Saturday, August 04, 2007


Book Review - How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food by Nigella Lawson

In 2005 Waitrose released a list of the top ten most useful cookery books, which was compiled by a group of respected chefs and cooks, most of whom had experience with writing cookery books. They left Nigella Lawson's seminal text, How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food, off the list, citing that it had not yet stood the test of time. However, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Meat Book is fourth on the list and was published a good six years after La Lawson's book - clearly, his single-subject focus and trendy concern for the provenance of meat enraptured the panelists. I am not complaining about his presence on the list, of course, but I don't think I am alone out there in feeling that How To Eat is not only a useful and reliable cookery book, but in the nine years it has been on the shelves, it has saved my generation from would-only-be restaurant and takeout patrons. And I speak from experience, you understand.

How To Eat was the first cookery book my angelheart Eric and I received. It was a gift from the sassy sauciere queen Lily, who was also in the habit of watching Nigella Lawson's television programme, Nigella Bites, with us in 2000. There was something very mesmerising about the manner in which this sensible, efficient, and hilarious woman went about cooking. She made me think I could do it. Me? No, At that stage in my life, I was young, cosmopolitan, and had no sense to save money. Also, having not decided where to live yet, Eric and I were with my parents, and we decided to spend most nights out - that is, at restaurants, not cooking at home. It was only on nights home alone and, certainly when we had our own home, that I actually started paying attention to cooking seriously.

You don't have to be serious about cooking to have and use How To Eat. Think of it not only as literature, for those who would rather read than cook, but as a wise (and wise-cracking) friend, for everything you need and may be curious to know is revealed, confessionally, as if over a glass of wine, within 500-odd pages. Now, there are no overly technical passages on methods, so if you want that sort of cooking assistance, you need to refer to other sources; however, La Lawson's voice is clear and present through the method of each recipe, making you feel proficient in whatever recipe you choose to follow. In fact, La Lawson does not see the hundreds of recipes as ingredients and methods, but as a "conversation" she might be having with her readers. This very subjective perspective is greatly appealing and is part of Nigella Lawson's long-standing charm amongst the public - those who tout her abilities more than those in the professional circuit. Beyond the tone of the writing, the layout of How To Eat is organized by useful chapters (Basics, Etc, Cooking in Advance, One & Two, Fast Food, Weekend Lunch, Dinner, Low Fat, and Feeding Babies & Small Children) in addition to providing weight and temperature conversion tables, a purveyors' guide, and a complete bibliography.

In the Basics, Etc chapter, you will find that La Lawson not only provides information on how to achieve the classics (such as how to make mayonnaise, various sauces - hollandaise, bearnaise, and bechamel - and stock - chicken and vegetable), but she does it her way, insisting that time-honoured traditions are only as good as one's personal tastes. She often simplifies these dishes (not dumbing them down, though) for the home cook who often has little time and many demands. You may not need to ever make all of these, but if you want to dress up a steak, for example, there is a sauce to go with, other than a standard pan sauce, for which she has recipes aplenty peppered throughout the book. This first chapter is worth the price of the book alone, arming you with the skills to make pastry and custard, through to advice on how to roast chicken, make madeleines, and produce the perfect ice cream - in fact, she calls it The World's Best Chocolate Ice-Cream, and it is a recipe of Marcella Hazan's which is made in the usual way before adding a hit of luxury and depth: a custard base without vanilla into which is folded melted chocolate (I have used 100% before, which is too bitter; 70% was met - and continues to meet - with more success), cocoa powder and caramel - the wow factor, lending complex smokiness to the ice cream. I have never tasted a chocolate ice-cream that is better, and I can't agree more with its placement in the Basics, Etc chapter. Obviously, you need to know how to make this, and she also offers sincere advice to heed regarding what to keep in your fridge, freezer, and pantry.

