At Elizabeth David’s Table: Classic Recipes and Timeless Kitchen Wisdom
Published: Jan 29, 2013
Food and Wine
I have such a schoolboy crush on Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, the team that produces the Canal House cookbooks, that I reflexively pull their recipes. But no one is duller than a cook who wears blinders, so I recently went to the shelves to see whom I was ignoring. The dead make no television appearances, so I focused on them. And there was Elizabeth David’s great book, gathering dust. This corrects that….
Olive oil — available in drug stores (because it was used only to treat ear infections).
Garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese — unknown and unavailable.
Eggs, butter, olives, tomatoes — scarce.
That was England in the years after World War II.
(And you wonder why there are jokes about English food.)
Elizabeth David changed all that. She pushed simple French and Italian recipes into the consciousness of English housewives. In short order, groceries started stocking ingredients she championed. Soon enough, you could even find zucchini in English supermarkets.
Elizabeth David was — almost all the pros say this — the most important food writer of the last century.
Don’t know her? There are reasons. She died in 1992, just as chefs and cookbook writers were becoming celebrities. As a result, though her books were always available, her contribution to our daily meals — what she described as “simpler food, simply presented” — has been obscured by those who stand tall because they’re climbed onto her shoulders.
Like Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse: "When I go back and read her books now, I feel I plagiarized them. All of it seeped in so much, it’s embarrassing to read them now."
More reasons: Elizabeth David was an extremely difficult personality. She was an exacting writer when it came to prose, a little vague when it came to measuring ingredients. She had no patience for dullness or stupidity, and could be a withering conversationalist. And though she wanted her books to be important, she had little desire to be a public figure.
Also, she had a complicated and busy personal life: husbands, lovers, travel. And then, when she was 49, she had a stroke that robbed her — how cruel is this — both of her libido and her ability to taste salt.
The ultimate compliment: a British TV drama about her.
Forget all of that. Just get “At Elizabeth David’s Table: Classic Recipes and Timeless Kitchen Wisdom” — a selection of her most beloved recipes, published in a sturdy format for long use and dotted with terrific photos — and start cooking. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]
Between meals, read the mini-essays, which are as amusing (like: traveling a great distance to have a meal at a restaurant that’s closed for a few weeks) as they are informative (like: a great first course of raw fava beans, salami and sheep’s milk cheese, served on separate plates).
Or just try these recipes, which are more delicious than any words I could write.
3 ounces pancetta
8 ounces group beef
4 ounces chopped chicken livers
1 rib of celery
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 and ½ cup stock or water
¾ cup white wine
salt, pepper, nutmeg
Cut the pancetta into very small pieces and brown them gently in a small saucepan in about 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the onion, the carrot, and the celery, all finely chopped. When they have browned, put in the ground beef, and then turn it over and over so that it all browns evenly.
Add the chicken livers, and after two or three minutes the tomato paste, and then the white wine. Season with salt, pepper and of nutmeg, and add the meat stock or water.
Cover the pan and simmer the sauce very gently for 30-40 minutes. Some cooks in Bologna add a cupful of cream or milk to the sauce, which makes it smoother.
When the sauce is ready to be served with spaghetti or tagliatelle, mix it with the hot pasta in a heated dish so that the pasta is thoroughly impregnated with the sauce, and add a generous piece of butter before serving. Top with grated cheese, if you like.
1 lb yellow potatoes
1 garlic clove, peeled
A little butter for greasing
Salt and pepper
½ pint heavy cream
Cube of butter
Preheat oven to 150 degrees.
Peel yellow potatoes, and slice them into even rounds no thicker than a penny. Rinse them in cold water — this is very important — then shake them dry with in a cloth. Put them in layers in a shallow earthenware dish that has been rubbed with garlic and well buttered. Season with pepper and salt.
Pour 1/2 pint of thick cream over them; strew with a little pieces of butter; cook them for 1 and ½ hours. During the last 10 minutes, turn the oven up fairly high to get a fine golden crust on the potatoes. Serve in the dish in which they have been cooked.