I picked up my copy of Simply Nigella in a chain newsagent for a price that amounted to basic larceny.
I had to catch a train, so I went straight from the shop to spend the waiting time reading it in a pub. In that time, a couple of hours at most, I spent more on three pints of cider than the book itself.
I found myself wondering on how much the photographer who took all the brilliant pics must cost to hire (the amazing Keiko Oikawa), the price of all the ingredients in testing, the travel for research, the hardbinding, the glossy printing, the publishing team, the marketing …
In the end, at £8 it really did feel like just walking into the shop and nicking it. Normally this wouldn’t nag me, but it just so happens that I think Simply Nigella is one of her best ever books.
Nigella Lawson, like Nigel Slater, Keith Floyd, Sophie Grigson and Jamie, is a trailblazer. All of these cookery celebrities came along at vital points in the UK’s shift to a better place for ordinary folk trying to cook new things. For people like me, these characters, especially Floyd, turned up and just said, you know what, there actually aren’t as many rules here as you think, so get your arse in the kitchen. Nigella arrived at a time of quite frequent nonsense & her “never knowingly under-catered” riposte made cooking fun again.
Stars have their detractors of course, some more than others, and Nigella Lawson very much so recently, but that comes with the undiscovered territory of being way out on your own and brave enough to front it up. In Nigella’s case, it makes her even more admirable. When she was recently lambasted for making avocado on toast, it was sad, because had she done so around the time of Nigella Bites, we’d have cheered. Part of trailblazing seems to be the rest of us forgetting about the blaze bit.
Simply Nigella carries on the general yin and yang approach that makes her so endearing: irreverent/reverent, clever/simple, decadent/takeaway, wicked/good. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether any of this is a construct or not, anymore than it depends whether Keith Richards really still drinks a lot in making up your mind on the Rolling Stones.
This is because Simply Nigella manages to be both a simple and engaging, and enormously sophisticated cookbook. This is a very difficult trick to achieve, and the bargain bins of the country (ironic, considering what I paid for Simply) are groaning with books that don’t nail it. There is just no other explanation than sheer talent, and at the end of the day, despite everything, the sense that the food is genuinely still the main event. She is still the one whose “qualification is as an eater” no matter how absurdly famous she has become.
Within fifteen minutes of reading, I’d made a mental note to cook almost everything, and thus gave up making notes. Within a day of getting the book home, I’d tried her cauliflower and cashew curry, and her peanut and choc chip cookies. Within the week, Nigella Lawson single handedly got me in a car, to drive miles to the nearest supermarket of any size to buy Coconut Oil.
The coconut oil is pertinent, because there’s a definite Asian infusion to this book, or maybe “multi-culti” as Nigella has it: Thai steamed clams; Drunken Noodles; Split pea soup, with chilli, ginger & lime; Stir-fried rice with double sprouts, chilli and pineapple; Malaysian red-cooked chicken. Elsewhere, though, you’ll find tacos, roasts, pasta, as Nigella jetsets around the globe; the overall effect of the book is pretty overwhelming, and it’s sure to be a bit of a keeper. In fact, in one of the earliest tests of an exciting book, Simply Nigella wanders around the house from room to room.
What the book reinforces more than anything, I think, is what a brilliant writer she is; there’s no dry recipes here. Every single intro has her trademark voice, and she’s often hilarious. I mean this in a non-ironic way: Nigella Lawson is just funny, and when she’s not being funny, she’s being clear and engaging, or vivid and finely sensuous. Yes, like the TV, sometimes it all seems like an unattainable world and not much like the real one, but, so.
One thing I learned in the early days of cooking from the book is to pay attention and think carefully about “third-party” ingredients. I got the wrong peanut butter once, clearly, and the first batch of her cauliflower and cashew nut curry was let down badly by a cheapo Red Curry Paste. Carrying on the extremes theme, Nigella is both down to earth, and then pretty much A-list – and her recipes are the same. Sometimes you need to aim as high as you can with the shopping for parts.
“I have to say,” observes Nigella of her Bitter orange tart, “that when Seville oranges are in season, this tart looks like a disc of winter sunshine on a plate – and tastes like it too.”
In the world of Simply Nigella, it’s Seville season cover to cover. Right now it’s available at a price that can only be described as a flying bargain.
Update No. 1 23rd April
I needed a roast chicken recipe, so I turned to the Roast chicken with lemon, rosemary, garlic and potatoes in Simply Nigella.
The first thing about this delicious dish is that when she says “get the biggest roasting tin you have”, she really means it. Mine was stuffed to the gunwales. Clearly something twice the size would have worked better.
As the dish roasts, the leeks, garlic and lemon mesh together and the resulting potatoes were so good, that I’m going to try this again without the chicken just to see what happens. The chicken, picking up all these flavours, was of course really fine.
Working on this recipe stressed two strengths of Simply Nigella. Firstly, the design of this book has such clarity – simple, fresh sans serif font, beautiful photos, clear contrast without fuss. Expert stuff. Secondly, that writing. I don’t think that I was able to “just throw everything in the pan with brio” but, you know, I was able to chuckle about it as I did so. Cookery books that just sternly tell me what to do pale in comparison – ironic, considering the stark white beauty of this one.