There is something about Nigella Lawson. It isn’t her perfect use of adjectives to describe a chocolate mousse, the midnight dressing-gown fridge raids, or even, dare I say it, her recipes. It’s the way she makes you feel as if you, too, could be friends with your neighbourhood butcher or host a dinner party every night of the week without an argument with your spouse over the good napkins.
For me, watching the highly acclaimed food writer – whether on television or reading one of her (12!) bestselling books – is akin to drinking a piping hot cup of tea, watching Paddington 2, or walking around John Lewis on a rainy Saturday. Comforting, soul-warming and oh-so-British.
In fact I can sit through an entire 30-minute Nigella segment and at the end have no idea what she has cooked. For me it isn’t so much about being taught how to make new meals, but being enveloped in the comforting familiarity of the world she creates; the soft-set lighting; the high quality of the kitchen units and bi-folding doors; the pantry containing six types of soy sauce; and the flippant use of utensils, which makes it so obvious she has a dishwasher.
This sort of visceral soul-nourishing-cashmere-jumper-style comfort is exactly what we need in times like these. Times when we’re trapped in our homes, away from our loved ones, many struggling financially, fearful for their health and their futures. So thank god that Nigella had the foresight in the first lockdown to finish writing her latest book, Cook, Eat, Repeat (add in sleep and you have the most accurate description of 2020 yet).
On Monday, the book – coincidentally released on the same day lockdown 2.0 began – will be brought to life with a new BBC series. So, in a bid to channel my inner Nigella I decided to spend the first weekend of our government-mandated confinement sampling her new recipes. As she says, cooking really is “only either chopping and stirring” so what could go wrong?
The book itself is less of a classic “recipe book” in that it isn’t just a front-to-back catalogue of instructions, but more a collection of food essays interspersed with recipes. The kind of book you can read for enjoyment rather than just blindly follow. I decided three items is a reasonable amount to achieve in a weekend; opting for the fish finger bhorta (p60), the tuscan bean soup (p296) and the chocolate, tahini and banana pudding (p80).
As a pescatarian there are large parts of the book that are (sadly) off limits, but the chapter dedicated solely to anchovies (“A is for anchovy”) make me feel more than well catered for. In fact several of the chapters feel like I could have titled them myself: “A loving defence of brown food” and “Much depends on dinner” spring to mind.
Starting with the savoury items (not a total child) I cook the fish finger bhorta and soup on Saturday night, using all the crockery in the house in the process. Both are surprisingly simple and the fact I am able to achieve this without a meltdown and ordering a pizza instead is a testament to Nigella’s abilities. Both really do just involve a lot of cutting vegetables before throwing them all together in a pan to do the work.
I was worried the bhorta would just be something where I dug around the onions and spinach picking out the fish fingers, but actually the combination of caramelized onions, mustard, chilli, garlic, ginger (I did about half the recommended amount and left out the coriander) was delicious. It felt familiar and yet like something I’d never tasted before. Would cook again.
Feeling surprisingly full after the bhorta (we used 10 fish fingers instead of 12 as Birds Eye sells them in boxes of this size) we held the soup ’till Sunday lunchtime. Again, when it was cooking I was a bit unsure about the final result, but it was really delicious. It felt simultaneously healthy and wholesome and there was enough to go back for seconds, and still have weekday leftovers. Side note, I did forget the bread (sorry Queen) and added a sprinkle of salt on top to serve.
Last but not least we cooked the chocolate, tahini and banana pudding (you can do as a bread too but when given the choice between a loaf and a melt-in-the-middle dessert there really is no contest). Again it was simple, the prep took less than 15 minutes and I was even able to be distracted by Strictly and not screw up. It baked for 40 minutes and it still had that soft centre that I was looking for. Even the household banana hater went back for a second slice.
Each one I would cook again without hesitation, confident that my success wasn’t just beginner’s luck. Unlike the culinary attempts of March lockdown (never again, sourdough starter) Nigella doesn’t set the bar impossibly high in a bid to show off her culinary skills. You really feel as if she wants you to succeed, gently holding your hand and leading you to the oven to prove that even you – the woman who burnt porridge – can share in her love of food. And if there is one thing lockdown 2.0 needs more of, it is compassion and kindness like that.
Cook, Eat, Repeat by Nigella Lawson, (£26), is out now .
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