Grey Matters

Elizabeth David on Untraditional Christmas Food

Posted by charlotte on December 22nd, 2010

This week we’re posting excerpts from Elizabeth David’s Christmas. You can find her recipe on Pumpkin & Tomato Chutney here. Here’s Elizabeth’s take on how to keep it simple at Christmas*:

If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and cooking would consist of an omelet and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening. This lovely, selfish, anti-gorging, un-Christmas dream of hospitality, either given or taken, must be shared by thousands of women who know it’s all Lombard Street to a China orange that they’ll spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning peeling, chopping, mixing, boiling, roasting, steaming. That they will eat and drink too much, that someone will say the turkey isn’t as good as last year, or discover that the rum for the pudding has been forgotten, that by the time lunch has been washed up and put away it’ll be teatime, not to say drink or dinner time, and tomorrow it’s the weekend, at it’s going to start all over again.

Elizabeth David

Well, I know that any woman who has to provide for a lot of children or a big family has no alternative. This grisly orgy of spending and cooking and anxiety has to be faced. We are so many fathoms deep in custom and tradition and sentiment over Christmas; we have gotten so far, with our obsessive present-buying and frenzied cooking, from the spirit of a simple Christian festival, that only the most determined of Scrooges can actually turn their faces to the wall and ignore the whole thing when the time comes. At the same time, there must be quite a few small families, couples without children, and people living along, who like to celebrate Christmas in a reasonably modest and civilized way: inviting over a friend or two who might otherwise be alone (well, maybe, like you and me, they’d rather be alone, but this is an eccentricity not accepted at Christmas time) – and for much small-scale Christmas meals, at least, the shopping and cooking marathons can be avoided, the host and hostess can be allowed to enjoy themselves, and the guests needn’t have guilt about the washing up.

For such a meal, I’d make the main dish something fairly straightforward and conventional, the color and festive look being supplied by something bright and beautiful as a garnish. Not inedible decorations, but something simple and unexpected such as a big bowl of crimson sweet-sour cherry sauce with a roast duck; a handsome dish of tomatoes stuffed with savory rice with a capon; a Madeira and truffle-scented sauce with a piece of plain roast beef; slice oranges with a pork roast or a ham.

The first course I’d make as painless as possible for the cook: if money were no object, lots of smoked salmon or Parma ham to precede the duck; before the beef, a French duck pate with truffles and pistachio nuts, avocado pears, or simply a lovely dish of egg or prawn mayonnaise. Or, if you’d cooked a ham or piece of gammon or pickled pork to last over the Christmas holiday, then a few finely carved slices of that, with a bowl of cubed honeydew melon or some pickled peaches – there’s no reason why English cooked ham should not make just as good a first course as the raw Parma or Bayonne ham.

As for pudding, unless you feel you absolutely have to have at least the traditional mince pies (those who only each the Christmas pudding because of the brandy or rum butter will find it equally delicious with mince pies), most people will be grateful if you skip straight to the Christmas dessert fruits. Usually one is too full to appreciate the charms of Malaga raisins, Smyrna figs, almonds, glacé apricots and sugar-plums, or you could perhaps finish up with a big bowl of mixed fresh pineapple and sliced oranges.

*From Elizabeth David’s Christmas, David R. Godine: Boston, 2008. US Edition, p 6-8.


Johnny Grey’s Most Delicious Reads from 2010

Posted by Johnny on December 22nd, 2010

It’s been a great year for food books. I constantly find inspiration for my designs in the pages of great literature, and often in unexpected places. With thousands of titles on the market it is hard to pinpoint those worth buying. I hope you enjoy these books of recipes, food stories and fine writing as much as I did.

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally posted as a guest blog over at Roaming by Design.

At Elizabeth David’s Table: Her very best everyday recipes by Elizabeth David. Contemporary compilation with photographs for the first time. A nod towards vegetarian choices, classic favourites and neglected recipes from her six main books. It is a very personal book because I helped select 45 of the recipes. Jill Norman, her editor and literary executor, put the book together, aiming it at introducing her work to a younger audience, and 25,000 copies have already been presold in the USA where it will be launched in the spring. I suspect it will quickly become my most thumbed cookery book and I hope so for others too.

The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. A most original tour de force of imaginative and exhaustive research into flavours and how they that match. Filed alphabetically here, a selection of entries from ‘M’ includes how the mustiness of forest floor mushrooms suits the earthy flavours of freshwater fish. Shitake brings out the flavour of Salmon; as mushrooms contain no salt she suggests they work well with Parmesan for risottos or Gruyere when served with toast. Mushrooms and truffles are described as kissing cousins so you can use truffle oil, which are butter to mushroom dishes like a push-up bra to the sensual figure: the aim being to give more ordinary fungi (which is mostly what we can buy in supermarkets) the full, in-your-face sexiness of the truffle.  A proper stocking filler with an evocative twist!

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan. Our greatest contemporary polemicist on food has produced this shortened version of his masterpiece, In Defense of Food. He brings sanity to the (sometimes) complex business of working out what to eat, especially if one wants to be ethical and healthy and still receive pleasure from food.  His training as a nature writer means you get the benefit of someone who brings elegance and wit to his writing. Being chastised is not how you want to be treated when looking for new ways of going about eating and he always avoids that by making you feel that you are able to be a good human being.

