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How to eat by Nigella Lawson: review

February 15, 2013

How to Eat - by Nigella LawsonHow 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).

How to eat by Nigella Lawson

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.

Bananas and custard recipe

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.

The Domestic Goddess

The Domestic Goddess (Photo credit: Smaku)

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.

Pages from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

46 Comments
  1. February 15, 2013 6:23 am

    Yes please! With my new years resolution not to buy a cookbook for at least 6 months, I would love to live vicariously through others’ collections!

    • February 15, 2013 8:11 am

      Good idea. I’ve got a bit better of late but have to stop myself from going into Kinokuniya – a vast book shop we have here in Dubai with an enormous selection on cookery books…much better than anything available in the UK now. I can spend hours in there and never walk out empty handed.

      • February 16, 2013 2:43 am

        Kinokuniya has a store in Sydney, and it’s next to a really good ramen restaurant. Ramen + cookbooks = how can one say no?

      • February 16, 2013 9:30 am

        Yes!

  2. February 15, 2013 6:47 am

    You must try the ham in coca cola it is the only way I cook ham now, lovely review of a book that has many memories, my new Paul Hollywood has just arrived and I haven’t even opened it,savouring it for Monday night swimming session at Hamdan where I have 90 minutes to kill each week.

  3. February 15, 2013 9:35 am

    I love Nigella

  4. February 15, 2013 10:59 am

    Sally,

    I think you did a fabulous job with the review. I am convinced that I need this one on my shelf pretty quick. The first cookbook that I ever owned was ” the domestic goddess” I used it so many times and I have the UK and the US version (both gifts). Her recipes never disappointed. I am surprised that there are people who thought her recipes didn’t work. I would rather go on and say that every recipe has worked everytime I have tried it.
    I also have Nigellissima and Feast as well. I am yet to try something from them.

    I am a big Nigella fan and I enjoy her writing as much as I enjoy trying out her recipes..Sometimes I just pick up her book at bedtime to feel inspired by her enthusiasm for food and ingredients.
    Beautiful review!!! Keep them coming!

  5. February 15, 2013 11:05 am

    Really appreciate this Anita – I wasn’t sure how a review of an old cookbook would go down as we seem to be so obsessed with the new. I’ll do a review of Feast at some point because it’s my very favourite of Nigella’s. I do have Domestic Goddess, haven’t cooked from it a lot but everything has worked – but there was a lot of negative feedback at the time. This is a book to read as well as cook from. Thanks so much for your comment.

  6. February 15, 2013 11:22 am

    A wonderful review! This book sounds really interesting. I really love to watch Nigella on TV, but until now I haven’t bought any of here books (I don’t really know why), although I have successfully made a few of her recipes….

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  7. February 15, 2013 11:42 am

    Oh yes Sally please continue these reviews! they are fun and inspiring!! Some cookbooks have been with us for years and we know exactly which recipe it is that takes us back again and again to visit the long time friends!

  8. February 15, 2013 12:05 pm

    What a fantastic review Sally! I love the way Nigella is so descriptive about food. Shall we invite ourselves over to her place so she can entertain us with one of her fabulous meals, naturally with something we cannot ordinarily get or usually cook with. Oh what a wonderful dream.
    Have a super weekend Sally. :-) Mandy x

  9. February 15, 2013 12:17 pm

    I don’t have any of her books strangely enough. Great review Sally, keep them coming :)

  10. February 15, 2013 12:21 pm

    Yes, I’m all for reviews of old cookbooks. I think I prefer them actually. I enjoyed your review because it is clear you have been using the book a long time and you obviously have good reasons to treasure it. Those are the kind of things I want to hear about. And you have links to a few recipes, which is valuable, too.

    Nigella’s cookbooks are ones I see often at charity shops, which are favourite haunts of mine. I bought Forever Summer, made a few things from it, and then gave it away again. The recipes were fine, but I just didn’t find them too inspirational. (There was a big section on ice creams and one day I will own an ice cream maker. Till then I will sadly have to make do without.) I have often wondered if her earlier books were better, and you seemed to have confirmed it.

  11. Susan permalink
    February 15, 2013 1:02 pm

    Thanks for this. I made Nigella’s Proper English Trifle at Christmas and it is absolutely perfect, a real winner and looks beautiful. Sprinkle some pomegranate seeds on the finished product and it is stunning. I get so many compliments, even from seasoned cooks. I will take it off the shelf and have a good look through and see what I can make this week. It is a fun book to read through.

