Jan 28, 2011

Lovely Lawson

A new Nigella Lawson book is always cause for celebration in my world.

With plenty of know-how, an approachable style, and a playful spirit, Lawson's work is an automatic go-to when I'm running low on ideas and inspiration. Her other works, like How To Eat, Feast, Forever Summer, Nigella Christmas, and Nigella Express are chalk-full of yummy, smart, and mainly easy dishes. Her basic pizza recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess is a staple in my kitchen, and it isn't too much of an exaggeration to state that How To Eat was life-changing.

Sure, Nigella is a food goddess -much ink (and drool) has been spilled chronicling that aspect of her -but she's also a seriously good writer. Without a trace of smarmy know-it-all-ness but with oodles of honesty, Nigella's been chronicling what goes on in her kitchen now for almost two decades. It helps that she used to be a journalist; it's equally helpful that she throws in plenty of personal references to keeping her children, friends, and work colleagues nourished. With a slew of titles and television shows under her belt, she strikes me as something like a super-elegant, knowledgable, refreshingly un-hipsterish, print-loving version of a food blogger. With great power -and beauty, and culinary skills -comes great responsibility, and Nigella ably, amply fulfills the requirements for being a wily, wonderful kitchen-witch.

Unlike her last book, a holiday/Christmas book from 2008, her latest, Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home (Knopf), offers a cross-section, multi-seasonal approach, with a firm focus on the basics and homey favorites. Within the pages of the 400+ page hardcover tome, you'll find clear directions, easy-to-understand terms, as well as a thorough Express Index. The book is handily divided into two sectons: "Kitchen Quandaries" and "Kitchen Comforts". Each section contains chapters like "Hurry up, I'm hungry!", "The solace of stirring" and, happily, "Chicken and its place in my home". Nigella has never made a secret of her love of a simple roast chicken throughout her work, and indeed, I still use her basic recipe from How To Eat as the basis of my own: start with a good organic bird, stick half a lemon up the bottom, "annoint" (her word) with butter and olive oil, stick in the oven. Easy-peasy.

So it's nice to see her acknowledge her love of poultry, and to introduce fresh new ideas that are, as ever, Nigella's signature blend of yummy and easy. As she writes in the chapter introduction, "for me, a chicken remains the basic unit of home. I don't really feel a kitchen is mine until I've cooked a chicken there." I can't agree more. Dining out last week in New York, I struck up a conversation with a restaurant manager one night about our shared love of food; he asked me about my own specialty in the kitchen, and answered, after a momentary shyness, "roast chicken." There's something undeniably wonderful about its scent filling the house, the yummy drippings, the moist meat, and the luscious leftovers. Equally, it's nice to see these easy, warming recipes; Thai Chicken Noodle Soup, Poached Chicken With Lardons & Lentils, and Chinatown Chicken Salad are all delicious, easy, and yes, inexpensive. I defy anyone who swears they can't cook to try Nigella's Quick Chicken Caesar recipe. I suspect, like much of Kitchen itself, that she wrote it just for them.

The introduction also features a fantastic section called "Kitchen Confidential", which outlines all the tips, tools, and tricks for home cooks of all abilities. She details the usefulness of having boiling water handy, the benefits of buttermilk in cooking, the uses of baking soda, when and how to freeze stock, and her love of having a myriad of bottles (like vermouth, marsala and garlic-infused oil) around her stovetop. She also doles out an important piece of advice for home cooks of all levels:
This is so much easier to say than to do, but try, when you're cooking for people, not to apologize nervously for what you've made, alerting them to some failure only you might be aware of, or indeed, might have invented. Besides, it only creates tension ,and although I do believe food is important, atmosphere matters so much more.
Atmosphere, and I would argue, confidence. Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home is a tool to provide you with just that when you approach any culinary -or indeed, sensual -endeavor. You can make something, and do well, and enjoy it, with others, or just by yourself. And why wouldn't you? Go forth. Cook. Eat. Live. Be happy. So says Nigella... and it's gorgeously, delicious true.

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