Kitchenella: The secrets of women: heroic, simple, nurturing cookery – for everyone by Rose Prince. A compliment to At Elizabeth David’s table, this book aims to show working women how they can cook imaginatively, healthily, affordably. “My mother wasn’t a yummy-mummy who made fun cakes with us. She was quite stern about passing things on. She saw it as training. Women are still the main carers of others but there is silence now. Secrets are not passed on. The concern is that kids grow up without learning because mothers don’t answer this call to nurture.” I met Rose when she co-produced “A Matter of Taste,” the TV biography of Elizabeth David’s, and realised how serious she was about communicating the values and recipes associated with English food. Very modern is her dislike of waste and her drive to make cooking an everyday family affair. Useful for the modern man as well!

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. Eye opening, easy-to-read account that is a must read for all kitchen designers and those interested in neuroscience. He combines paleoantropology, archaeology, chemistry and physics of food with human biology. It explains how we developed brains and how our skills developed through cooking food. It also spends the deathnel to raw food obsessionists and shows that cooking is the key to our evolutionary success. Mr Wrangham should be confirmed as the patron saint of kitchen designers!

Vefa’s Kitchen by Vefa Alexiadou. Greek regional cooking from Greece’s best-selling cookery writer. I am always reminded on trips to Greece that we are not appreciative enough of just how authentic and digestible Greek cooking is, particularly in smaller local taverns or restaurants. It’s unfair, too, that the country’s cuisine has never been celebrated as the mother of Mediterranean food, a fact that is put right in this compendium. I was given this by Harry and Emma, my eldest son and his fiancé, after they had visited Crete and we have all used it. Regional cooking is always the best kind of cooking to do at home, including Greek.

Plenty by Yotem Ottolengi. Ottolengi has a striking food philosophy and real life offering, particularly with vegetables and patisseries. Although not a vegetarian, his mini-cuisine is visually arresting, original and innovative. It’s based on strong flavours and stunning, fresh combinations, bringing a desirable angle to being vegetarian. Ingredients have to “have a clear voice, plain characteristics that are lucid and powerful, with images, tastes and aromas you can remember and yearn for.” His growing collection of London café-style restaurants make each one worth a visit to see and taste his recipes for yourself.

Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist by James Villas. Witty and compelling stories about life as an activist gourmet and writer. As one of America’s top food writers who wrote for Gourmet, Town and Country, Bon Appétit and The New York Times, he stands out for being, in his own words, an outspoken, optimistic rebel. His firsthand knowledge of French cooking, early championing of American food in the 60’s and dining with the great and the good, I found thoroughly riveting. Excellent for a train, plane or simple reading by the fire.

British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer. For years I made do with Dorothy Hartley’s eccentric Food in England for my knowledge of British food. Elizabeth David told me ‘our’ strength lay in farmhouse cooking based upon the high standard of raw ingredients, which left a lot unsaid. This extensive account looks at changes caused by the Black Death, the Enclosures to the Industrial Revolution and the social and commercial trends of the present day. It explains too how we reached such a deficit in the culinary department up till our recent food revolution and it helps one feel less defensive of being British. It is always fascinating to see history explained through media other than politics, particularly through food culture.


Elizabeth David’s Pumpkin & Tomato Chutney

Posted by charlotte on December 21st, 2010

This week, we’ll be posting a few of Johnny’s favorite recipes from Elizabeth David’s Christmas in the spirit of the holidays. Send us your photos of Elizabeth’s dishes in your kitchen and we’ll post them on Grey Matters. Happy Cooking!

It is not generally known that pumpkin can make an excellent chutney, rich and dark. The recipe below produces a mixture with a taste which is spicy but not to sharp; the pumpkin slices retain something of their shape, and shine translucently through the glass jars.

Green grocers very often sell pumpkins by the piece; a whole one is, of course, cheaper, but remember that once it is cut it will not keep longer than about ten days.

Ingredients are a 2 ½ lb piece of pumpkin (gross weight), 1 lb of ripe tomatoes, ½ lb of onions, 2 cloves of garlic, 2 oz of sultanas, ¾ lbs each of soft dark brown sugar and white caster sugar, 2 tablespoons of salt, 2 scant teaspoons each of ground ginger, black peppercorns and allspice berries, 1 ¼ pints of wine vinegar or cider vinegar.

Peel the pumpkin, discard seed and cottony center. Slice, then cut into pieces roughly 2 inches wide and long and ½ inch thick. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes, skin and slice them. Peel and slice the onions and the garlic.

Put all solid ingredients, including spices (crush the peppercorns and allspice berries in a mortar) and sugar, in your preserving pan. (For chutneys, always use heavy aluminum, never untinned copper jam pans.) Add vinegar. Bring gently to the boil, and then cook steadily, but not at a gallop, until the mixture is jammy. Skim from time to time, and toward the end of the cooking, which will take altogether about 50 minutes, stir very frequently. Chutney can be a disastrous sticker if you don’t give it your full attention during the final stages.

This is a long-keeping chutney, but, like most chutneys, it is best if cooked to a moderate set only; in other words it should still be a little bit runny; if too solid it will quickly dry up.

Ladle into pots, which should be filled right to the brim. When cold cover with rounds of waxed paper, and then with a double layer of thick greaseproof paper. (Or use jars with plastic-lined lids that will not be corroded by vinegar. JN) Transparent covers that let in the light are not suitable for chutney.

The yield from these quantities will be approximately 3 ½ lb; and although it may be a little more extravagant as regards fuel and materials, I find chutney cooked in small batches more satisfactory than when produced on a large scale.

It is worth noting that should it be more convenient, all ingredients for the chutney can be prepared, mixed with sugar and vinegar, and left for several hours or over night (but not longer than 12 hours) in a covered bowl before cooking.

*Recipe from Elizabeth David’s Christmas, David R. Godine: Boston, 2008. US Edition, p 138-139.