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Even a spy can write a cookbook

I’m in bed, late at night, reading about food.

Actually, I’m rereading a book, for the fifth or sixth time. It’s a cookbook.

There’s some good advice available on the pages.

For example, the author writes: “Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple, and by this I do not mean to imply you will find in this, or indeed any other book, the secret of turning out first-class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble, and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love …”

I plow past the introduction and move on to read how to prepare a confit of pork. From there, I review an absurdly simple salad of lettuce hearts with melted butter. It sounds odd, but I resolve to try it. You line the bowl with the tender hearts of the lettuce then nail them with a smidge of salt and a “scrape” of sugar. At the last moment, the lettuce is drizzled with melted butter into which has been cooked a small piece of mashed garlic and some lemon juice.

This is a favorite kind of reading material. I regularly mix cookbooks, or books about food with something by Milan Kundera, Nietzsche, Haruki Murakami, William James or A.M. Homes and I suffer no ill effects at all.

You do this, don’t you? Read cookbooks and books about food and eating just before you end your day? It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this, does it?

And it is for entertainment more than anything else, isn’t it?

Let’s say you’ve spent considerable time in the kitchen, at the stove. You’ve been cooking for years. You’re no pro but, in your universe, you know what you’re doing; you know your way around the pantry and stove. You enjoy reading about food but, be honest now, how often do you consult a cookbook with the idea of rigorously following a recipe you find therein?

Not often. Right?

I know it’s not my habit; I use cookbooks to provide clues, to jog the memory — seldom to give me an inviolable guide, rarely to provide me a single route to a toothsome destination. That’s not the way I go about the day-to-day business of cooking.

Me, I visit the market nearly every day. I go after work; I check out what is available and I decide on the spot what I am going to prepare. When I arrive at the store, I hustle first to the protein, head for the fish counter and meat case. If there is something there that interests me, and looks reasonably fresh, I buy it. But, face it, the idea of fresh fish appearing with any regularity here in Siberia with a View is a stretch so, most times, I abandon the fish case and check out chicken, beef, pork, turkey, sausages.

Once the protein of choice is in the basket, I’m off to the produce section and to select aisles for the rest of the items I need.

Generally, I heed the advice of the author of the aforementioned book. She recommends keeping things as fresh as possible, and sticking to a fairly simple approach once the ingredients are in the kitchen.

For the most part, I work within my comfort zone, utilizing ingredients and techniques with which I am familiar. And I keep certain things on hand at home to help me, that I use often — stocks, a bit of glace de viand, oil-cured olives, mustards, extra-virgin olive oil, crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, beans, lemons, butter, cheeses, onions, garlic, parsley, cilantro, celery, carrots, unsweetened coconut milk for curries.

So, when I read about cooking, I am doing so as a diversion — frosting the cake, if you will.

I got to thinking the other night about the cookbooks and food writers I keep nearby. While I might not rely on recipes (since I don’t bake, precision is a stranger to me), I read about food all the time, as I am sure many of you do. I crack a cookbook or magazine several times each week, and I indulge a food writer nearly every night.

I check the shelves and stacks within arm’s reach of the bed and find the following cookbooks:

“The Professional Chef,” 7th edition, produced by the Culinary Institute of America. The “Moby Dick” of contemporary cookbooks.

“How to Cook Everything,” by Mark Bittman, the minimalist Fannie Farmer of our times.

“The Way to Cook,” by Julia Child, as well as her collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1.”

Craig Claiborne’s “New York Times Cookbook.”

“Cooking at Home,” by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.

“Marcella Cucina,” by Marcella Hazan.

“Momofuku,” By David Chang.

And these are just the ones within easy reach, on a shelf next to the bed.

There are also works by several of my favorite food writers on that shelf.

Two books by Jeffrey Steingarten: “It Must Have Been Something I Ate” and “The Man Who Ate Everything.”

“Pot on the Fire,” by John Thorne.

Two collections of James Beard essays: “Beard on Food” and “The Armchair Beard.”

M.F.K. Fisher’s “With Bold Knife and Fork,” and “The Art of Eating,” including “Serve it Forth,” “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “The Gastronomical Me” and “An Alphabet for Gourmets.”

I can also reach over from the bed and pick up some semi-scientific tomes: Harold McGee’s “The Curious Cook” and Edward Behr’s “The Artful Eater.”

On occasion, I’ll reabsorb snippets of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” or Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef.”

But, there is one author I read again and again. A tattered paperback copy of one of her books is closest at hand for that late-night reading. She is the author quoted above and is, as I age, my favorite.

Elizabeth David.

The book: “French Country Cooking.”

Fresh, and simple. No matter how many times it is read.

