps, but how often does one meet with a really fresh and unmessed hors d’oeuvre”
I think its very simplicity taught me that one can always throw together something utterly delicious from the contents of your fridge and your pantry, with hardly any cooking. Today that is an even simpler exercise than it was back then. In France, in my exchange holiday homes this might have been even simpler - just the radishes. Now we ate radishes at home in England frequently, and I had been growing them all through my childhood, but the French treated them differently. They applied that gorgeous French butter to the radishes themselves, sprinkled them with salt and then ate them. With, of course, some baguette on the side.
"The simplest hors d'oeuvre are the best, looking clean and fresh." Elizabeth David
It occurred to me that radishes seemed to be having a bit of a renaissance at the moment, so I decided to have a quick look at what a modern take on a very simple radish based hors d'œuvre would look like. Voilà.
Such an interesting demonstration of how times have changed. The one on the left is Radishes with crème fraiche with furikake from Bon Appétit. What is furikake you may ask? Well it's that dusting you see over the whole dish - a mix of a toasted nori sheet, those Aleppo pepper flakes, sesame seeds and salt. These days, as we saw the other day with the deconstructed salad of Karen Martini's, you sprinkle stuff over things - be it a spice mixture, something crunchy or a sauce. The second dish shown here has been sprinkled with salt, and really is just radishes. It's the arrangement that is so modern. The other modern thing about the Bon Appétit recipe is the use of the different types of radish and the dollop of something white. It could just as well have been burrata or mozzarella, or yoghurt, even goat's cheese.
But you can do a slightly more modern version of the original too. Toasted sourdough, some kind of dip ... Elizabeth David has not yet lost her authority.
You can find the occasional recipe for cooked radishes. Jane Grigson was not a fan:
"Both summer and winter radishes can be cooked - follow turnip recipes as a general guide - but I find they are rarely eaten with enthusiasm." Jane Grigson
On the whole though they are either pickled or sliced thinly into all kinds of salads. They suit the fresh appearance so beloved of today's food stylists. Jane Grigson gives no recipes at all for radish because she mostly, like Elizabeth David, thinks you should just eat them with some butter and salt like the French, but she grudgingly acknowledges one recipe:
"The one radish salad I wholeheartedly enjoy is a Moroccan dish quoted by Claudia Roden in her book on Middle Eastern food. This is a plate of sliced radishes and sliced oranges, cut into smallish pieces and the whole thing sprinkled with salt and lemon juice. It can be made either with winter radish or the more familiar summer kind." Jane Grigson
Pretty, simple, tasty - ancient and modern.
For radishes are indeed very ancient and have been eaten since the beginning of time. They just need to be fresh. Indeed I was so inspired, once again, by Elizabeth David's simple recipe that I am pondering on buying some seeds and growing some. After all if I could grow them as a child surely I can now? Different soil, different climate though.
Summer Cooking -
"dishes that bring some savour of the garden, the fields, the sea, into the kitchen and the dining room." Elizabeth David
Next time we have a hot day - Wednesday I believe I shall check out Summer Cooking to see what I can make.