How to love a quirky cook

Click to follow
"HOW TO Eat is bound to become the staple cookbook for a whole generation," announces Ruth Rogers on the dust-jacket. In which case, a whole generation is going to spend a lot of time thumbing through the index: the arrangement of the 350 excellent recipes in this great bouillabaisse of a book is more than a little odd. From Mrs Beeton onwards, cookbook writers have devoted a few pages to menu suggestions for a variety of occasions, but this approach is the entire raison d'etre of How to Eat.

Recipes are filed away under such bizarre headings as "Sweetly Nostalgic Lunch for Six" (roast pork, red cabbage, apple butterscotch tart) and "Camp, But Only Slightly, Dinner for Six" (pheasant with gin-and-It, sweet-and-sour cabbage, Pavlova). The cranky taxonomy means that, for example, beef dishes are scattered in 15 different spots, and you have to rummage in 22 places for salads.

Having tracked down your recipe, you have to negotiate a mini-essay before getting down to brass tacks. In the treatise preceding pears belle Helene, I was intrigued to discover Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation: "There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat." In the preface to ham cooked in cider, Nigella Lawson notes how "the poet Paul Muldoon wrote wonderfully of his mother going 'from ham to snobbish ham'". Introducing chicken with morels, she gives the invaluable information: "I have a feeling, which memory doesn't actually ratify, that my mother or grandmother must have cooked something similar." In fact, there is little hard information about food in the painstaking style of Grigson mere or Elizabeth David. On the other hand, it isn't every cookbook that dedicates a sauce (her bearnaise is "for Dominic").

This is a decidedly metropolitan work. Nigella Lawson suggests that mushroom ragout may be accompanied by polenta "if you don't think it's a bit too Notting-Hill-restaurant-circa-1995". I'm sure that is a pressing concern in northern Italy. Her recipes demand a convenient retail cornucopia. On three successive pages, the following items cropped up: savoiardi biscuits, eau de vie de coings (quince) and boysonberry jam (known in Britain only for its appearance in an early Paul Simon song). You also need a fishmonger who will bone a sea-bass, a supplier of Martin Pitt eggs ("extremely good") and a trustworthy butcher: "I go to Mr Lidgate in west London... the beef I get from him comes from organic and suckler herds."

At first sight, the how-to-do-it section of the recipes appears admirably clear and foolproof. But this impression is not borne out by her directions for hot garlic potatoes: "Chop the new potatoes into small chunks much the size of croutons and then put in a plastic bag with two tablespoons of olive oil and three cloves of garlic which you have smashed with a pestle and mortar or chopped finely. Put in a roasting tray in a preheated oven, gas mark 6/200 C for about 40 minutes or until brown and crisp." In my view, she should have said something about shaking the potatoes in the bag (so they get covered in oil and garlic) then taking them out of the plastic bag before putting them in the oven.

Defending Nigella Lawson, my wife insists this is implicit in the instructions. But I believe that many men attempting the recipe will end up with an unappetising gratin of molten plastic. As Julian Barnes recently revealed, a male student at Leith's Cookery School, upon receiving an instruction to separate two eggs, moved them further apart. In fact, this is a surprisingly girly book. Mystifyingly, Nigella Lawson says she serves squid with chilli and clams at "chapter meetings of the martyred sisterhood" because it is "more naturally girl food". In which case, I wish to become an honorary girl.

Having got these cavils off my chest, I must add that the recipes I have tried have been uniformly excellent. Duck with orange salsa proved to be a piquant variation on that Sixties classic duck a l'orange. Equally toothsome was her suggested accompaniment of noodles with spring onions, shiitake mushrooms and mange-tout, which I managed to accomplish without a fit of the vapours thanks to her assurance: "I know stir-frying can tax a girl's nerves, but this is serenely manageable." Both dishes fit into the "Fast Food" section of the book, which proved more or less true as long as you don't count the three supermarkets I had to visit for the ingredients.

Nigella Lawson has a magnificent, unappeasable appetite. Her generous compendium overflows with good things. As with a cranky aunt who keeps a good table, it is worth persevering to overcome the book's quirks and oddities.

Christopher Hirst