Move over, caviar - vegetables are the new culinary chic

Jane Grigson, whose cookbooks are a mixture of history, literature, poetry, personal comment, and a bit of whimsy, is one of the most literate of food writers.

She is married to Geoffrey Grigson, a poet, critic, and anthologist, and they divide their time between a 17th-century farmhouse in Wiltshire, England, and a cave in Troo, a French name meaning valley, near Tours.

Living in a cave means, in a way, that they are troglodytes, and it came about through a book on painted caves that Geoffrey Grigson wrote in 1957.

''Shortly thereafter he got a letter from a friend who told him of an interesting available cave in Troo that could be bought for a small sum,'' Mrs. Grigson told me. ''We visited it and discovered it had the most incredible view.''

They bought it, and much of her work on her first book, on charcuterie (pork cookery), was written there, despite a rather primitive kitchen and no running water.

Jane Grigson grew up in the northeast of England, where there is a strong tradition of good eating. But it was much later, when she began to spend three months of each year in France, that she really became interested in food.

''I never thought I would ever go into cookery,'' she said at a dinner in Chicago for newspaper food editors. ''When I was young, I thought I'd go into painting or music.''

She took a degree in English at Cambridge University, then worked in art galleries as an editor and translator.

But her husband introduced her to the idea of setting recipes and foods in a concept of the past, which she feels makes food a lot more interesting.

''I didn't do much cooking at home, nor did my mother, until during the war, '' she said.

''Mother loved it when the help all left to go to war and she was able to get into the kitchen and cook, but it was not terribly fancy cooking. The English like plain living and high thinking, they hope.''

Mrs. Grigson's cookbook on charcuterie took four years of writing and testing.

''For four years we ate nothing but pork,'' she said. ''Then I worked on 'Good Things,' 'English Food,' and 'Fish Cookery.' ''

Her recent publications in the United States are ''Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, '' ''Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book,'' and ''Jane Grigson's Book of European Cookery.''

Since 1968 Mrs. Grigson has been writing cookery articles for the Observer Colour Magazine, where much of her material in the European cookbook first appeared.

''In England we're very protein conscious, as you are in the United States. We have always been fond of meat. Even our working classes eat a lot of meat,'' she said.

''For years it has been a measure of success, and many, many, years ago foreigners would come to England and say, 'Tut tut, your lower classes eat too much meat and that's why they're so uppity.'

''But as civilization progressed, gardening progressed, and during the Renaissance more vegetables and fruit were grown. The history of cultivating fruits in England is amazing.

''In the 15th and 17th century there were 300 kinds of pears being grown in England. It was lovely fruit and became the crown of the meal, although they also ate celery at the end of the meal, too.

''Now there's a revolution in food, and with it a return to gardening. Everyone's eating more vegetables than ever, which is wonderful, but I wish we all could enjoy more different kinds of fruits. The fruits and vegetables of the world are endless, and we eat only the tiniest fragment of them.

''Herbs are very popular today. They have become the talisman of cookery in England. Toss a bunch in a stew and it's instant success,'' she said.

''And of all the herbs right now, basil seems to be on top. It's the most chic of all. No dinner is complete without basil in one dish or another.

''Seriously, when it comes to status symbols, caviar and truffles may have once represented culinary status, but to most good cooks these days it is more likely to be fresh-picked vegetables, the fresher the better.

''The burgeoning interest in vegetable cookery gives us an opportunity to experiment with the way vegetables are cooked all over the world,'' she said.

A prime example is her recipe for Carbonada, a wonderful beef stew from the Argentine.

''It is a glorious communal stew,'' she said. ''It's served in a hollowed-out pumpkin, chock full of fresh vegetables - tomatoes, butternut squash, ears of corn, and sweet potatoes, as well as Rome Beauty apples.''

In her book on vegetables you'll find this recipe, along with the historical information about sweet potatoes being brought from America back to Spain by Columbus in 1493. They happily took to the warm Spanish soil and were soon known as Spanish potatoes. Carbonada 5 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/2 pounds beef chuck steak, cut into 3/4-inch pieces 1 1/2 cups chopped onion 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 pound peeled, chopped fresh tomatoes 1 tablespoon tomato paste 3 1/2 cups beef broth 1 bay leaf 3 sprigs parsley 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon pepper Salt 1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces 1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4-inch pieces 3 ears of corn, shucked, and cut into 3/4-inch slices 2 large Rome Beauty apples, cored, in 3/4-inch thick wedges 3 tablespoons butter or margarine 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1 package (9) Pepperidge Farm French-Style Rolls

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 4-quart saucepot. Add beef, 1/3 at a time, and cook over high heat, stirring constantly until browned. Remove beef and add remaining oil to pot and saute onion and garlic until tender.

Return beef to pot and add tomatoes, tomato paste, beef broth, bay leaf, parsley, oregano, thyme, pepper, and about 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover and simmer 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Add potatoes and squash; cook 15 minutes longer. Add corn and apple wedges; simmer 5 to 10 minutes longer or until vegetables and apples are just tender.

For a thick stew, mix butter with flour and stir gradually into broth. Cook, stirring constantly until stew thickens. Season with more salt if desired. Serves 10. Cauliflower, Grape, and Walnut Salad 6 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar 1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil leaves 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 medium-size head of cauliflower, separated into tiny florets (4 cups), blanched until tender crisp 2 cups halved green seedless grapes 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes 1/4 cup chopped parsley Boston lettuce 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts Sliced red onion

In large bowl beat oil, vinegar, basil, pepper, and salt. Add cauliflower, grapes, tomatoes, and parsley; toss and marinate 2 to 3 hours in refrigerator.

Arrange salad on a bed of Boston lettuce leaves and sprinkle with walnuts. Garnish platter with red onion and serve. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.