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Nigella’s new life

The cooking queen talks about the power of baking, paleo diets and what dinner at her place is really like.
Nigella Lawson is starting again fresh with her new cookbook, Simply Nigella

When did you first start cooking?

I started cooking when I was very young – my mother believed in child labour and conscripted us into service early! I think I must have been around six or seven when I began. She’d have me and my late sister, Thomasina, who was 16 months younger than me, up on rickety chairs by the stove, stirring sauces until they thickened, or by the kitchen table making mayonnaise, one of us beating frenetically with a balloon whisk while the other slowly, slowly poured oil over egg yolks in a bowl. She didn’t teach me how to cook in the sense of giving lessons, but in helping her, I learnt to cook.

And since she didn’t use recipes, I, too, learnt to cook by using my senses. I think I must have been 15 before I actually realised cookery books existed. But I learnt to cook in a meaningful way, in the sense that I felt I was in the driving seat once I began cooking without her instructions or orders in my early teens and, even more so, once I was at university.

What were your family meals like as a child?

I remember family meals as rather fraught occasions. I was brought up in a very old-fashioned way, which meant I had to eat everything that was put in front of me and would be made to sit at the table until I finished. And if, even under duress, I didn’t, then at the next meal the same unfinished plate of now cold food would be put in front of me until I ate it.

Naturally this didn’t make me enjoy eating much, but my parents had been children in the war during rationing and so wasting food was a cardinal sin. I understand this and hate food waste myself, though I certainly didn’t inflict this rule on my children. And besides, I learnt through cooking to enjoy eating, but I dare say that’s one of the reasons making food a relaxing experience is so important to me. They say taste and smell are the first senses you experience.

What is the first taste you recall as a child?

My mother used to make bread and milk for herself, which I don’t believe anyone eats any more – just chunks of white bread with sugar sprinkled over it and warm milk poured on top. As a treat, she’d sometimes let us have some and that sweet, milky pap was ambrosial to me.

How did you teach your children Cosima and Bruno to cook?

I taught my children in a similar way that my mother taught me, in the sense that I wanted to make them useful in the kitchen and feel that they were part of the making of a meal, rather than simply playing with them in the kitchen. I’d give them scissors to top and tail beans, get them to crack open eggs, or let them work the KitchenAid as I was baking. And baking was something I chose, on top of actual meals, with them in mind, as a child has a short attention span and making something that they could be part of from start to finish gave them a sense of excited accomplishment.

But proper meals were always the focus and when they got a bit older I let them choose one of their favourite dishes and then would teach them how to make it, and get them to stick to one recipe until they could make it by themselves from memory. Strange though it might sound coming from someone who writes cookery books, I do feel that is enormously important, to know how to cook without following recipes. And for the same reason I often tell my readers that it is good to stick to a certain recipe, making it again and again, until they feel it has entered their bloodstream, which is how I think of it; it is this competence that breeds the confidence to go further, allowing people to make a recipe their own.

When Nigella’s children Bruno and Cosima were little, she taught them to cook in the way passed down by her own mother.

You went from journalism to cookbooks – how did that happen?

I never intended to write cookbooks, but I felt strongly about food and cooked a lot, and my late husband John [Diamond] encouraged me to write a book. I wasn’t convinced, but spoke to my agent about it and he was similarly encouraging about the idea of a food book. How To Eat, which was John’s title, wasn’t meant to be a book with recipes, but that’s how it evolved, and having written it I felt I had found my voice. And so I continued. But I would never want to write a cookbook that was simply a compilation of recipes.

I feel – and perhaps it’s the journalist in me – that the context and story of it all is essential. But this isn’t just a journalistic thing – food stripped of context loses its meaning and I do believe that how we cook tells essential truths about ourselves and our world.

You say you feel a need to cook. Why is this?

Well, I say that whether I felt like cooking or not, I still needed to bring food to the table. And that is quite literally true. We had to eat, I needed to feed my children. But that is important – if food isn’t hinged on necessity, it loses its purpose and meaning. While I do believe wholeheartedly that cooking can and should be pleasurable, it can’t always be. Furthermore, cooking doesn’t seem real to me if reduced to a hobby.

You also say cooking is therapeutic. How has it helped you in your life?

I say that it can be therapeutic, but the food in Simply Nigella is not the product of a therapeutic exercise, but rather the practical manifestation of a sense of engagement in life and a glad celebration of it. It’s true that, in the past, I have found baking intensely therapeutic and I certainly did a lot of baking when John was dying of cancer. And one of my books has a chapter on risotto called ‘The Solace of Stirring’. But generally in life, I do find making a simple supper a great way of decompressing from the day, just as I find gentle pottering in the kitchen enormously relaxing and a way to unwind.

Do you feel happiest in the kitchen?

I find enormous contentment there. And the pleasures are many – food to me is intellectually stimulating, aesthetically satisfying and there is a calm sense of unshowy accomplishment that comes from the ‘chop wood, carry water’ aspect of cooking, which is to say, the simple act of applying oneself to routine tasks.

