Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book: Curried Parsnip Soup

Curried parsnip soup

Following my last post about neglected cookbooks, I’m feeling a bit daunted by my reserve collection — I’ve just counted them, and there are 70 of them! I wouldn’t say Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book is “neglected” exactly — it sits on the living room shelves, not in the reserve collection — but it tends to only get pulled out when I need ideas for the contents of the weekly organic veggie box. Also I think it has been overshadowed by the plethora of TV chef books like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Every Day. While I’m sure they are excellent, Jane Grigson has stood the test of time and her books are still true classics. As I’m fond of repeating, she is a calm and reassuring kitchen companion whose recipes have the air of trusted family favourites. Most of them are not fancy, they rarely use exotic, hard-to-find, expensive ingredients, and they are generally easy to do. Jane isn’t really the place to go for exotic; most of her recipes are European, with particular emphasis on French and British cooking, along with a few Middle Eastern recipes.

The reason I got the book out today is because there were parsnips in my veggie box. I’m not a great fan of parsnips, and happily they are rarely seen in France. They are considered to be pig food, so you don’t see them in shops, and when you do they are referred to as légumes oubliés, with the implication that they are best forgotten. But I suddenly remembered Jane Grigson’s curried parsnip soup, which was all the rage in the 1970s. I haven’t cooked it for literally decades, but it is well worth reviving. Even parsnip-haters like me like it.

This book is ideal if you have a vegetable box delivered, or you grow your own, because it’s organised by vegetable, in alphabetical order from artichokes to yams. Simply flip it open to the one you’re having difficulty using up. Each chapter starts with a pretty line drawing of the vegetable in question (no fancy photos, this was the 1970s!) and a short discussion of its provenance, history and use. There are so many interesting snippets of information here, although parsnips were evidently a challenge to make interesting, since we learn here that Boris Pasternak’s name means “parsnip”.

Then there’s a “How to choose and prepare” section that gives general advice. And finally a selection of recipes. The parsnip chapter is one of the more limited chapters — buttered parsnips, creamed parsnips, the famous soup, a couple of gratins, and a soufflé — but for more versatile vegetables you are spoilt for choice. She often gives a few variations or other ideas — for example at the end of the leek chapter she suggests preparing small ones in the same way as cauliflower à la grecque, which I duly did, and very nice they were too. With all these resources, I rarely fail to find something that at least gives me an idea for a dish, even if I don’t follow her recipe exactly. It’s not a vegetarian book, but meat plays a very minor role here.

At the end, there’s an appendix, which I’d actually never looked at until today. It tells you how to prepare various classic French vegetable mixtures such as mirepoix and julienne, and also includes a whole raft of classic sauces, from the common (bechamel, mayonnaise) to the more unusual (skordalia, Balkan walnut and garlic sauce). Then there are a few recipes for stuffing, a pancake batter recipe, and, oddly, a recipe for pitta bread on the grounds that they can be stuffed with vegetables. So it really is a compendium of vegetable cookery, for anyone from a beginner to an expert, and a great companion for any frugal cook.

Her Fruit Book is arranged along the same lines and is equally wonderful, if not more so, since it includes the recipe for Best British Pudding Ever, Springfield pear cake. It’s no coincidence that reviews of Jane’s books on Amazon always include at least a couple saying “I bought this because my old copy fell apart from constant use”.
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Vintage Feasts: English Food by Jane Grigson

Stuffed monkey (it's a cake!)

This is March’s entry in my Cookbook Challenge, but I got a bit behind, because I had so much else to do. The book lay on the coffee table for weeks with a scribbled list of recipes next to it. I’ve had this book so long and used it so much that the copy I have is almost pristine; the first one completely disintegrated and had to be replaced.

First published in 1974 and endlessly reprinted since, it’s a true classic; unlike Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson wears her scholarship lightly and is a comfortable companion in the kitchen, rather than a somewhat alarming and superior presence. Nevertheless, there is a lot of historical information here along with authentic regional recipes from the Middle Ages onwards. It is a reminder of the regional traditions Britain seems to have lost; many recipes here are truly rooted in a place and its local ingredients, and Jane Grigson makes you want to cook them.

