Nigella Lawson, the British cookbook author and Food Network celebrity, came through town recently to promote her newest book, Nigella Kitchen: Recipes From the Heart of the Home (Hyperion), a book that has been "simmering" in her mind for a decade, a chronicle, as she says, of her "love affair with the kitchen."
She chatted with us at 10 Arts Bistro and Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, while munching on a mini hot dog and soft pretzels. In person, Lawson is even more stunning than on television - with flawless skin - and she is disarmingly down-to-earth. Yes, she said, there are plenty of nights she doesn't feel like cooking; no, her teenage kids don't eat everything; and her life is far less glamorous than television might suggest.
Q. You've never been to cooking school. Did your mother teach you to cook?
A. My mother didn't teach me, she just put a chair by the stove and said, "Stir that." We cooked with her. It wasn't all sweetness and light, but she was a very good cook, and what I learned from her was that the only thing you can trust is your instinct. So I was quite lucky, because I believe that is the only way to cook.
Q. Now it seems chefs and celebs dominate the conversation about how to cook. Why?
A. Don't you think it's a strange modern disease, this idea of everyone having to be an expert? People are always thinking they need an expert on child-rearing and cooking, the two things that have kept the human race going. You don't really need expertise. You do the best you can. In a way, the professional is very far removed from how people really cook. When I watch great chefs, I think it's fantastic, but what they are doing is really more akin to theater. It's pleasing to the senses, but it relies on a degree of shock value, a need to be novel, that is out of place in real life.
Q. In one of your early books, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, you encouraged women to get back in the kitchen to reclaim "our Eden" and avoid "the skin of the teeth efficiency of all briskness, little pleasure." But now so much of your books is devoted to quick and easy. Is that simply what people want?
A. I do understand that people want quick things in the week. And I know that you can't always be in a fabulous mood when you cook, but dinner still needs to be made. But I think you can make dinner enjoyable by giving people recipes that are incredibly simple and taste good, so that you do feel a bit that you've created something. Sometimes, when I'm so tired, the process of cooking something makes me feel so much better. In this book, I try and offer every sort of cooking: a pork belly that takes three hours, and a quick meal during the week. I feel you are not necessarily better because you do something more complicated.
Q. With all of the cooking shows and cookbooks and food obsession, are more people cooking?
A. I think that when women entered the workforce in great numbers, they came to believe every time you put something in the oven your IQ would drop down a few points. When I wrote Domestic Goddess, I was so lambasted by the feminists, it was quite interesting. The title was meant to be ironic. But it was as if any traditional female activity should be disparaged. Now, I can see women, generally young women, are so distanced from an age when a woman's place was in the kitchen that they see it in a different way. In fact, there is a slight ricochet effect, where people are getting a bit holy about cooking. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that you are morally superior if you are cooking from scratch. So, there are a great many people who are afraid of cooking, afraid of making mistakes. I don't think anyone should be uneasy in their own kitchen. In spite of the endless reality TV shows, cooking is not a competitive sport. You are allowed to go into the kitchen without being the world's best cook.
Q. Are you on a mission to try and convince people that they will be happy cooking in their own kitchen?
A. I certainly don't feel like it's a mission, because I just lurched into this and I don't quite understand how it happened still. But all the same, when people say to me, "You've got me cooking and I was always frightened," I feel thrilled. I know they are going to tell their friends it's not that hard. I feel pleased. I know my recipes are quite manageable.
Q. Why do you cook?
A. For me, I do it quite selfishly, I enjoy doing it. I'm not comfortable leaving someone else in charge of sustenance. As a mother, I'm bad about playing games, or watching the kids play games. But I know I can perform one of my roles in the kitchen. My daughter used to complain that we didn't do crafts, and I told her, "Look, you don't become a mother in a universal character, you are the person you are, you just have children."
I have to say, maybe it's from far back, coming from refugee stock, I don't feel happy unless I know what my next meal is, it gives me a certain amount of anxiety.
Q. How do you come up with your recipes?
A. The most normal way is that I'm quite greedy and always thinking about what I'd like to eat. New recipes are often a tweaking of an old recipe or a tweaking of someone else's recipe. It's mostly a matter of let me put this together and see if it works. And I've got fairly pronounced taste buds that guide me quite strongly. I work out of my home and I cook lunch every day, except when I'm on tour or taping shows. I don't do it in the abstract, don't do it like a lab. We turn phones off, and we sit down and we have lunch. (She works with one assistant.)
A friend dropped in for lunch one day, and as we were clearing up the plates and talking about what we were going to make the next day, my friend said: "I get it now, you are all junkies and you just sit around talking about your next fix."
Q. You have been a public person most of your life. Is it a challenge to live with a public examination of who you are and what you are doing? For instance, lately you have been criticized for gaining weight.
A. I don't focus on it. You can't worry about what people who don't know you think. That said, I don't think there is a woman alive that wants to be criticized for her weight. And, you know, you don't have to be told when you've put on weight. You are aware of it. I accept what am, I don't pretend to be thin, and I feel, at my age, if I were to lose weight, I would age 10 years very quickly. Now I realize that may be an excuse. But I'm 50, am I not allowed to be who I am?
