If you’ve ever fried off a clove of garlic, drizzled olive oil over a salad or sprinkled basil over your spaghetti, chances are you’ve been inadvertently inspired by the late food writer Elizabeth David.
Whether or not you are familiar with her name, most will be familiar with the dishes she helped make popular in the UK.
As well as bringing Mediterranean fare to our shores, David helped to give vegetables a starring role in cooking, making meat-free meals appetising to a generation who saw vegetable-based dishes as something they had to endure when money and rations were scarce.
And now, in the year that David would have celebrated her 100th birthday – and aptly coinciding with National Vegetarian Week, which runs until May 26 – a new collection entitled Elizabeth David On Vegetables has been released.
The book will introduce a new generation of food fans to David, who was renowned for her evocative descriptions and innovative recipes and praised by people as far-reaching as Brideshead Revisited author Evelyn Waugh and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
“Lots of chefs and often quite unexpected chefs will tell you, ‘Oh yes I cook from Elizabeth David’,” says Jill Norman, David’s editor, who has written the introduction to the new book.
“You can find it in people like Jamie Oliver who cheerfully acknowledges her influence,” adds Norman, who also cites Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Mark Hix and Rowley Leigh as fans of David’s work.
“She just had a natural way of writing. She could have written all sorts things but she happened to choose food.
“She would describe a market in a way that made it feel like you were there. She had a very good eye for picking out details and I think that’s what makes her writing so attractive.”
Norman is full of awe for David’s writing “gift”, but adds: “I have to tell you that she didn’t regard it as a gift. She wrote, re-wrote and re-wrote until she was satisfied. It didn’t just pour out of her.
Despite that, David, who was born in Sussex in 1913 to parents Rupert Gwynne, an MP for Eastbourne, and Stella Gwynne, the daughter of a former home secretary, was named one of Radio 4’s top 60 Britons to have lived through Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
Although initially determined to be an actress, the teenage David became fascinated by French food when she moved in with a Parisian family aged 17 while studying history and literature at the prestigious Sorbonne university.
She began recording recipes on her travels which later took her to Greece, Italy and Egypt. When she returned to the UK, to make some money, David started writing Mediterranean recipes for Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
A year later, in 1950, her first collection, A Book Of Mediterranean Food, was published. Seven more books followed and in 1982 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. To top if off, in 1986 David was made a CBE.
Despite the high regard in which she is held, David remained modest and probably had no idea of how influential she was set to become.
TOMATES PROVENCAL (Provencal tomatoes)
8 large ripe tomatoes
1 clove garlic, crushed
Handful of parsley
2tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Cut tomatoes in half. With a small knife make several incisions crosswise in the pulp of the tomatoes, and in these rub salt, pepper, and crushed garlic. Chop finely a good handful of parsley and spread each half tomato with it, pressing it well in.
Pour a few drops of olive oil on each and cook under the grill for preference, or in a hot oven at 200°C/gas 6.
To be quite perfect, tomates provencales should be slightly blackened on the cut surface.
RISOTTO WITH MUSHROOMS
300g Italian rice (try Arborio or risotto rice)
1.25 litres/2 pints of vegetable stock, or chicken stock if you’re not vegetarian
1 wine glass of oil
1 medium onion chopped fine
2 cloves of garlic chopped
125g white mushrooms, cut into slices
Into a heavy sauté pan put the oil, and as soon as it is warm put in the onion, the garlic and the mushrooms. As soon as the onion begins to brown, add the rice and stir until it takes on a transparent look. This is the moment to start adding the stock, which should be kept just on the boil by the side of the fire.
Pour in about two cups at a time, and go on stirring and adding stock each time it has been absorbed. The whole process is done over a low flame, and in about 45-50 minutes, the risotto should be ready. It should be creamy, homogeneous, but on no account reduced to porridge. One must be able to taste each grain of rice although it is not separated as in pilau. Grated Parmesan cheese is served with it, and sometimes stirred in before bringing the risotto to the table. In any case a risotto must be eaten immediately it is ready, and cannot be kept warm in the oven, steamed over a pan of boiling water, or otherwise kept waiting.
TARTE AUX ASPERGES (Asparagus tart)
For the pastry:
250g plain flour
A pinch of salt
For the filling:
450ml bechamel sauce made with milk or cream
60g grated cheese
Knead the flour, salt and butter together, adding a little water to make a paste. Prepare this one hour before cooking, if possible.
Prepare the asparagus very carefully, peeling off the dry outer skin of the stalks. Put them tied in a bunch and heads uppermost into boiling salted water, to which you add also a teaspoon of sugar and cook them for 10 minutes (a little longer if they are very large ones). Drain them and cut each asparagus into 3 or 4 pieces, discarding the hard part at the ends. Roll out your pastry, line a flat buttered pie tin (23-25cm) with it, cover the inside and the edges with kitchen paper and put the usual beans into the paper to keep the pastry flat. Bake it in a hot oven (200°C/gas 6) for 20 minutes. Heat the bechamel gently while the pastry is baking. Now add the grated cheese to the prepared bechamel and, off the fire, the asparagus. Take the paper and the beans off the pastry, fill with the asparagus mixture, put it into the oven to brown, and serve hot.
Elizabeth David On Vegetables by Elizabeth David, photography by Kristin Perers, is published by Quadrille, priced £20.