Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd's Plats du Jour, one of the latest of Persephone Books' treasurable reissues, is the kind of cookbook that sends me into the kitchen. Glossy books by chefs do not. Gray and Boyd were writers, offering provincial -- in the Elizabeth David sense -- fare for home cooks. Elaborate recipes originating in professional kitchens leave me, looking for inspiration in preparing everyday meals for families and friends, cold.
Not that I would follow Gray and Boyd's 1957 recipes to the letter. Why, for example, would you put flour in a dried bean stew? Here, though, is a recipe -- for Greek lemon and egg soup -- that I think needs only a little reinterpretation (I have put a few notes at the end). After the bean soup on Wednesday, I thought that I should offer something more classical.
Soupa avgo lemono (for 4)
2 pints (1.1 l) chicken stock
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 oz (57 g) patna rice
1 lemon, juiced
Salt and cayenne pepper
Heat the chicken stock with the onion in a saucepan. When it is boiling, add the rice. Beat the eggs in a bowl, and mix with the lemon juice. Start checking the rice after 10 minutes. When it is cooked, take the stock from the heat. Pour a little into the egg and lemon, whisking constantly to try to avoid curdling. Pour in some more (half a ladleful, perhaps), still whisking. Pour this mixture back into the stock, put the pan back on to a low heat, and stir constantly until the soup has a creamy consistency. Take the pan off the heat, and carry on stirring for a minute or so before serving.
I had only a pint of fresh stock, and used water and a cube to make up the rest. I did not have patna rice; I used arborio.
One oddity in Gray and Boyd's recipe is that they ask you to mix the "strained" stock with the egg and lemon mixture. If they mean that you should strain the stock from the onion and rice, they neglect to tell you to put those ingredients back in. Anyway, it seems unnecessary.
You pour a little hot stock into the cold egg and lemon so that the stock will be chilled, losing its power to curdle the mixture. But you still have to be careful. I was not stirring as I poured, and got a few fragments of set egg.
I heated the egg and stock mixture for a minute. It is a bad mistake to carry on, expecting the soup to thicken further. (Making a custard, you would use less than half this quantity of liquid with three eggs.) If it boils, you'll get a soup with scrambled egg in it. Carry on stirring away from the heat, because the hot pan still has curdling power.
The egg coats the mouth faintly, in a not unpleasant way; the lemon is mild. The soup has a wonderfully soothing quality.