Q. What's next?
A. I like doing what I do. I often think I must do something different, but then there is always one more thing I need to do. I'm not someone who could be idle or dependent. I'm someone who is compulsively busy in a not-always-healthy fashion. People's expectations are always hard to deal with. I never expected to be doing what I'm doing now. I was going to be a great novelist, and what am I? I'm a circus act. Nigella Express sold a million copies in three months. Obviously, I was very pleased, but I was also embarrassed. It wasn't a "proper" book.
Scallops With Thai-Scented Pea Puree
Makes 2 servings
1 pound (3 1/2 cups) frozen petits pois or peas
1 to 2 tablespoons Thai green curry paste
1/3 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
2 teaspoons peanut or other flavorless oil
2 teaspoons butter
6 big scallops (such as sold in shell by fishmongers) or 10 to 12 smaller scallops (such as sold in packages in the supermarket), preferably diver-caught
Juice of a lime
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or Thai basil
1. Cook the peas in boiling, slightly salted water until tender, then drain and tip into a blender, adding 1 tablespoon curry paste and the creme fraiche or sour cream. Season to taste with salt and perhaps add more curry paste, depending on how strong it is.
2. Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan until foamy, and fry the scallops for 2 minutes a side. If you are using big scallops, it is sometimes easier to cut them in half crosswise. When they are cooked, they will have just lost their raw look in the middle and be lusciously tender, while golden and almost caramelized on the outside.
3. Lift the scallops onto two warmed plates and then deglaze the hot pan by squeezing in the lime juice. Stir to mix well and pick up every scrap of flavor, and then pour over the scallops on each plate.
4. Dish up the pea puree alongside the scallops, and sprinkle with the chopped cilantro or Thai basil. Serve with another wedge of lime if you feel like it.
Note: The pea puree can be made 2 to 3 hours ahead. Drain peas and immediately rinse with plenty of cold water. Puree when cold with 1 tablespoon of the curry paste and the creme fraiche or sour cream. Put in a bowl, cover and leave in a cool place or refrigerator. Reheat gently in a saucepan, taste and adjust seasoning before serving. If using sour cream, make sure the puree doesn't boil, otherwise it will turn grainy.
Per serving: 434 calories, 28 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 51 milligrams cholesterol, 745 milligrams sodium, 11 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Tomato Curry With Coconut Rice
Makes 4 main course servings
2 tablespoons cold-pressed canola oil or regular olive oil
2 large onions (approximately 12 ounces total), peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3 1/2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon English mustard
1 teaspoon hot chili powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 1/2 cups frozen peas
Coconut rice (see accompanying recipe)
1. Heat the oil in a wide Dutch oven or saucepan that comes with a lid, and add the chopped onions, sprinkling with salt and stirring frequently as you cook them over low to medium heat for about 7 minutes.
2. Stir in the chopped garlic, then add the halved tomatoes, before stirring in the spices, and cook for 20 minutes with the lid on over a low heat.
3. Cook the peas in another pan (in boiling salted water as usual), drain, and add to the tomato curry for the last 5 minutes' cooking time. By all means cook the peas directly in the tomato curry, but be prepared then to sacrifice both the vivid red of the tomatoes and the bright green of the peas.
Note: The tomato base (not the peas) can be cooked 1 day ahead. Transfer to a nonmetallic bowl, then cool, cover, and refrigerate as quickly as possible. To reheat, return to saucepan and heat gently until piping hot. Cook and add peas as directed above. Cook and cool the tomatoes as above, then freeze in airtight container for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat, adding the peas, as above.
Per serving (for tomato curry only; see rice recipe for additional data): 202 calories, 7 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, no cholesterol, 568 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 main-course servings with tomato curryEndTextStartText
1 tablespoon garlic-flavored oil
4 scallions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons nigella seeds or black mustard seeds
1 1/2 cups Thai or basmati rice
14-ounce can coconut milk
2 1/2 cups freshly boiled water
1 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt
Juice of 1 lime, or to taste
1. Warm the oil in a heavy-based saucepan that has a lid, add the scallions and nigella seeds (or black mustard seeds) and cool for a minute or so, pushing this way and that with a wooden spoon.
2. Stir in the rice, letting it get slicked with oil and thoroughly mixed with the black-dotted green shreds. Pour the coconut milk into a measuring jug and top to the 4-cup (1-quart) mark with freshly boiled water, then add this to the rice, stirring it in with the salt.
3. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and put on the lid. Cook for 15 minutes, by which time the rice should be cooked and the liquid absorbed.
4. Fluff up with a fork as you pour in the lime juice, and taste to see if you need either more salt or more lime.
Note: Nigella seeds are made by Dean & Deluca, but when I called the Soho store, they said they didn't have them. For the garlic-flavored oil, I heated the oil in a pan with a smashed garlic clove and let it infuse.