While a writer like Fisher is endlessly entertaining, a masterful stylist, it is David whom I find most interesting, most helpful.

I first read David’s “French Country Cooking” in 1980. I picked up a used paperback at the bookstore at the college where I worked.

On first reading, I formed an image of the author: a somewhat reclusive spinster, repressed and narrow of scope, lifewise. A scholar, perhaps. Dry. I imagined tweeds, sparse hair in a proper bun, corrective shoes, a cloud of lavender scent. I saw, in my mind’s eye, an old dame sitting at a secretary writing her books longhand with a high-grade fountain pen.

The book introduced me to the idea of cooking with what is available, what is freshest and best. The style of preparation was straightforward. I tried some of the recipes, prepared my first daube with David as a guide.

Later, I read David’s “French Provincial Cooking” and “Mediterranean Food.” “French Country Cooking” rests on the bottom shelf of the bed table. I can find it in the dark. I’ve handled it so many times, I’ve memorized its shape, size and texture.

Turns out, David was anything but a spinster. No tweeds, no bun, no corrective shoes.

She was the daughter of a member of the British parliament and she studied at The Sorbonne. While in France, she acquired a taste for that country’s cuisine.

Yes, she was a scholar, but so much more. Possessed of striking beauty, and what seems a considerable wild streak, she was at one time or another an actress, a more than slightly scandalous lover. She was a reference librarian and a recipient of the Order of the British Empire.

She was also once arrested as a spy.

And she is nearly invisible in her work, thus the mistaken image of the spinster. When you read her work, you get few signs of the woman who lived with her paramour in France, Italy, Greece and Egypt. You get a frank description of foods — ingredients and ways to use them — lessons intended to reform English home cooking.

I continue to read David for little touches, subtle techniques that make the food I prepare better, Take, for example, her Pommes de Terre Sablees in her “Summer Cooking.”

Spuds. Easy stuff. Like ’em fried, do yuh?

Well, David shows us a way to make them better.

Take some potato wedges and saute them over low heat in a large frying pan, in butter. Lots of butter. Turn the spuds from time to time and cook, depending on size of the wedges, for 30 to 45 minutes. (Low heat means low heat.)

When the wedges are golden brown and tender, into the pan goes more butter and fresh breadcrumbs. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Continue to cook until the breadcrumbs are crisp.

Mercy.

Them is some fine potatoes.

And what better way to serve them with than a version of David’s Estouffade de Boeuf a la Provencale.

Take a couple pounds of stewing beef cut in fairly large pieces and marinate them.

David’s marinade is easy to make. A “wineglass of olive oil” is heated in a saucepan and, once the oil is hot, a sliced carrot, a sliced onion and a half head or so of celery is popped in and cooked till slightly brown. At that point, in goes a quarter pint or so of red wine and a small glass of wine vinegar along with several stalks of parsley, four shallots, a couple cloves of garlic, thyme, bay leaf, a sprig of rosemary, peppercorns and salt. The mix is simmered for 30 minutes, cooled and poured over the meat.

David recommends marinating the meat 24 hours before it is taken from the marinade, patted dried and sautéed in bacon fat until browned. Into the casserole it goes and the strained marinade is poured over with a little more wine added to cover. She tells us to add “fresh herbs.” By this, we assume she means thyme, perhaps some chervil or tarragon. Add several crushed garlic cloves, a quarter pound or so cubed bacon (we call it salt pork — it is not our ordinary smoked bacon) several carrots and a half to three-quarter pound stoned olives. Don’t think for a moment David is referring to those genetically-altered, black monstrosities produced in California and sent across the globe in cans. She means real olives — a mix of black and green. No salt is added at this point. The top of the pan or casserole is covered with parchment (or foil) and the lid is placed on tight. The mix is cooked in a 300 oven for several hours, Ten minutes or so before serving, the grease is skimmed off and three or four chopped tomatoes are added.

While I would go with the sautéed potatoes, David recommends serving the estouffade on cooked noodles put on a hot dish with a drizzle of olive oil, some grated cheese and a ladle of the sauce from the beef. She tells us this way “… of serving pasta with a stew or with the pot-au-feu is one of the old Nicois dishes, called Macaronade.”

Elizabeth probably knows best. The Macaronade it is — with a salad of greens dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, perhaps a dessert spoon of coarse mustard whisked in as well.

I’ll keep reaching for Elizabeth, just before I turn off the light. (Sounds naughty, doesn’t it?)

I’ll continue to try to meet her standards. I’ll reread her admonition: “A highly developed shopping sense is important, so is some knowledge of the construction of a menu with a view to the food in season, the manner of cooking, the texture and colour of the dishes to be served in relation to each other.”

And, I’ll keep in mind she was once arrested as a spy. Talk about texture and colour.