Interview with Nigella Lawson | Cook, Eat, Repeat

Credit: Ecco

Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.

Nigella Lawson: Hi, I’m Nigella Lawson and my latest cookbook is Cook, Eat, Repeat just published by Ecco.

Suzy Chase: What I found so interesting was Cook, Eat, Repeat is the pre-pandemic title, but you wrote the cookbook during the lockdown with the recipes pretty much fully developed. I’d love to hear about that process.

Nigella Lawson: Well yes fully developed, but I did change some because left to my own devices, which I very much was I carry on testing and retesting and so in a sense, you could carry on developing a recipe for as long as you have it in front of you. I had the book sort of mapped out, I’d written a teeny bit of it, and I had all the recipes ready, but I found the different time in which I was writing it inevitably had an impact on the recipes and my writing and so I pitched one chapter altogether, which would have had, you know, larger, quantities, you know, sort of bigger recipes and that seemed obviously unlikely to happen. It didn’t seem right to be doing that now. And so instead I replaced the chapter about entertaining, which was going to be called How To Invite Friends For Dinner Without Hating Them or Yourself. She visit me in appropriate for a number of reasons. And I instead use the quote from a Lord Byron poem, “much depends on dinner.” Also the title of a Margaret Visser book about what we eat and where it comes from. So I wanted to write more about the family meals. So that changed quite a bit. I mean the tenor of the recipes, probably not so much because my cooking, whether I have people round or, you know, just the usual crowd, although I wasn’t cooking for anyone during lockdown just myself, it is very much the same sort of food, family food, but I added more recipes for one and I think probably more mindful of substitution and how to vary each recipe. So although conceived pre-pandemic, it has that overlay of really sensing that so many people were intensely bound up with what they were going to cook, what they were going to eat and I’m like that anyway. I mean, from the moment I wake up in the morning I’m thinking about what I’m going to eat that day under the circumstances we were all living, you know, other people came around to my way of thinking

Suzy Chase: So in the cookbook you talk about repetition, which we were cooking, eating and repeating all year long, but you talk about repetition, not in kind of a drudgery sort of way, but in a freeing way that repeated actions will teach us ease in the kitchen.

Nigella Lawson: Yes. I think what I feel very much is that for people who don’t cook an awful lot, you know, obviously not your listeners, but, for people who don’t cook a lot, there’s a sort of fear of making something new as if it’s some totally novel situation they’re going to find themselves in. But the reality is even when you cook something new, you are relying on steps that you use all the time when you cook, whether it’s chopping or stirring. And the more often you do those little tasks, I mean, nearly all savory recipes, start with chopping an onion and frying it and the more you do that, the more your body and your whole self sort of gets into the swing of it. And because this step is sort of so often returned to, I think in frees you, thinking, even if it goes beyond the recipe, it frees you to start thinking, Oh, I could add this. That would make it a bit different. Or this would act in much the same way because the framework is there. You can be either more playful or more adventurous, or just frankly, using what you’ve got in your kitchen at any time. And I think that whether you’re cooking or whether you’re living generally having a framework is soothing and gives you a sense of security, but obviously none of us want to get bored either in the kitchen or in life. And therefore you still have the ability and I encourage it to be a bit spontaneous between these fixed points. And I think cooking relies on that. Repetition is not diametrically opposed to innovation. I think there’s a dynamic relationship between the two.

Suzy Chase: How is the cookbook organized in terms of chapters and recipes?

Nigella Lawson: Organized is a very kind word given that each book I’ve done in a way I like the chapters to reflect the personality of the book. And I knew I very much wanted to write about ingredients that I adore and that I cook in many different ways. And for example, you know, A is for Anchovy and the Rhubarb chapter, it’s fairly idiosyncratic, but I think that in a way a book has to be expression of one’s enthusiasm. And this one very much is I also wanted to talk about certain types of foods. So there’s a chapter called A Loving Defense of Brown Food, which are stews and braises in between that other ideas I wanted to investigate. I didn’t think they had to match one another for extent or variety so I knew I wanted to write about pleasure in eating and there’s a chapter that’s called Pleasures, which was going to be called Death To The Guilty Pleasure, but I decided to accentuate the positive rather than dwell on the negative and when I start writing, I always write at great length. Initially there were getting to be more ingredients chapters, but I felt I’d rather just write at length about what I love. And so, in a sense, each chapter is its own microcosm even though of course there are links and I refer in between them, but I didn’t feel the need for a big organizational principle. I felt that in a sense that my enthusiasm for food stuff or the ferocity with which I hold an opinion, that was enough to link the chapters.

Suzy Chase: In the Pleasures chapter you wrote, “yes, a bar of chocolate is a true joy, but so is a plate of garlicky, spinach or lemony salad.” I’d never really thought much about the term guilty pleasures, but now I kind of despise it.

Nigella Lawson: Yes, I do. My jaw tenses at the very notion, I mean, often people use it without thinking, without meaning to imply all the baggage that goes with it, because I think it warps your sense of what you’re seeking in food and in different moods, you want to eat a different thing and I don’t like it if someone says to me, if I’m making a bowl of vegetables, “oh, you’re being very healthy,” because I don’t think that’s a very helpful way of thinking about food. And, you know, whatever’s deemed healthy in one stage is then suddenly sort of wicked at some other and the reality is you would have a variety of different foodstuffs ideally and I think then your body and your appetite finds the balance.

