The Saturday Paper
Cooking inspiration comes in many forms. Often I will have a ragtag collection of vegetables that need to be used and I simply type their names into a search engine and see what gets spat out. More often, though, I will be compelled to pull a volume from the shelf and see where the browsing takes me.
One well-thumbed and battered volume is Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. My copy, as there have been many printed, was bought a couple of years into my apprenticeship. It’s a 1986 paperback reprint. The cover is faded and worn but bears a fabulous still life, The White Duck, by Jeanbaptiste Oudry (1753). The tome is seminal in my development as both a cook and a person. Elizabeth David was a great influence on my mentor and then employer Stephanie Alexander.
The encyclopaedic narration of French cuisine is similar to the format of Julia Child et al’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was familiar to me from my mother’s collection. Similar too is the cover, which led to my lifelong love of still-life paintings and photographs.
But it is the content of French Provincial Cooking that I love so much. There is the forthright tone of Ms David: “Leeks are tiresome to clean”, “As everybody knows, there is only one infallible recipe for the perfect omelette: your own.” She adds a very direct, no-nonsense humour to so many recipes.
Often in spring I will be found deeply immersed in the eggs, cheese dishes and hot hors-d’oeuvre chapter, finding uses for all of my hens’ eggs. It is within this chapter that you find her recipe for onion tart, a famous Alsatian speciality. It is simple, yet deceptively delicious and sits in my repertoire as one of my favourites. I suspect it always will.
Like many tarts of the quiche-style family, I always find it is at its best when eaten almost straight from the oven. I say almost, as there needs to be a little resting time so you can take it from the flan tin with no mishaps. I make it as a large tart, but also have made it as individual tarts. This is the original version, but some may like to add a little gruyere or goat’s cheese for added flavour. Lovers of bacon could also cook some lardons of bacon and use the resulting fat to add to the onion cooking medium. Another variation is to add a glass of good Alsace riesling at the end of cooking the onions and let it cook away. And in spring, it is delicious with a sharply dressed salad or a green pea sauce.