Image description: A cookbook rests on a vase of flowers.
“Food, for me, is a constant pleasure: I like to think greedily about it, reflect deeply on it, learn from it; it provides comfort, inspiration, meaning and beauty as well as sustenance and structure. More than just a mantra, “cook, eat, repeat” is the story of my life.”
These words form the blurb of Nigella Lawson’s latest cookbook, and they are words after my own heart. I am frequently met with eye rolls when sharing ideas for meals with friends and family – meals that are still multiple days away, I hasten to add. And I have noticed that more often than not, my memories revolve around food – of course, the places I ate it and the people I ate it with – but also, around the flavours and textures that a particular dish combined. ‘Cook, eat, repeat’ has taken on new meaning for me in lockdown, when food is one of the few remaining things with which to structure our days and provide new stimulation.
Cook, Eat, Repeat is not just a recipe book, but a collection of ‘ingredients, recipes and stories’. Nigella’s recipes have always had rather lengthy introductions – beloved by some and swiftly skipped over by others. It feels as if she has finally reached the level of renown at which she can choose exactly how she wants to write and what she wants to write about, interspersing recipes with narrative essays on such wide-ranging themes as ‘A is for Anchovy’ (a celebration of the bacon of the sea), ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘A Loving Defence of Brown Food’. Perhaps the most important of these essays, in my eyes, is the one entitled ‘Pleasures’.
‘Cook, eat, repeat’ has taken on new meaning for me in lockdown
“If I could ban a phrase, it would, without doubt, be that overused, viscerally irritating, and far-from-innocent term itself, the Guilty Pleasure,” Nigella heads that essay. She goes on, “no one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating.” This message is slowly breaking through into our discourse around food, but to hear it from the mouth of the domestic goddess herself is meaningful.
Nigella has so often been depicted in television shows as the indulgent, curvy woman, sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to devour some leftovers, and yet here she is, stating adamantly that guilt has no place in the world of food. She adds, and this is something I feel strongly – that to experience such joy from food is an immense privilege, and something we should appreciate every day.
I am hugely grateful for whatever combination of nature, nurture and sheer luck has maintained a relative balance in my mind with regards to food, and in a circle of highly ambitious young women and men in the hothouse that is Oxford, that balance cannot be welcomed enough.
Pleasure and indulgence can come just as easily from a vibrantly lemony salad as it can from chocolate or a melting four-cheese toastie, Nigella explains, and that pleasure must be distinguished from comfort eating, which “conjures up an unhappy search for mind-numbing obliteration: food as narcotic; not food as a celebration of life.”
As wise and poetic as Nigella’s essays are, I must devote some words to her recipes. Since this book landed at our kitchen table at Christmas, we have made, I would guess, at least one recipe from it per week, not out of a Julie & Julia-esque desire to make our way through the book in a year, but simply because it always tempts us back with new things to try.
For those who fear bread baking, I point you to her ‘Old-fashioned sandwich loaf’ and her ‘No-knead bread’, both of which create loaves you might find in a Parisian boulangerie out of Ratatouille. The latter – in Nigella’s campaign against kitchen waste – uses cold leftover starchy pasta or potato water and, remarkably, has the tang of a sourdough with none of the faff of a starter.
Nigella has so often been depicted in television shows as the indulgent, curvy woman, sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to devour some leftovers, and yet here she is, stating adamantly that guilt has no place in the world of food.
For everyone who tried to make that iconic bread in lockdown, I give to you – or rather Nigella does – the post-Covid sourdough, the one we actually have time to make. The sandwich loaf is your classic squidgy white bread with a tantalizing crust that is just as delicious spread simply with butter as it is in a fish finger sandwich, or, if Twitter is to be believed, in the now-iconic ‘Fish Finger Bhorta’. Also, Nigella’s ‘Crab Mac ‘n’ Cheese’ is something to be greedily eaten alongside a zesty salad to cut through the rich, creamy sauce.
I also have to pay my respects to the ‘Spice-Studded Rice with Crispy Shallots’. It is frequently rolled out in one of Nigella’s vegan feasts, and leads, so she says, to “great jubilation” whenever she cooks it. I can understand why. Shallots are softened in coconut oil with a terrific amount of garlic, a handful of cashews and what seems to be the majority of the spice shelf – cumin, coriander, nigella and fennel seeds, mace, turmeric, cinnamon.
To students, I would say don’t be put off by the list of ingredients. Use as many of the spices as you can get your hands on, and the result is bound to be delicious. This rice dish is truly a knock-out, and as good an example as any that vegan food can be packed with flavour.
For those of us who haven’t quite managed to fully cut meat out of our diet, her ‘Lasagne of Love’ is everything you want in that layered, oozing pasta dish, and more. My mum exclaimed, “Why do I need a recipe for lasagne?”, but it turns out we do.
So, thank you, Nigella, for writing a book that celebrates food as it deserves to be celebrated, for reminding us that to take such joy in food is a privilege to always be grateful for, and for brightening up my lockdown days.
Image credit: Eve Mason