Cooking In Advance offers recipes for those occasions when you have guests over and making numerous dishes at the last minute is the fast track to the nearest institution for the emotionally fragile. This chapter allows you to experiment and play - and if nothing works out, no one needs to know. Of course some food benefits from being cooked in advance, allowed to rest, and then reheated, such as soups and stews, like Italian Broth and Chicken and Chick Pea Tagine. La Lawson expresses the virtures of and offers assistance on planning for all these occasions.

For Nigella Lawson, the beauty of cooking for one is not sheer indulgence, though that is not a cardinal sin, but experimentation. Of course, some of us have compliant partners on whose tastebuds we can experiment. My angelheart Eric, fortunately, is most accomodating and is usually as curious as I am. I understand not everyone is that lucky, but what I know from La Lawson is that when you have guests over, it is not best to choose to make something wildly different and out of left-field. Best to try it on your own. In One & Two, I have been meaning to try the Duck with Pomegranate forever, but those of you who are foodies know well how this refrain goes and always have sticky page-markers on hand. Of course, this chapter is not replete with risk-taking ventures; there are extensions of well-known dishes, too, that have been amped up. La Lawson's Kale with Chorizo and Poached Egg simply amps up a Salade Lyonnaise by substituting the frisee for kale (which, in itself could be considered adventurous, but when cooked as tender as possible and stripped from the thick stems, it is like spinach but with less furry residue on your tongue) and the lardons for chorizo. The poached egg remains intact and acts to temper the spicy chorizo.

In Fast Food, Nigella Lawson points out a few things to consider for fast-cooking success, such as the preparation and overall cooking time, and that one must never take short-cuts with food that needs to cook longer. Cook only with ingredients that are supposed to be or can be cooked quickly. I have to say that this chapter is a sentimental favourite, for it contains the recipes I first used for Baked Figs (though her recipe in Forever Summer is infinitely better and provided the platform for the version my angelheart Eric and I now use) and for the famous Seven-Minute Steamed Chocolate Pudding, which friends still ask me to make, though I haven't for a couple of years actually (not to say I couldn't in a snap, for the pages in the book are chocolate-smudged, each smear a reminder of the times I relied on this page). I also love this chapter for introducing me to interesting spices to which added to meat, for example the Lamb with Garlicky Tahina and Cinnamon-Hot Rack of Lamb.

Weekend Food is one of the larger chapters in the book, celebrating the downtime of urbanites. Meals are often at lunchtime, for it is the more relaxed period for socialising around food. This is not to say that lunch is an after-thought but that menus can be simpler - the focus is on sharing time with friends, not embarking on culinary perfection. Menus are provided for these relaxed and intimate affairs as they are for grander feasts, for every now and then one just wants to have a dinner party, which is further explored in the following chapter, Dinner. In this chapter, though, some dishes require advance preparation and others just need to relax and hang around a bit. Though there are many favourites, the menu that most gets me drooling is the Spring-scented Lunch, which consists of: Tarragon French Roast Chicken; Leeks, Rice, Peas and Mangetouts; and Lemon Pie. This is an elegant menu, full of clean flavours. What I also greatly appreciate in this text are not only the musings peppered throughout the book (whether it be on the classic British Sunday roast, the virtues of salsa verde, or the best method for soft and crispy duck), but the extolling of recipes from previously-published cookery books as sources of inspiration. La Lawson gives credit to her inspirational references and then explains why she has changed things and what you might be interested in experimenting with, for example, the above-mentioned Lemon Pie is adapted from Norma McMillan's In A Shaker's Kitchen. Instead of macerating slices of lemons with the pith on, La Lawson removes them, preventing people from leaving the bitter rubble on the side of their plates. She also suggests topping it with a meringue, with indications on how to do so.

Personally, I am a sucker for menus; I love the time that has been taken to consider the relationship between each of the courses. So much of my re-reading of this book has been focussed on the Weekend Food and Dinner chapters - they are well-marked (and stained). The courses in the Dinner chapter may be more intensive and slightly more formal than the ones in the preceding chapter, but they are mood-enhancing, tangible yet atmospheric, and, above all, inspirational. Try this Early-Autumn Dinner on for size: Guacamole with Paprika-Toasted Potato Skins, Cod Wrapped in Ham and served with Sage and Onion Lentils, followed by Hazelnut Cake with a Redcurrant and Peach Salad. There is a harmony of the turning deciduous colours, starting with the pine-green skins of the guacamole, ending with the browns and reds of the cake and salad, the comforting hues of Autumn.

