Escapes: Reading Elizabeth David
British food writer Elizabeth David has had a strong influence on my cooking for a long time now, ever since I stumbled on her book An Omelet and a Glass of Wine when I was first setting up housekeeping. I read her before I discovered M.F.K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin and I occasionally read her still, when I want to travel to a different place and time.
Mrs. David’s cooking is influenced by the Mediterranean, specifically France and Italy. She had a very adventuresome life, which included living in France, Italy, Greece, Crete, and Egypt during World War II. While she married after the war, it soon ended in divorce and she reportedly took many lovers.
The books I’m most taken with were published in the decade between 1950 and 1960 when she wrote Mediterranean Cooking, French Country Cooking, Italian Cooking, Summer Cooking and French Provincial Cooking. (I was lucky to score a boxed set of these five gems in the Penguin paperback edition for a dollar at a rummage sale.) While England was still pulling herself out of the post-WWII wreckage and living on rations, Mrs. David livened things up with such then-exotic ingredients as olive oil, fresh herbs, garlic and aubergines.
Elizabeth David has no patience for the uninspired food of post-WWII England and her response makes for very good reading. She writes with a trust that her readers are an intelligent and resourceful bunch (much like herself) and does not mince words in her recipes.
So pick up a copy of one of her Mediterranean-influenced books, throw yourself into a hammock and disappear into another world for a while. Then wriggle your way out and into the kitchen where, thanks to her influence, you will probably have a little garlic and fresh herbs, some olive oil, pasta, anchovies and a good hunk of parmesan on hand. From here, all sorts of magic is possible!
Here is a favorite recipe, classic Elizabeth David, which uses butter instead of oil for the salad dressing. I’ve found that the sugar is optional.
Lettuce and Almond Salad
Another salad without oil.
The best lettuce for this one is the crisp curly kind known as Iceland or Arctic Prince or Webb’s lettuce. The heart of a cos lettuce can also be used.
In the bottom of the salad bowl put the quarters of two oranges. (To prepare oranges for salad, cut them in half lengthways, then into quarters. It is then very easy to cut the pulp from the skin with a sharp knife.) On top of the oranges put the lettuce, then a few roasted, salted almonds. Sprinkle with a very little sugar.
At the last moment pour over a dressing consisting of a piece of butter melted with a scrap of garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice, and mix the orange, lettuce and almonds together as your pour the dressing over.
Goes particularly well with chicken dishes.* * * * * * * * *
• Many of Elizabeth David’s cookbooks are still in print, available through Amazon.