So, I love this book (along with Good Things and Grigson’s Fruit and Vegetable books it’s one of my all-time favourite cookbooks). There are already a few Jane Grigson recipes in my blog, including my best-ever pudding, Springfield Pear Cake, and the famous Chinese Yorkshire pudding featured in English Food — a must-try if your Yorkshires always flop.

I’d planned to do something I hadn’t done before, but time was pressing so I ended up plumping for one of my oldest favourites for the main course: pulled and devilled chicken. This is simplicity itself to make, and, says Jane, “there is no better way of using up the Christmas turkey with the glory it deserves.” You can use any poultry though, including pheasant, chicken, or guineafowl. You basically separate the leg and breast meat, tearing it into rough quills. The leg meats is spread with devil sauce, left to marinate, then grilled, while the breast is heated through in a thin, creamy sauce flavoured with lemon. The two are served together, with crispy toast. Don’t do vegetables with it, just serve a salad afterwards.

For the starter, I decided to make individual leek tarts, because I had some puff pastry that needed using up. “I’ve lost my Michelin star!” I wailed as I struggled to prise them out of the tart tins. They looked a bit of a mess on the plate, but they did taste good. I think if I made them again, I wouldn’t use a top crust, and I’d add more cheese (which was supposed to be Wensleydale or Lancashire, but hey, this is rural France — I had to use Gruyère).

For pudding, I’d have liked to make the gorgeous syllabub-topped trifle, but it’s just impossible to make syllabub with French UHT cream, as I have discovered to my cost. This book also has the original sticky toffee pudding, credited to Francis Coulson at Sharrow Bay. Then there’s the famous Sussex Pond pudding, heart-attack-on-a-plate stuff. In the end, I made Stuffed Monkey, which isn’t really a pudding, but I liked the name. It’s a very sugary, buttery pastry filled with chopped candied peel and ground almonds stirred into melted butter. As I slid it into the oven I realised the filling was supposed to have an egg yolk in it too. Oops. No wonder it wasn’t very spreadable. Still, the recipe worked despite this, a crisp browned crust surrounding a crumbly filling. It’s very rich even without the egg, so you only need small pieces served with coffee; the peel and almonds give it a Christmassy flavour. Although actually it’s a Jewish recipe, credited to Florence Greenberg.
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Carottes forestière

Carrots, courtesy of sxc.hu

A la forestière in French cuisine invariably means the dish contains mushrooms, because in autumn every self-respecting peasant is out there scouring the woods for fungi while hoping to avoid trigger-happy hunters. All we’ve scored so far are a few piboules from the poplar tree in our garden, but luckily dried ceps are always on hand to add a secret kick to savoury dishes.

This Jane Grigson recipe (from her Vegetable Book) worked wonders with the woody organic carrots in our veggie box. She serves them in hollowed-out bread rolls brushed with butter and crisped in the oven; I just served them on toasted muffins. They make a good vegetarian starter or light lunch/supper, but would also be an excellent accompanying vegetable for a roast, with or without the bread.

You could just use common-or-garden cultivated mushrooms, but fresh or dried ceps (porcini) will take it into another league.
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Springfield pear cake

A wonderful pudding from Jane Grigson — if I had to name my favourite pudding ever, this would be it, and virtually every guest who’s ever tried it has had seconds and begged for the recipe. One of the good things about it is that it doesn’t matter if the sponge is a bit heavy; as long as the pears are good and caramelised it will be simply wonderful! It also doesn’t matter if the pears aren’t very tasty.

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The Prize-winning Chinese Yorkshire Pudding

This recipe comes from the “Great Yorkshire Pudding Contest” held in Leeds, as recounted by Jane Grigson in “English Food”. Five native chefs were humiliated by Mr Tin Sung Chan from the Chopsticks Restaurant, who took the top prize with this unorthodox recipe. His pudding, wrote the Guardian’s reporter, “rose to the height of a coronation crown and its taste, according to one of the judges, was superb.”

If you are in the habit of making Yorkshire pudding, you will find the proportions a bit bizarre. But if your puddings always sag, this recipe is definitely worth a try!

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