The Low Fat chapter restocks the fridge, freezer, and pantry with, obviously, low-fat alternatives. Not all flavour is to be done away with, for La Lawson eats big portions of low fat food and small portions of higher calorific food in order to maintain interest in eating while she is dieting. This chapter is broken into segments: Templefood (food with cleansing properties, such as Aromatic Chilli Beef Noodle Soup and Salmon Marinated in Den Miso), Salad Dressings (such as Roast Garlic and Lemon Dressing, which uses a healthy amount of vermouth), The Statutory Cook-and-Freeze-Ahead Section (this encourages you to always have low-fat and satisfying dishes on hand, which will hopefully prevent unhealthy snacking, like Vegetable Curry in Vegetable Sauce), and Pudding (the key tip is to not make high calorie desserts in low fat alternatives, for depravation may set it, so instead try her various ideas on what to do with fruit, and always keep a bar of chocolate handy, for small pieces to munch on from time to time).

When I first reached the chapter for Feeding Babies & Small Children, I skipped it. Children didn't feature on my path then, and for the moment I don't have any paternalistic urges, though my angelheart Eric does - but I don't need to invite you to witness our domestic differences on this important decision. There is a little baby-weaning chart and there is a mantra in this chapter: expose your children to everything. I suppose this is so they have appreciation for all foods as they get older and may prevent over-pickiness. There are a few recipes that appeal to me - and I mean, me, not my fictional children: Courgette Frittata, Veal, Liver and Bacon Mince Pie (apparently La Lawson has not found a child that dislikes this pie even though it contains liver), and Digestive Biscuits (these are hardy wheaten cookies that I grew up with, for they are my father's favourite cookie; it's great to have a recipe for them should I ever hanker for them and not be in New Zealand or any other part of the Commonwealth). Parents who are looking for standard dishes with a twist might find this chapter quite compelling.

Perhaps this is a biased review, for we have had this book for years, and it is a sentimental favourite. I do, however, hope the above hand-holding through the contents of the book more than suggests its utility. As is typical of Nigella Lawson's diplomatic manner, there are suggestions of what pairs well together and offerings of alternatives that encourage the reader to veer from her path. Additionally, there are dishes to create and summon for every occassion. If all else fails, there is, of course, her famously comforting and inspiring prose. Her voice, omniscient and encouraging, ensured my first forays into the previously-intimidating territory of the kitchen were successful. Because her recipes are drawn from years of experience and from all over the globe, I was willingly initiated along roads which up until then were unconsidered. Because of How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food), I discovered Claudia Roden and Paula Wolfert, and I have been set upon a path, still being laid, towards discovering my own palate, all the while being able to entertain for my nearest and dearest. I am confident this book will inspire you, too.

Chicken with Morels
(from the chapter One & Two of Nigella Lawson's How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food)

15g/ 1/4oz dried morels
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 chicken thighs
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Marsala
1/2 stock cube (porcini or chicken)
1-2 tablespoons mascarpone

