"Simplicity may be her key but there is nothing insipid about her food." Please Pass the Recipe
The next book along the shelf in my Jane Grigson collection is this classic - Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book. I think it was the first of her books that I acquired and I was so enraptured that I eventually bought several more. I have made many recipes from this book, which is much more than you can say of most. I think it is from her that I learnt to make quiche rather than from Elizabeth David - although of course I have made her quiches too. But Jane is queen of tarts - soup too - she has a tart recipe for almost every vegetable in this book - and the book covers an enormous range of vegetables.
It's a paperback of course - they virtually all were back then, but has this magnificent painting that wraps around the cover and the back - Cuisine Provençale by Antoine Raspal.
It's an eighteenth century painting in which a number of green leafy vegetables are being prepared. One writer said it looked like a novel - which I guess could be true - the design has certainly not aged over time. And at times it almost reads like a novel too. Well it's certainly the kind of cookery book that you can read as well as use.
She dedicates the book to her husband Geoffrey "who introduced me to John Evelyn and garden age", and follows this with a rather lovely quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson - also I assume aimed at her husband:
"Every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him who writes it. They alone take his meaning; they find private messages, assurances of love, and expressions of gratitude, dropped for them in every corner."
It was a long and happy marriage.
Her Introduction though is short and historical in that she speaks of the time when cooks began to pay real attention to vegetables in the seventeenth century, how Elizabeth David revived that interest in Britain, and how, as she saw it at the time of writing (1978) industrialisation had taken over with an emphasis on imports and a neglect of the local:
"Unfortunately the trade has not profited intelligently from these moves towards vegetables. The magnificent choice at New Covent Garden is poorly reflected in shops outside London. Everything is left to foreign promoters ... For commercial enthusiasm one must turn to seedsmen's catalogues."
I think she would be pleased to see how vegetables have become such a big thing in modern cooking and how the biggest celebrity chefs are constantly singing their praises - not to mention the rise and rise of vegetarianism and veganism.
So, so far, mildly interesting but not really captivating. Read the introductions to each vegetable though and you will find all manner of interesting facts and eloquent writing - humour too. Witness her introduction to the artichoke - the first vegetable in the book, prominently featured on the back cover of the book and represented, here, as are all the vegetables, by a simple line drawing from Yvonne Skargon.
"the artichoke was the aristocrat of the Renaissance kitchen garden, as the asparagus was of the Roman. It is sobering to to realise that they're still the two finest vegetables we can grow. Nothing we have developed since comes near them for delicious flavour or for elegant form."
I would beg to differ on this but nevertheless I respect the sentiment. With mounting enthusiasm she goes on to say:
"The artichoke above all is the vegetable expression of civilised living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo. No wonder it was once regarded as an aphrodisiac. It had no place in the troll's world of instant gratification. It makes no appeal to the meat and two-veg mentality. One cannot attack an artichoke with knife and fork and scoff it in three mouthfuls. It is first for admiration, then each leaf has to be pulled away for eating and dipped in sauce. When the leaves have gone, there is still the fibrous and tickley choke to be removed before the grey-greeen disc - the bonne bouche - can be enjoyed."
I used to watch my French hosts go through this whole performance on a regular basis - the sauce in this case being a vinaigrette. Of course I tried it once, but honestly I could not see the attraction, and frankly I still can't. It's just soapy to me. However I know she is not alone. Yotam Ottolenghi says something similar:
"Artichokes are, for some, as unapproachable as a patch of thistles. The fact that they actually are a thistle and look rather like a hand grenade just adds to the general sense of unease. The thing that really puts people off, though, is all the preparation required before you can get at the fleshy heart. Is it all worth it? Absolutely!."
But even he is not above recommending frozen artichoke hearts, and Jamie Oliver does the same with those in jars.
So what is her first recipe for this delight? Well it's a salad, that I think would end up looking something like this. I could not find a recipe online for her Artichoke and shrimp salad, but it's pretty simple. Having acquired your artichoke bottoms somehow - whether by all that hard work or by buying them already prepared, you mash one of them with mayonnaise, mustard and herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives), spread on top of the bottoms and top with a prawn.
This recipe is followed by many more and covers just about everything you can do with the vegetable. Coincidentally - asparagus - her other favourite is the second vegetable in the book.
I think this demonstrates though that although in this case the first recipe is not something that would suck me in, the format of the book - alphabetically arranged by vegetable does. If I've got a vegetable I don't know what to do with, this is often a first port of call for inspiration, and that is generally how I use it. I don't think I ever sat down and read it cover to cover, although indeed I may have done. But I do dip into it every now and then for inspiration - and also for this blog, as you no doubt realise.
The best recipe therein? Well there are many but this is one that stands out. She calls it Tomato oatmeal tart, but Lucy Carr-Ellison & Jemima Jones in The Telegraph call it Roast tomato and harissa tart with an oat crust although I don't know why because the tomatoes are not roasted. The tart is baked I guess, but not really roasted, even though the seem to have burnt theirs a little. perhaps I should say charred and then it would be alright. The harissa - or chilli sauce, or chilli is what makes it, but be careful how much you use. Well it's to taste really - as she suggests.
Tomato tarts are tricky because of all that moisture, but this one is a really good one. It's not a quiche, you fundamentally make a very thick tomato sauce and then bind it a bit with an egg, some cheese and a bit of cream. My guests loved it. I really ought to give it another go although I shall have to be more careful with the chilli these days. And I ought to wait until tomatoes are cheap again - if they ever will be.
One of my favourite books - and another one I should use more.