Why is this book so wrecked looking? Because I have spent a lot of time with it. I devoured it when it came out 13 years ago and still regularly flick through it when at a loose end as dinner time approaches. Dishes like rhubarb, Muscat and Mascarpone trifle, aubergine slices with pomegranate juice and mint, Blakean fish pie (to name but a few!!) are the reason why. With How to eat - the pleasures and principles of good food Chatto & Windus 1998 Nigella Lawson changed home cooking in Britain (and many other places) forever.
Her famously relaxed approach to cooking and preparing food was a complete departure to what had come before and in many ways she paved the way for many of the so-called lifestyle foodwriters that followed her. Without Nigella I don't think Jamie Oliver or even Nigel Slater would have found their audience so easily. The idea of doing less rather more to good produce runs through the book not least because Lawson, by her own admission ,would much rather be socialising or lounging. It's not fast food mind you - she'll put in the time if needs be but some dishes don't require it and she's all for those. Some of her recipes are scarcely recipes at all but if sometimes a bowl of cherries or a perfectly ripe piece of cheese is all you need to finish a meal why complicate things?
She excels at the most "British" of dishes and in many ways this book is a celebration of so many staples that had come to be viewed as dull and old hat- roasts, proper custard, puddings... There's also a strong Italian bias (she's a massive Anna del Conte fan) so there's a real respect for the integrity of good ingredients. The Italian connection brings us lots of very simple dishes like lentils with sausage, chestnut and pancetta salad as well as all those very Nigella touches like liberal doses of Marsala and Mascarpone. Lawson was a restaurant critic for years and draws from all that exposure to world cuisines so there's Cambodian, Thai and Japanese (her salmon marinated in den miso inspired by the now infamous black cod served at Nobu is wonderful) there too.
There are of course great recipes and ideas but more than these this book is about an approach to food. Her real aim, as she says in the preface, is to instill confidence in the home cook, encourage an ability to prepare a meal without the crutch of recipes and exact amounts.
How to cook is written around themes like The Basics, Cooking in advance, Weekend lunch, Dinner and Feeding babies and small children (a lot of people swear by this one) rather than the typical old school Mrs Beetonesque chapters on Meat, Fish, Eggs etc..It's about eating good food as part of your busy life, (working, raising children, drinking wine with friends over an easy Sunday lunch) rather than instead of it.
The tone is beautifully conversational and Lawson is a wonderful writer. Her stories, interspersed with the most practical of household hints (what amount of chicken stock to freeze at a time and how) along with her unashamed greed carry the reader along. In the Basics chapter she starts with the tale of how roast chicken was prepared by her mother when she was growing up and after the "recipe" for said chicken she moves onto the mayonnaise needed for the leftovers and then after that what to do with the leftover egg whites (you only use yolks to make mayonnaise)- meringues, Lengue de chat biscuits and macaroons are all discussed before we find ourselves taking about Bechamel. It's a logical if meandering progression and the book is like a chat you might have with your (extremely good in the kitchen) friend.
With later books and her television appearances Lawson's personality, beauty and downright suggestive style in front of the camera almost became an end in themselves and she has been dismissed at times as lifestyle or food porn. These charges have threatened to undermine her legacy but don't write her off. She became hugely famous with this book and for very good reason. It's an essential part of any cook's library and will make you fall in love with food again.
My recipe this week is a gutsy chorizo stew the kind you'll find in Nigella's book - big on flavour, lots of great colour and, most importantly, guaranteed to having everyone coming back for more. Serve with a big bowl of cumin scented couscous flecked with roasted red pepper, lots of parsley and toasted pumpkin seeds or keep things super easy with a loaf of really good bread then sit back and read this book....
Chickpea and chorizo stew
3 medium onions roughly chopped
1/2 head celery or 5-6 outer stalks chopped finely
1 Bay leaf
800gr tinned chopped tomatoes (2 tins)
1 tin chickpeas
A little Parmesan cheese
Some flat leaf parsley
Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a pan then throw in the onions and bay leaf. Begin cooking over a lowish heat. After a few minutes add the celery, a pinch of salt and a little more oil if you think it needs it. Saute the onions and celery for about half an hour until they cook down by about half. Slice the chorizo into pieces about 1 cm thick and throw them into the pan. Turn up the heat a smidgen and continue cooking for about 10 minutes until the chorizo is nice and tender and everything is a gorgeous paprika colour (if you are Nigella both your outfit and kitchen will match this colour). Add the tomatoes and cook for another 20 -30 minutes. When the tomatoes have reduced by half, taste the stew and add more seasoning if you think it needs it. Rinse a tin of chickpeas and stir them in along with a cup of warm water.Cook for a further 5 minutes then take off the heat. To serve top with Parmesan shaving and chopped parsley.