1) Place the morels in a measuring jug and pour hot (but not boiling) water over them, but no more than 200ml/6.7 fl. oz. Leave for 30 minutes.
2) Into a skillet, melt the butter and add the olive oil, then place the chicken thighs in, skin-side down. Make sure this is a skillet that has a lid, which will come into play later.
3) Remove the chicken thighs to a plate, skin-side up, when the skins are golden brown.
4) Over medium-heat and in the same skillet in which the thighs were browned, cook the onion and garlic.
5) Drain the morels, reserving the liquid, which you are to strain into a small saucepan. Heat the saucepan and keep the morel liquid hot.
6) Check the morels for any grit, then add them to the onion and garlic.
7) Put the chicken thighs back into the skillet, this time skin-side up, and add the Marsala.
8) Into the saucepan with the morel liquor, add the portion of stock cube and dissolve. Pour into the skillet with the thighs and cook until the thighs have cooked through, approximately 20-25 mintues.
9) Remove thighs to a warm plate and reduce the sauce, for which you can decide to remove the morels or keep them in the skillet. Push them to a side of the skillet away from the dominant hot spot if you keep them in the skillet, as I did.
10) Ladle out any fat before turning up the heat to high to reduce the sauce.
11) Stop when you have as much sauce as you like - generally, enough to coat the chicken thighs with a little for the merest hint of a pool. Turn off the heat.
12) Stir in the mascarpone. I only added 1 tablespoon, which provided enough creaminess for my tastes. You might like to add another. I also added a little more Marsala, following Nigella's suggestive lead.
13) Put the chicken thighs back into the skillet to cover with the sauce and then produce onto a plate, which you can fleck with finely chopped parsley.

For those who know me, this dish would evoke gasps as I usually detest mushrooms - don't ask me how many varieties I have tried. Though I am not fond of the texture of the morels - more for my angelheart Eric, then - I loved the morel poaching liquor. It was mildly sweet and without unusual earthy pungency, which I know some people happen to like. Immensely pleasurable and a cinch to make. Served wonderfully with brown rice and spinach sauted in olive oil and garlic.

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A great review Shaun.

I've probably cooked less from this book than her others because I spend so long reading it! ... but that said I still like it and everything I have made I'd make again.

I've not tried the 7 minute pudding, but I'm going to bookmark it now :) I don't think I've notices that wonderful sounding and looking chicken recipe either, will have to look. Actually one of the things I loke most about HTE is that I don't know it backwards like her other books and I can still have a 'find' of a new recipe.

Her chocolate baci ice cream from Foever Summer is really superb as well, I've just ordered some hazelnut syrup to make it again soon.

I'm am so looking forward to her new book in a month, can hardly wait!
Shaun, thanks for taking the time to write this indepth book review, it is an excellent source of info for those of us not yet in possession of certain books. Will definitely have a look at this one.
Shaun, I'm going to call you "Braveheart" for yet another go at mushrooms. Am I out of touch, or does it seem that Nigella's not in the greatest favor as she was but a few years ago? Perhaps it's the food celebrity machine that cranks fast and spits them out for new "flavors" of the month, but she's no longer carried regularly by the NY Times. Love that kale and egg plate; reminds me of caldo verde.
I used to take this book to the laudromat to read while doing my wash. I do love La Lawson. Although for some reason I never cook from this book. I think I tried her chocolate cake recipe once and it didn't work at all, although I blame myself for that. But now I'm going to have to go back, now that you've provided so many tantalizing suggestions. Thanks.
Shaun, what a great choice of book to a) start your journey and b) review so passionatley.

I too have a well thumbed copy of this, but must say that I've had so many disasters with her recipes that I'm afraid her books are relegated to the bedside table rather than the kitchen!

Great review.
Kelly-Jane - Yes, "How To Eat" keeps revealing itself to me, too. There are always recipes or menus that sound different or more or less intriguing each time I open the book. This book is a definite keeper partly because of this change in mood and palate as Nigella's scope is far-reaching. The Seven-Minute Steamed Pudding has yielded many oohs and aahs upon tasting, so, even as I am more experienced with desserts now, I whole-heartedly recommend it. I have been meaning to pick up "Forever Summer" again and rediscover it.

Cynthia - I appreciate that my zeal for this book may put off those with more objective approaches to reviews, but Nigella is still being discovered her in the US and further abroad, so I decided it was time to give this grand text, "How to Eat", its props. For scope, interesting food, and descriptive prose, it is tough to beat. It is at least worth a look.