What is your kitchen like in your new home?

My kitchen is full of light – the greatest luxury – and, new for me, rather colourful. Indeed the colours of Simply Nigella – the pink and the green that feature on many of the pages – come from the colours of my new kitchen.

What was the impetus behind Simply Nigella and how does it differ from your previous cookbooks?

All my books stem from where I am at any given stage in my life and Simply Nigella comes out of the food I’ve been cooking for myself, my family and my friends over the past two years. It’s hard for me to say how it differs from earlier books, though I feel it – like my new kitchen – has a lot of light and brightness.

How do you feel about the current trend for paleo and clean eating cookbooks?

As regards my own eating, I don’t believe in restricted diets and feel that variety is important – balance is everything. But I also believe in accommodating my friends and their preferences, which is why there are many gluten- or dairy-free recipes in Simply Nigella. Whenever friends come round, there is always a contingent in either camp and I want to make food they can eat happily.

I don’t have any truck with so-called ‘clean eating’, simply because I feel the term itself is pernicious, even if the food it denotes can be delicious, since it seems to imply that eating otherwise is somehow ‘dirty’. I don’t like this binary approach which seeks to divide food into evil or virtuous. From it can come self-persecution or smugness, both of which undermine the joys of eating.

“I have found baking intensely therapeutic and I certainly did a lot of baking when John was dying of cancer.”

You say the recipes in Simply Nigella represent food that has made you physically strong. Can you expand on this?

I feel that it is extraordinarily important to listen to the body and feed it what it wants. Naturally, I don’t mean that eating cake for every meal would be ideal, but in my experience, it is denial that leads to this kind of unbalanced craving and if we allow ourselves to eat what we want and what we need, then we seek a variety of foods which is itself healthy, both physically and emotionally. And because I don’t like to restrict what I eat, I never think of what foods to eliminate, but rather, which foods to add.

This in itself is positive, a good in its own right and, moreover, it means that all food remains a life-affirming joy that strengthens the body and the spirit. I also think that all cooking, for others or for oneself, is an act of kindness, which is intrinsically fortifying.

You also talk about mindful eating and calm food. What is this?

It is really more mindful cooking, by which I mean food that is unchallenging but absorbing to make; by focusing on the simple task at hand I become lost – or perhaps found! – in the moment and am utterly in the now. And the food that makes me calm is the sort that brings – in both the cooking and the eating – serenity and cosiness.

You love cooking for friends, but don’t throw dinner parties. So what is a friends’ dinner at your house like?

I don’t throw dinner parties in the sense that I loathe formality. When I have friends over, I don’t dress up – and am mostly barefoot or in thongs – nor do I require others to. In fact, I have been known to receive people in my pyjamas! And the food is similarly relaxed: no appetisers – having to get up and clear the table just after you’ve sat down is a real mood-spoiler – but some delicious bits to pick at over drinks.

I leave canisters of cutlery out on the table when we sit down to eat and let people help themselves. And food is always served family-style, which is to say, never individually plated as in a restaurant. And my food is never fancy, but I do require an atmosphere of easeful plenty. The important thing is that my friends feel welcome, relaxed and well-fed!

What are the two dishes you cook for those you love?

It’s so hard to choose just two, but certainly it’s a chook I turn to first every time! In Simply Nigella, there are many beloved chicken recipes, but I’d have to nominate the Roast Chicken with Lemon, Rosemary, Garlic and Potatoes as the dish I turn to to give a culinary embrace. And the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Pots are my children’s favourite treat and super-speedy and simple to make.

What would you say are your five essential ingredients?

Maldon salt, lemons (unwaxed), Cretan Liquid Gold organic extra virgin olive oil, fresh ginger, and chillies.

Have you ever had a yearning to open your own restaurant?

Never, ever! I’m a home cook through and through.

Who are the cooks or chefs you most admire?

I admire and am inspired by some truly great women in the kitchen, no matter where that kitchen is: Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Ruth Rogers, Claudia Roden, Anna del Conte, and the late Jane Grigson. Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen has a special place in my heart.

In your TV shows, we see you often raiding the refrigerator enjoying a midnight snack – what’s your favourite indulgent treat?

A crisp-crusted chewy proper baguette with an almost deliquescent blue cheese is an occasional and voluptuously savoured treat. But I’m always in the market for avocado toast, whatever the time of day, and I savour it no less – hard to beat that combo of almost nutty crunch and delicate, smooth creaminess.

With the festive season fast approaching, can you tell us about your Christmas Day?

I’m very trad about Christmas. It means roast turkey with all the trimmings, a treacly roast ham, Christmas pud, which this year I’m serving with my no-churn spiced pumpkin ice-cream – and I’m introducing a bundt cake bonanza! Of course, there are fairy lights everywhere, the glimmer of tea lights and candles, and a crackling log fire. My Christmas Day involves little more than cooking, eating and much lolling about on sofas.

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