How to eat by Nigella Lawson: review
How to eat. ‘With a knife and fork’ is my facetious reply to the title of this cook book by Nigella Lawson. The subtitle redeems it – The pleasures and principles of good food . This was the first book I owned by La Lawson and its pages are looking fairly battered now – always the sign of a well-used cookery book.
It is the epitome of the type of cook book you can read in bed as well as use in the kitchen. Never one to use one word when a rambling three sentences could be substituted, this is part instruction, part diary to all intents and purposes. I’d been warned off ‘Domestic Goddess‘ by friends and Amazon reviews – “the recipes don’t work” – but from day one How to eat struck a chord, probably because it reflected a similar time in my life as her own. Firmly ensconced on the toddler birthday party circuit, I understood how she could dedicate a page and a half to Marmite sandwiches. I had my own embryonic cookie cutter selection and a tradition of making gingerbread for every special occasion (where Nigella tended towards a lighter biscuit daubed with icing). Stuck on a compound in Saudi Arabia, dinner parties were a regular event and her menus provided inspiration, even if some were just pipe dreams (pork, alcohol and game in rather short supply). In tone, it managed to balance the feeling of great sophistication with being utterly down-to-earth (in retrospect neither are true).
Moving to Dubai in 2000, gave me the freedom to shop and cook more adventurously. I could jump in the car and drive to a choice of supermarkets rather than wait for KP to drive me to the closest, aiming to get there with enough time to shop between prayers. There was not much that couldn’t be found in Dubai; pork and alcohol all year round, with game available over Christmas. Cooking Nigella’s excellent pheasant casserole became an annual ritual.
Sometimes you need an aide memoire, rather than recipes and this book provided it for me. A good basic carbonara recipe for instance (no cream or parsley thank you), a really good beef stew (beef stew with anchovies and thyme), minestrone. The Irish Club’s Irish Stew is equally good for a mid-week supper or to serve for friends at dinner, with luscious, rich gravy and intense herbs (leaving out the pearl barley for KP). I’ve even made a vegetarian version with halloumi which my daughter adores.
Nigella captures moments that we can all relate to. ‘Before you’ve even taken your coat off, put the chocolate and butter in a bowl and suspend over a pan of simmering water’ she begins in her instructions for making gooey chocolate puddings for a mid-week, after work supper. Her analogies can be vivid; of Turkish Delight figs ‘the purple-blue fruits are cut to reveal the gaping red within, so that they sit in their bowl like plump little open-mouthed birds’. There are no pictures of the finished dishes in this book but with descriptions like that who needs them. The figs, slicked with a rosewater and orange blossom water scented syrup are good as a pud but also as breakfast with Greek yoghurt.
Other favourite recipes from How to eat are butterflied leg of lamb, stem ginger gingerbread and pheasant with gin and it. The section on pastry-making was really useful in a hot climate and the chapter on feeding babies and small children worth all Annabel Karmel‘s books put together. Less successful are Anna’s chickpea and pasta soup (bland and quite revolting) and trifle. KP has banned me from making any trifle recipe by Nigella due to the excessive amount of alcohol she recommends. Her famous ham in Coca-Cola first makes an appearance here, although I’ve never been tempted to try it.
While the book is a good reference to many basic recipes (sauces such as Béarnaise, making stock, a range of cakes) and tips for organising your larder and freezer, Nigella has never, in any of her books, even given lip service to considerations about budget. She cheerfully adds a whole bottle of Sauternes to a pudding for instance (Sauternes and lemon balm jelly), roast chicken is on the menu for a mid-week meal, grouse and pheasant part of the repertoire. She is meticulous in her directions in this book, explaining in great detail how the recipe fits into her life and alternative ways of making or serving. There is half a page on making breadcrumbs and includes information about the weight of one slice of bread or the equivalent in tablespoons. This is what makes the book so readable for me but the paragraphs of preamble prior to each recipe means it’s not the quickest book to navigate in a hurry. Nigella’s unbridled enthusiasm for food and cooking at the heart of family life jumps out of the starting blocks here which is why it made such an impact. I think it was her grown-up cookery tome before she indulged in a more frivolous future.
How to eat rarely leaves the shelf now except to refer to the favourite recipes above. However it’s the perfect reminder of a certain time in the life of our family and will never be donated to ‘K9 Friends‘ for that reason.
With more than one hundred cook books , I thought a series of quick reviews might be useful to see why they’ve earned their place on my shelves, in my kitchen and sometimes in my heart. This is the first – let me know what you think.