At My Table — Nigella Lawson

Unlike almost every other author and book I have reviewed here, Nigella Lawson needs no introduction. She is celebrated and revered from Osaka to Oslo and everywhere in between.

She has sold millions of copies of her 12 cookbooks. These books have been translated into countless languages and been made into TV programmes. She has been called the queen of the frozen pea, of the traybake. She is casually referred to as the Domestic Goddess. She has driven food trends.

Her abiding love of food, and a certain emphasis on how sensual and evocative food can be, has made her a cultural icon. She is referenced in films and movies and podcasts and other books. She appears on TV shows, as a judge or a host, with impressive regularity.

She carries a tube of Coleman’s mustard in her bag with her at all times.

To live in 2017 is to be aware of Nigella.

Her latest book, At My Table, came out only recently. This was a happy occurrence, but especially in the context of having recently published my review of Diana Henry’s Simple. In that review I made some claims that I preferred Henry’s food. Drunk on the awesome power of semi-anonymous internet writing, I even went a bit further and accused Nigella of producing recapped that could sometimes be a little lacking in terms of flavour and excitement.

Now, like every other internet writer, I subscribe to the strictest set of ethics and principals. I could no more publish a lie as I could enjoy raw capsicum in a salad. Or cooked capsicum in a curry. Or capsicum on a pizza. Or in any other form except blitzed into a million pieces as a sauce or salsa. This statement of preference was an honest one.

And yet, reader, putting this claim out in the world niggled at me over the following weeks. It seemed to fly in the face of my professed admiration for Nigella, and all that she has done for food. It introduced an unpleasant ideological tension that threatened to remain unresolved.

When I received my copy of At My Table, I flicked through with some trepidation. I was expecting to find food similar to the clean and simple flavours of 2015’s Simply Nigella (a beautiful book with food that simply does not summon a trace of excitement in me). As I got deeper and deeper into the book something wonderful happened: my doubt faded away and I started to smile. This was the Nigella I always wanted to see. These are the recipes I want to make! Finally, I felt there was a chance to have my cake and eat it too: I could both love the idea and image of Nigella as well as love her recipes and food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. A silver ribbon.

288 pages split across the following chapters:

Well, ahem, not this time.

In this book Nigella has abandoned all chapters and gone with a stream of consciousness freeform presentation. Recipes are roughly arranged in order of the food one would want to eat first thing in the morning and ending in what you might want to eat at the very end of a day.

I almost panicked. It sounds like such an odd, unfriendly decision that would make the cookbook impossible to navigate and to conceptualise. And yet, as begins to be the dominant theme of this book, it not only works but works quite well.

And when it occasionally feels a bit difficult to either find something specific or to maybe get some inspiration, right at the front of the book there is a contents page that gives you every recipe in a single double page spread. I applaud Nigella and her superstar designer, Caz Hildebrand for the decision.

After heaping praise on Simply Nigella’s design, I must confess I think this is an odd looking book. The cover feels old fashioned. I respect not buying into the look of every other 2017 cookbook, but I struggle to find a positive thing to say about the cover. Well, it is a wonderful photo of Nigella, I suppose, caught midway through strangling some naughty sourdough.

I am lukewarm about the design of the rest of the book. I like the continued signature use of Futura. I dislike the serif font this has been accompanied by, and the mid-grey colour used. The combination of a dusky pink and an odd grey is hard to read and unpleasant.

The photography, from the renowned Jonathan Lovekin, is also I think somewhat variable, although never quite bad, even at its least inspiring. There are a few exceptional, memorable shots, which are a delightful to see. And then there are the rest of the shots in the book which feel occasionally dated, as if they  were conceived of in a slightly different era.

I simply cannot say if the design of this book is the real Nigella, or is rather some conception of what a book about home cooking should look like. I can say that the design of this book does not speak to me, which is a pity given the recipes therein.

Thoughts

This feels like Nigella’s most personal book yet. I have no way of knowing how true this is. But between the design, the recipe selection, the headnotes and introductions, and the two episodes of the accompanying TV show I’ve sneakily managed to view, I am left with an impression of this book being a pure distillation of Nigella.

As such I am delighted to report that the recipes in this book are very good. Cookbooks are always victim to the tension between whatever is new and current on one hand and that which is familiar and reliable on the other. Generally, cookbooks that try to appease one of these polar opposites at the expense of the other do not work well.

At My Table strikes an appealing balance in this regard. Yes, we get nods at that which is au courant: coconut oil and coconut yogurt are frequent visitors, and aleppo pepper gets a big push. But at the same time, we also get a nice serve of recipes from the other side of the spectrum: a queen of puddings is straight out of a meal at Toad Hall.

Happily, a great deal of success can be found in recipes from the breadth of this spectrum. We should pause to acknowledge this achievement and indeed celebrate all those who dedicate themselves to mastery of their craft: Nigella does something very wonderful, where she improves and refines her voice and vision in a seamless way. There is no jarring ‘old’ Nigella and ‘new’ Nigella. Instead, we feel rather than notice improvement. 

I do wish there were slightly more vegetable based main dishes. Not that there are none, but those that exist do tend towards simpler flavours. We have all been spoiled by such excellent vegetable based recipes over the past few years that the ones here feel a little, well, uninspired.