Suzy Chase: In your A is for Anchovies chapter. You will have a recipe for Spaghetti with Chard, Chilies and Anchovies that I made over the weekend. Can you describe this recipe?

Nigella Lawson: I certainly can. Over the holidays in 2019, I believe. I was the staying with friends in the country side and Cornwall, which is a beautiful rugged coastline Southwest of England and went to a restaurant where I ate pretty much this dish and I thought I’ve got to make this, and I didn’t ask for the recipe because it was really evident what was going on on it. And in terms of repetition, as we were just talking about it falls back on something, I do an awful lot, and there are about three or four, I think examples in the book, which is when I cook pasta, I put vegetables with it, as well as the other, perhaps more intense flavorings. And this really is the garlic, well anchovies first in olive oil over very low heat and you have to stir the anchovy filet for quite a while, until they seem to dissolve into the oil and it’s salty but it’s more than that. It’s like providing as I say, depth and richness, umami, we’ve learned to call it and with that garlic, teeny bit of chili flakes, and that provides such a rich, not necessarily very large in quantity, but a really rich dressing the pasta, with the rainbow chard. You could use any green vegetables really, but of course, when you cook chard, you have to cook the leaves and the stems or the ribs separately. So there’s a lot of contrast going on and I think that when you eat taste is one part the equation, but of course, to deliver that you need a very important second part, which is texture and that also makes it very filling. And, you know, the blandness sweet semolina blandness in a way but bland perhaps is not a good word for it, but I can’t think of another one right now of the pasta and that sort of mineral quality of the green leafy vegetables, really both of them in their different ways and their opposing ways really can take the hard hit of the garlic and anchovies.

Suzy Chase: An exciting part of following along with one of your recipes is I can hear your voice in my head. So for example, in the spaghetti recipe you wrote “when the pasta water has come to a boil salted, it will rise up excitedly.” And I can vividly hear you saying that.

Nigella Lawson: In a way I feel that once you abandon this aim of getting a recipe to fit on one page and one page alone, you have the freedom and the space to put your voice in it. So it isn’t just the barest instructions. And I think that some degree a recipe is also a commentary rather than a description of steps needed.

Suzy Chase: In the book you wrote, in writing recipes, you had to learn another language and I’m interested in hearing about that.

Nigella Lawson: Well, I was a journalist for a long time actually, before I started writing recipes and not a food journalist and was interested me and I studied languages at college as well, but I felt food obviously has enormous reach and it’s an emotional language, you know, it’s overlay with meaning, but flavor, taste, texture, the feel of food. This is the realm of the senses and language is abstract in a way. And I wanted to find a way of using language to convey the fullness of the experience of making food for, it’s not enough to give a description of what steps are required. I feel that I want to convey what it feels like to be cooking that particular recipe and to be able to describe the dish in a way that makes it live vividly before the reader has taken this step to cook it. And for that, you often have to use metaphor or language that is evocative rather than merely boldly descriptive. And that interests me, but it gives me pleasure. I savor the words as much as I savor the food.

Suzy Chase: And I think that’s why your cookbooks can either live on our counter or on our bedside table.

Nigella Lawson: And I think that I’ve always felt that the cookbooks I love are ones that have a dual purpose. I think the recipes absolutely have to be impossibly reliable, but I also think it has to be a good read. It has to provide nourishment at both those levels.

Suzy Chase: In the What is a Recipe chapter there’s a beautiful photo of your Grandmother’s recipes. So you put them in, I think I heard this, you put them in a special place and forgot about them?

Nigella Lawson: Well, yeah, I mean, I had them ages ago and then my Aunts had them and then I got them back. And I guess when I last moved houses, I just put them somewhere and then that was it. But it was sometime in the early stages of lockdown over here I dare to say, I might decided I’d have a decluttering project, which is sort of, I live in with so much clutter, mostly in the kitchen, and I found her books again. And I started going through them and that was the end of my de-cluttering and cleaning up project. Very pleasurably so.

Suzy Chase: During the lockdown here in New York City, I felt compelled to rearrange my kitchen. Did you rearrange anything in your kitchen?

Nigella Lawson: I started trying to find… You go through things that said things like use before 2004, to see if you know what cleaning up to be done. But actually I was very busy with writing and occasionally I would attempt to something like that. Just love writing. I also do anything to put it off. You know, it was really writing and retesting recipes again, and again, wanting to add new ones, because I always think that what makes it a book alive.

