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”.