  12. February 15, 2013 1:34 pm

    My Mum has a copy of this book and I always used to laugh at the Marmite sandwich recipe. Nigella has some amazing ideas, and some truly awful ones, which I think you’ve summed up here – looking forward to reading more reviews!

  13. February 15, 2013 1:55 pm

    Lately I fallen in love with Nigella – somehow I couldn’t bear her before. And I do not know what it was. Probably her ‘persona’ all together. But her recipes are actually manageable and truly delicious. And lately I even managed to watch her cookery programmes. So, Yes Nigella, I have your book, Forever Summer and maybe will get one more?!?
    Thank you for a great review Sally.

  14. February 15, 2013 1:59 pm

    I also do book reviews on my baking blog (usually the new releases) but do you know what? I haven’t got a single Nigella or Delia Smith! What’s going on? I have got Peggy Porschen, Mich Turner and other great cake decoratoring guru’s books but after seeing how battered your Nigella is I think I need to rectify the missing entries asap!

    EmmaMT

  15. February 15, 2013 6:17 pm

    Just read your review and it brought back such happy memories of “How To Eat” that I am going to dust it down and cook from it again this weekend (as well as make it my bedtime reading). A few years ago, in a decluttering phase, I donated my well used copy to the school jumble sale and almost immediately regretted it. I was so happy to find my copy in another sale a few years later that I bought it back and will not part with it again! Please do keep reviewing older books – I love to read thoughts about books I already know, rather than always about something I might need to buy.

    • February 16, 2013 10:14 am

      What a fantastic story of a book lost and found. And thanks for the encouraging words – much appreciated. Lovely blog btw – glad to have found it.

      • February 23, 2013 10:53 pm

        Thank you Sally – it is very early days for my blog and I’m still struggling with the technology (only just found your reply on my site!). Its great to have made contact with you and I really love your posts and will keep reading.

  16. February 15, 2013 6:37 pm

    Sally, as ever you strike a chord and connection in my own life – I won “How to Eat” in a hilarious Christmas gifting evening organised by a Canadian friend in Dubai in 1999… I think… There was some kind of barter/auction element to the game that enabled subsequent bidders the opportunity to take someone else’s gift… this book earned a record number of bids… but I was the most tenacious, so ended up taking it home. Mine looks more beaten up than yours, and I too bring it to bed as often as I thumb through it in the kitchen… it seems to have chapters that relate to periods in my life more closely than if I’d written my own memoir….
    Love to learn about your bookshelf and can’t wait to read your next review….
    Thank you as always for nostalgia, inspiration and delicious ideas at every turn…

  17. February 15, 2013 7:34 pm

    Oh dear you’ve done it again! I have, and love, several Nigella books, but not this one. I may have to remedy that now… Seriously though, great review, keep them coming. By the way, some recipes in Goddess are vg, food processor danish pastries for example, but I have also had some iffy experiences too.

    • February 16, 2013 10:15 am

      Ah well Euan – you’ve got your own back. Richard Bertinet’s Pastry is here on the desk beside me :)

  18. February 15, 2013 10:01 pm

    Love Nigella…I do have the Domestic goddess and the recipes turn out pretty good…Your review is great..would love to look out for How to eat as well…
    On another note…look forward to you starting the Cookbook club:))

    • February 16, 2013 10:16 am

      Thank for the reminder Shy – must pull my finger out on the cook book club

  19. February 16, 2013 4:22 pm

    I haven’t read any of her books, perhaps I’ll give this one a go. I’m not very fond of the new one, but that’s mostly because I don’t really get why she suddenly wants to look like a topmodel instead of a gorgeous, sensual, real, feminin and slightly better in the flesh lady ;)
    I wonder sometimes whether or not she lost so much weight and had her face photoshopped in such way under pressure of publishers or whatever… I hope not because that would be such a shame.
    She’s an icon nonetheless.

  20. February 17, 2013 12:43 pm

    A well-used tome! I have this book, too and it was my first Nigella book. I also like Nigella Express and Kitchen, which is my favourite over all. I never owned How to Be A Dometic Godess, although I’ve probably baked recipes from it found online. I agree with Regula, too, her latest book was too much for me, too much glamour, not particularly authentic, but nevertheless, she’s Nigella and she’s pretty awesome. I see she’s trying to ‘crack’ America now – good luck to her!

  21. crasterkipper permalink
    February 17, 2013 1:01 pm

    Nice trip down memory lane… And did you say Irish stew made with Haloumi… Now that’s creative!!!