Suzy Chase: So in Cook, Eat, Repeat you wrote, “I relish eating alone and cooking for myself.” Some recipes in the cookbook are for one like your glorious Fried Chicken Sandwich on page 67 in the recipe, it says, serves one ecstatically,

Nigella Lawson: But it really does, for me, it does at any rate. And then I came up with this cookie recipe because I think I also wanted some cookies and I didn’t want to make… you know normally you have to make so many, even with one egg. It makes often, you know, at least a dozen, sometimes two dozen. So I work pretty hard on how to make a cookie that tastes like a proper cookie, but without egg, because it seems wasteful to reach an egg and then take two teaspoons out. So I was very happy with that. And there’s a recipe that been very popular in the book, which I called Chicken in a Pot with Lemon and Orzo and it’s one of those family, one dish warming meals that I wanted to eat again. So I wanted to work out a way of saying, how would you adapt that just for one person? And there were quite a few recipes I’ve done that for, because you know, sometimes it is as simple as just dividing things, but often you have to look into adapting more freely. So I want to do that. And I did love cooking for myself. I mean, I always had cooked for myself, but I’ve never cooked for myself exclusively for such a long period of time

Suzy Chase: Last weekend, I made the Chicken in a Pot. It is so darn good. The leaks turn out so creamy in the orzo and there’s something so homey about that dish.

Nigella Lawson: Yeah, there really is and yet it’s much bolder and seasoning than a lot of those old fashioned dishes are, and sometimes it’s mistakenly assumed that in a way to be comforting must be sort of quietly spiced and this isn’t, I mean, it doesn’t really hit you over the head, but the oroza pasta and the leaks taste even sweeter. So it’s a real family favorite over here I miss making it and I enjoyed coming up with the version for one, just using chicken thighs.

Suzy Chase: I also made your Fear-Free Fish Stew on page 184. So good. And the cumin and the turmeric and the cinnamon and the sweet potatoes, tomatoes, I can go on and on. But I’m curious about the name of the recipe. Fear-Free.

Nigella Lawson: I don’t know what it’s like stateside, but I think it is similar from conversations I’ve had. People are inordinately frightened of cooking fish. It tends to be expensive. It’s very easy to overcook. And if you’re not cooking it a lot, I think it can be tricky. So I wanted a recipe that wasn’t tricky, didn’t involve split-level timing. And because when you put the fish into the stew at the very end, you cook it just for a short time in the pan, when it’s on the stove and then you turn it off and you leave it to cook much more gently with the heat turned off and it’s pretty impossible to over cook that way. And it makes the fish so tender. I suppose I also wanted, I mean, in truth there are many ways you could have taken the fear factor out, but I felt very much, apart from my slight weakness for alliteration, I wanted to make a signal up ahead, look, you can do this and it’s not frightening and it’s not stressful. And so I felt I had to announce that in the title, because I know that a lot of people, they see a fish recipe and they turn the page over rather hurriedly, if it’s not just the plain bit of salmon or something so I suppose that those were the reasons and I enjoy playing with titles, you know, like the cookies I was talking to you about moments ago, you know, they’re called Mine-all-Mine Sweet and Salty Chocolate Cookies. I enjoy coming up with titles that have a bit of character. I have to contain myself. And sometimes a very plain title is also what’s needed.

Suzy Chase: The pièce de résistance was my very first Pavlova on page 243.

Nigella Lawson: Oh yes the petite Pavlova, the little one with two egg whites.

Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh. So for some reason I’ve been so intimidated by that recipe all these years, and it’s so easy.

Nigella Lawson: It really is. And also, you know, if it cracks a bit on the outside, that’s rather beautiful, but a Pavlova is a wonderful dessert and it’s not eaten as much in the States as it is over here. And it’s just a wonderful dessert too because you do the base in advance. I mean, I don’t know, seeing we’ll all be having people over, I guess, but essentially it makes life much easier. If your planning a meal, you don’t want to have to cook all of it all in one go, especially for people coming. And so it’s easy on a number of levels, but I mean, I, you know, as I said before, I’m a pavoholic, you know, I can’t stop making Pavlovas.

Suzy Chase: Same here. I’ve made two this week. So now to my segment called Last Night’s Dinner, where I ask you what you had last night for dinner.

Nigella Lawson: Okay. I can tell you what I had last night for dinner. And I had Squid Salad, like calamari salad from the squid briefly cooked and then steeped in lime juice, fish sauce, soy sauce, and ginger and garlic and fresh red chili peppers. And this is a strange thing to do, but I also had, and they’re very much flavorings some of the Ruby Noodles, which are in the book, which is cooked spaghetti for half time in water and then you finish the cooking in beetroot juice from a carton. I don’t have a juicer or anything. And with added flavors, which were very similar to those in the Squid Salad, I like the mixture of sweetness, heat. And I had a bit of both leftover and I mixed them and I added a teeny bit of avocado and a lot of freshly chopped mint.

Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?

Nigella Lawson: Well, I have a website called Nigella.com and a huge percentage of my recipes can be found there. Although they present in metric if you press a little button on each recipe it will convert instances to US measures and on Twitter, I’m Nigella_Lawson, and on Instagram, I’m NigellaLawson one word.

Suzy Chase: This has been such a pleasure. Thank you, Nigella for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.

Nigella Lawson: Well, it’s been such a pleasure for me and do you know how wonderful it is for me to hear about the recipes you’ve cooked? It warms the cockles of my heart.

Outro: Follow Cookery by the Book on Instagram. And thanks for listening to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book.

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Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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Suzy Chase

Suzy Chase

Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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