Per serving: 510 calories, 8 grams protein, 57 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, no cholesterol, 500 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Flourless Chocolate Lime Cake With Margarita Cream
Makes 8-10 servings
For the cake:
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
10 tablespoons soft unsalted butter, plus some for greasing
1 1/4 cups superfine sugar
1 cup almond meal
4 teaspoons best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Confectioner's sugar, to dust (optional)
1-by-9-inch springform or other round cake tin
For the cream:
1/4 cup lime juice (2-3 limes)
1 tablespoon tequila
1 tablespoon triple sec or Cointreau
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the base of your cake tin with baking parchment and butter the sides.
2. Melt the chocolate and butter together either in a heatproof bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water or in a microwave (following manufacturer's instructions), then set aside to cool slightly.
3. Beat the eggs and sugar together until about tripled in volume, pale and moussy. I do this using a freestanding mixer, but a hand-held electric model would be just fine too; obviously, by hand is possible but would demand tenacity and muscle.
4. Mix the ground almonds with the cocoa powder and fold this gently into the egg and sugar mixture, followed by the slightly cooled chocolate and butter. Finally, fold in the zest and juice of your lime.
5. Pour and scrape this mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 40–45 minutes (though start to check at 35); the cake will be just firm on top, but still have a bit of wobble underneath.
6. Remove from the oven and sit the cake in its tin on a wire rack to cool. Once the first heat has left it, drape a clean tea towel over the cake to stop it from getting too crusty, though a cracked and cratered surface is to be expected; it's crunch I'm avoiding here.
7. When cold, unmold, dust with icing sugar if you wish, and serve with the margarita cream.
8. To prepare the cream, stir the lime juice, tequila and orange liqueur together in a good-sized bowl, then whisk or fork in the confectioner's sugar and let it dissolve in the sour, strong liquid.
9. Whip the cream in a separate bowl until it just holds its shape, then whisk in the margarita mixture and keep whisking until you have a light, floaty, aerated mixture, then serve with the Chocolate Lime Cake.
Note: The cake can be baked up to 3 days ahead. Store in an airtight container in a cool place and dust with confectioner's sugar just before serving. The cake can be frozen (still on base of pan if easier), wrapped carefully in a double layer of plastic wrap and a layer of aluminum foil for up to 1 month. Thaw overnight at room temperature and dust with confectioner's sugar just before serving.
Per serving (based on 10): 449 calories, 14 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 35 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 171 milligrams cholesterol, 220 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Pappardelle With Butternut Squash and Blue Cheese
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large butternut squash, 2 3/4-3 1/4 pounds or 1 3/4 pounds ready-cubed (6 cups)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons Marsala
1/2 cup water
Salt, to taste
2/3 cup pine nuts
1 pound pappardelle or other robust pasta
6 fresh sage leaves
5 ounces soft blue cheese, such as Saint Agur
1. Peel and seed the squash, and cut into roughly 1-inch cubes.
2. Peel and finely chop the onion and fry in the olive oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan that can accommodate the pasta later. When the onion starts to become golden, add the paprika.
3. Tumble in the cubes of squash, and then add the butter, turning everything together in the pan. Once the squash is slicked with the oniony oil and butter, add the Marsala and water. Let the pan come to a bubble, then put the lid on, turn down the heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes or until tender.
4. Meanwhile, put a large saucepan of water on for the pasta, adding salt only when it comes to a boil, and toast the pine nuts separately in a hot, dry frying pan on the stove top until scorched a dark gold, then tip them into a bowl or plate to cool.
5. Lift the lid off the squash pan, and check if the butternut is tender; if not, cook for a little longer without the lid on - the squash should hold its shape and not turn into mush. Once it's ready, season to taste - go easy with the salt because the blue cheese will add extra saltiness later - and take off the heat and let it wait for its happy union with the pappardelle.
6. Cook the pasta following the package instructions, though check a couple of minutes before the manufacturer declares it will be ready. While waiting for your pasta to cook - you should give the pan a loose stir or swirl every now and again - you can finely chop the sage leaves and crumble the cheese. Sprinkle most of the sage over the squash, keeping some back, and give a quick stir; but keep the cheese for now.
7. Before you drain the pappardelle, lower a mug or cup into the pan and collect a little pasta cooking water, then tip the drained pasta into the resting sage-sprinkled squash pan and slowly turn the pasta in the sauce to combine. If you find the sauce too dry, or if it all needs a little help coming together, add some of the pasta cooking water - the starch in it encourages the sauce to emulsify, the better to cling to pasta.
8. Drop in the crumbled cheese and about half the pine nuts, then - much as though you were tossing a salad - gently combine, before sprinkling the other half of the pine nuts and the reserved sage on top.
Note: Squash sauce can be cooked 1 day ahead. Simmer until the squash is just tender, then transfer to nonmetallic bowl to cool. Cover and refrigerate as soon as possible. Reheat gently in a saucepan before adding sage and continuing as directed in recipe. Squash sauce can also be frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat as above.
Per serving (based on 6): 643 calories, 20 grams protein, 90 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 348 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.