Townhouse Books

Sunday, May 08, 2005


If I don’t have the energy to cook or even go to the grocery store, why would I read cookbooks? Two reasons. First, I can usually sweet talk my sister into making the recipe I’m interested in. Second, Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks are more inspirational than they are instructional.

If you’ve seen Nigella on the Style Network, you know that she’s British, gorgeous, and chatty without being (ahem, Rachel Ray) psychotic. She used to be the food editor of British Vogue, and now writes a food column in the New York Times. Her personal life is tragic – lost her mother, sister, and husband to cancer. But her outlook on life is simple: be practical, don’t fiddle, and enjoy yourself. Her books reflect this philosophy; she doesn’t suggest making exquisite canapés or braided pie crusts. She doesn’t make pronouncements about the futility of cooking with sub-par produce. (The woman lives in England, for crying out loud – their growing season for fresh local produce is about a minute and a half in July.)

I find Nigella ultimately believable. When she says that it’s actually quite easy to pop a roast chicken in the oven when you get home from work and entertain 6 for dinner, I believe her. When I feel up to that, I will turn to her recipe. Again, I return to the contrasting example of Rachel Ray – to complete one of her menus in 30 minutes requires 30 minutes of preparation (the recipes start by saying you need julienned carrots, or peeled potatoes, or chicken breasts sliced into thin strips) and 30 minutes of mad multitasking. Nigella would rather let her dinner bake all day, lounging and snacking while the oven does the work.

She has written five books, of which I have read four. How to Be a Domestic Goddess focuses on baking, which I loathe, so I skipped it. How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food has replaced Joy of Cooking as my go-to guide in the kitchen. It’s really a series of essays with recipes included. In the introduction she explains her motivation for both the title and her approach: “I don’t believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating. Such love, of course, is not something that can be taught, but it can be conveyed – and maybe that’s the point. In writing this book, I wanted to make food and my slavering passion for it the starting point; indeed, for me it was the starting point. I have nothing to declare but my greed.” This book is arranged into chapters that relate to the occasions for which you want food, and they are the stuff of everyday life: cooking in advance, cooking for one and two, fast food, weekend lunch, dinner, low fat, and feeding babies and small children. There are whole menus included for each occasion. She makes the point that meals that require quick, last-minute preparation are actually more stressful than those that hang out in the oven while you read the mail, set the table, and watch the news. So while you will find instructions for quickly heating canned beans with herbs, onion, celery and garlic in her “Fast Food” chapter, you will also find a recipe for cinnamon-hot roast rack of lamb. If you have kids, the chapter on kid-friendly food is outstanding. This is where my deep trust of Nigella was confirmed: when I read that she fed her children their first peanut butter sandwich in the doctor’s office because she was afraid of peanut allergies. She describes some of the baby-food purees that she concocted for her first-born, and I rejoice – I make all of Daisy’s food myself, and take a bit of flak for not using Gerber. We share the bond of new-mom paranoia, so when she suggests mashing all sorts of things (minced meat, cheese, pesto, poached eggs) into a baked potato I make a mental note to get potatoes next time I make it to the store.

Nigella Bites was the inspiration for the TV series of the same name, and this series is how most people know the author. There are fewer recipes, and they are given more of a glamour treatment: glossy photos, a page-long essay for each recipe. With chapters like “Temple Food” (the stuff you would eat to purify your body after a long night on the town) and “Trashy” (includes deep fried candy bars and ham cooked in Coca-Cola) you can imagine that the essays that launch each recipe are entertaining. My favorite recipe from this book is poached chicken topped with wilted spinach and a mixture of white beans and chorizo sausage. It’s beautiful, simple, and impresses guests. (Right, Justin?) Forever Summer is another gorgeous-looking book. All of the recipes are things you could imagine yourself eating in your fabulous Italian summer home – but in case you don’t have one, Nigella argues that when you eat foods like these in the dead of winter (even if it means using less-than-inspirational produce) you feel like it’s summertime. The cocktails are awesome –I highly recommend the drink that blends a whole (peeled) lemon, sugar, ice, and a shot of limoncello. Feast was just published last Fall, and it is a huge collection for every celebratory occasion, from birthdays to funerals. All of her books have elements of autobiography, but this one more than the rest – lots of memories of her family and how food brought them together. There’s a great, simple recipe for Penne alla Vodka that will save me big bucks – I can’t resist that dish in restaurants, and now I can have it at home for pennies. (Penne for pennies. Can you tell I’m up at 6am to get this post finished?)

Any one of these books is perfect for curling up on a Sunday afternoon, the epicure’s answer to window shopping. Who knows – you might find yourself realizing that you have everything necessary to make spaghetti aglio olio, and off you go.


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  • This sounds like something I need. I've stopped cooking, for a variety of reasons, and my biggest complaint is the prep time. I'm just not gonna frickin' chop vegetables for 45 minutes, mmmmkay?

    But I've never really felt inspired by a cookbook. So maybe I'll take a look at these. I'm also wondering if anyone's checked out those "3 ingredient meal" cookbooks. Ummm...Amazon search for "low carb (shut up) three ingredient" should do the trick.

    Gimme books to make me cook!

    By Blogger lillygog, at 11:25 AM  

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