Susan, lovie - I don't think you're out of touch but on the pulse. There was an unfounded scandal dubbed "Nigellagate" last year (?) involving Nigella Lawson and Skye Gyngell. Someone claimed Ms. Gyngell wrote Ms. Lawson's recipes. As I said, nothing was ever proven and both maintained that Ms. Gyngell only tested Ms. Lawson's recipes. Also, I think there are so many celeb cooks these days that it is conveivable that she has become lost in a sea of others. However, because she was on the cusp of all the celeb cooking business and because her writing and point of view is so assured, I think she has staying power. Too many write cookery books without thinking, and I strongly feel that all of Nigella's books are cohesive works. Try this one first - I know that you will get a kick out of her prose; it is enveloping.

Grant - Welcome! I have stopped by your blog many times and note that we have a common love: Suzanne Goin's "Sunday Suppers at Lucques". I'm glad that you, too, have a penchant for La Lawson's writing and recipe collection. I hope you do go back and try cooking something - anything - from this contemporary necessity.

Lucy - It isn't the first time that I have heard someone say a Nigella recipe didn't work. Nigella maintains at the beginning of "How to Eat" that she can only make suggestions because she cannot account for everyone's different equipment and how they work. I think, too, some of her recipes are unusual (though still intriguing) and because there is no benchmark for them for the one who is cooking, it can be easy to mis-step if one doesn't follow a recipe to the letter, at least first time around. If nothing else, she makes for great reading and inspiration.
I love this book too, Shaun. Though I almost never cook from it, I find it very inspiring and a cracking read. As Lucy said, it tends to be in my bedroom rather than my kitchen. That said, I DO think it has a place in the top 10 due to its inspirational nature and just to represent Nigella herself. She's amazing!
Wendy - I'm glad that you, too, find La Lawson inspirational, which is more important to exploring one's own dishes than just following recipes. I used to cook from "How to Eat" until I found other books, including others by La Lawson herself. I decided to go back to where I started as it has almost been one year since I started blogging and by then "How to Eat" had really been my kitchen training wheels. As I reread it for the review, I found myself drawn to recipes I hadn't before considered, which I think speaks to the opening up of my palate for which this book initially prepared me. What else would be feature in your top 10??
Great review. Like you, How to Eat has definitely served as my "training wheels" in the kitchen - I enjoyed cooking before I bought this book but constantly found myself flustered and anxious in the kitchen, especially with certain foods I'd never cooked with before or dishes that needed to be made quickly. Lawson's voice is so casual and reassuring in the text (as well as on TV) that she puts you at ease with even the more complicated dishes. And no other cookbook in my collection inspires me to simply get up and cook something the way HTE does - Lawson's evocative descriptions of the food get my tastebuds tingling and my curiosity piqued, and with her helpful tips the actual cooking is often a breeze. It does feel like she's right there cooking with you, and her sense of humor is great - I've laughed out loud on more than one occasion flipping through her books.

As far as the success of her recipes goes, I've noticed that many of the complaints about them not working (especially the baking ones) come from American readers. I'm convinced that this is partly due to the Imperial measurement conversion involved in the translation of Nigella's books. She suggests weighing using metric measurements whenever possible, and I can't agree more - when I bake (although a rare occurence) I weigh the dry ingredients in grams and the wet in milliliters, follow Nigella's instructions to a tee, and the recipes work almost every time (the ones that don't usually involve my oven being a diva and not heating evenly, or me making stupid mistakes during the preparation). For American readers, I highly recommend buying the British versions of her books - import a copy from or if you have to.

My favorite recipe thus far from HTE, aside from all the delicious main courses and sides, is the utterly, elementally simple Lemon Ice Cream. It involves easy stirring, juicing, and beating, uses only three ingredients, requires no ice cream maker, and tastes like creamy lemon sorbet. It's the easiest desert I've ever made, and it pleases everyone I've made it for.
Darryl - Thank you for stopping by this blog and for leaving such an effusive comment. It seems that we share the same views on La Lawson and her recipes. I really do crack up when I read her works; she does indeed comfort, guide, and poke in the ribs. I will try her Lemon Ice Cream because of your strong recommendation. I will let you know how I go.
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