  22. February 17, 2013 6:59 pm

    A very good review, with lots of pertinent points … Nigella should thank you! Reading through the comments here, I couldn’t help but notice how many readers lived in Dubai! Now THERE’s a post you could write up for us one of these days …! What was your favourite supermarket? Spinney’s ? and what about Choitram’s .! It is such an international place, I am curious to know what sort of ‘cooking’ went on there the most …

    • February 17, 2013 7:05 pm

      I actually have a post drafted along these lines…..!

  23. February 17, 2013 7:05 pm

    Hello …it’s me again … and you must think me quite daft. I apologise but I got your blog mixed up with someone else’s … and couldn’t for the life of me fathom why there was all this talk of Dubai!!! So sorry … !!!

    • February 17, 2013 7:06 pm

      No worries – thanks for your lovely comment.

  24. andreamynard permalink
    February 18, 2013 12:23 am

    Great review Sally. This is one of the cookbooks I’ve used most over the years too – the food stains and slightly wavy appearance are evidence of Nigella’s ability to give us wonderful recipes but also a good read for the bath/bed.And your mention of her lack of consideration to budget made me smile too. I love the fact that in the chapter on feeding children she suggests that qualis eggs are a perfect food for toddlers!

  25. February 18, 2013 12:38 am

    How to Eat is my cooking bible. Brilliant review! What you have said really sums up how I feel about this book. I turn to it again and again, it’s so useful. I also love HTBADG, to date the only recipe I’ve tried that didn’t work well was the flapjacks. I remember the negaative reviews and granted, there are a few errors in the book. The details and(corrections) are on Nigella’s website.

  26. February 20, 2013 3:52 pm

    This is a great idea! I also have a lot of cookery books in English, Dutch, Sapnish. I have 250! I also have this tasty book. I love Nigella’s earlier books a lot more because they were a bit healthier then later on! A great review too!

  27. February 20, 2013 11:01 pm

    I share your sentiments on How to Eat! The whole time and place thing. My copy is battered and just a bit grubby but I will not part with it or upgrade to a clean more recent edition. I have notes scribbled onto recipes reminding me of when and why I cooked a particular dish and what I tried as a variation .

  28. February 23, 2013 11:36 pm

    Recently I realised that I might not make the very best cookbook reviewer. I usually fall for a book and rarely stop to criticise it. After reading a series of cookbook reviews on food52.com’s Piglet cookbook contest, I realise that why we love certain cookbooks is a personal thing. The books meet us in a place, at a time when they answer questions and bring comfort – whether in a much loved recipe, or in newly learnt technique. I love that despite all the negative reviews, which you acknowledge, it holds some special treasures. A worth one for that shelf and bookcase.

  29. February 28, 2013 8:16 pm

    Great review! I only have Nigella’s Feast and much as I find her TV shows a little… smug, everything I’ve made from the book has been cracking. I never realised “How to Eat” has no photos of the finished dishes! I definitely have cookbooks that I cook from, and cookbooks I just look at ;)

  30. Curzon Tussaud permalink
    March 1, 2013 1:58 pm

    There’s a surprisingly good section on “low fat” and her basic idea here is to make dishes so vibrant in flavour that you are satisfied with eating rather less. She also says why not eat something a bit naughty but in small amounts: I know that’s obvious, but her suggestion of treating oneself to a single size steak and kidney pud just once in a while seems a good one…….

  31. March 11, 2013 11:38 am

    First time visitor to your blog and enjoying it very much. I think reviewing old books is a great idea -and I completely agree with your comment about the chapter on feeding children and babies in “How to Eat” v Annabel Karmel. We still make the meatballs recipe from Nigella and I cannot even remember anything I made from AK! The other recipe I keep returning to is the chocolate raspberry pudding cake – very much of its time but still delicious. Is it long enough ago to be considered ‘retro’? How depressing!

  32. Elizabeth permalink
    April 27, 2014 4:36 pm

    I love Nigella Bites, and it’s not been mentioned here. I have cooked the recipes from this book more than any other. And they work so well for me that I keep using them.
    What I love about Nigella is that she understands we don’t have all day to be in the kitchen,
    So she has many time saving tips.

    • April 27, 2014 8:27 pm

      I have most of Nigella’s early books but not that one. I’d always dismissed it as a bit frivolous so glad to hear you’ve found it so useful. My least favourite is Nigella Express – it’s just not my kind of cooking (although the white chocolate mousse in there is a classic).

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