This said, the bulk of recipes are interesting and compelling and delicious. It is food that lends itself to happy celebrations around a large table. Food should be this joyous and fun all the time. This feeling is At My Table’s real achievement, and I congratulate Nigella for producing something so lovely.

Here is a sample of what we have cooked so far (there is a sad omission of anything from the desserts section—our oven died at the most inopportune time.)

  • Turkish Eggs (Every book has the recipe. The one that you turn to again and again. The page that becomes dirtier than all the others. This is the recipe for this cookbook. Poached eggs on a garlic yogurt bed, topped with aleppo pepper butter.) 
  • Golden Egg Curry (Curries in past Nigella books have been somewhat less adventurous in their flavour profiles than I would prefer. This, however, was bold and aromatic and delicious.)
  • Catalan Toasts (not an improvement on my standard pan con tomate recipe. But certainly not bad.)
  • Beef and eggplant fatteh (If you like textural contrast, please make this. If you like delicious food, please make this. It is easy, it makes an excellent lunch the next day, it is delicious.)
  • Pasta with anchovies, tomatoes, mascarpone (I have long maintained that the only good tomato sauce is one that is cooked down and reduced, such that the flavour of unexceptional tomatoes becomes exceptional. This sauce was a clever way of creating a pasta dish that is savoury, rich enough and with a lot of personality without having to cook the thing for five years. I did fail in finding the nominated novel pasta shape, however. Forgive me, Signora Nigella.)
  • Capellini with Scallops (Success in finding the novelty pasta! Yet I thought this not quite the best way to showcase beautiful scallops.)
  • Radiatori with Sausage and Saffron (Another failure in the novel pasta game. And also a failure in including saffron. Despite these failures, the dish was quite delightful. The sweetness of passata is a pleasing counterpoint to the complexity of a good italian sausage.)
  • Sweet Potato Tacos (I made this almost as a joke. I thought surely it would turn out awfully. Never has the gap between my expectations and the end result been so sizeable. I want to make this again. It just works.)
  • Bashed Cucumber and Radish Salad (Simple and clean. I have, however, eaten so much of the garlic and black vinegar sichuan version of this salad that I felt this was a little too placid.)
  • Coriander and Jalapeno Salsa and Red-hot Roast Salsa (These two salsas should be in everyone’s fridge. Yes the coriander salsa quickly loses its verdant quality and becomes a more murky shade, but the flavours, oh the flavours, remain intact. The red salsa is a fantastic variation on the theme of roast tomato salsa.)
  • Coconut Shrimp (Real talk alert: You should make these. You should not, under any circumstances, make the suggested coconut yogurt dipping sauce. Serve these with some Kewpie mayonnaise or some hot sauce. Or combine kewpie, hot sauce and some yuzu juice. Just say no to the coyo in this case.)
  • Lime and coriander chicken (Okay, but in light of the other more exciting recipies in this book I am not sure why you would nesscarily bother?)
  • Cellophane Rolls (Ibid.)
  • Slow Roast 5-spice lamb pancakes (this exceeded expectations to a sizeable degree. If I could make a suggestion, make up double and eat this for twice as long. Actually, let me make a further suggestion: make some pickled radishes to go with your pancakes. While hoisin and spears of scallion and cucumber get you almost to flavour heaven, the addition of a quick pickled vegetable has a profound transformative effect.)

Why this book?

  • This is Nigella’s best book, potentially ever, but certainly since 2010’s Kitchen
  • You want a personal take on Nigella’s view of food – one that celebrates the joy of food
  • You want a collection of excellent and reliable recipes that balances the new with the familiar

Score

Nigella ░░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMari ░░░░ Summer And does it just spark joy?

Nigella taught me not to be ashamed of liking food to the extent I do. Her writing has meant so much to me over the years. Her philosophy resonates with me in that it celebrates food and life and pleasure in a way that refuses to give quarter to shame.

And yet because I’ve rarely cooked from her books, I have always felt a little bit like a fraud for being such a Nigella booster. I am, then, incredibly happy to report that At My Table is not just a great Nigella cookbook, but it is a great cookbook full stop.

Flavour — Ruby Tandoh

Flavour joins the chorus of books that seeks to refute the trend towards ‘clean eating.’ Such voices seek to make food fun again, rather than a source of anxiety and fear.

Cookbooks have a lot to teach us. No, aside from the obvious mechanics of how and when to apply heat to various combinations of protein, carbohydrate and lipid.

Cookbooks are guides for different ways of living. Do we buy into a world of 15 minute meals, where food is a necessary but joyless pitstop in our otherwise busy days? Or do we invest in a world where everyone makes their own jam and knows the village vicar?

Cookbooks are inspiration for how to live, as much as they are how to eat.

In some cases this inspiration is explicit: as in Balance and Harmony, Asian cookbooks often suggest a certain way of eating: something that is highly communal and features a few dishes. This reflects a certain lifestyle and culture.

In some cases the inspiration is tacit: the many cookbooks of Bill Granger do not exactly tell you to eat the food outside with a group of friends all wearing white jeans and linen shirts, yet you begin to feel the pull of this as you read and cook from one of his books.

Yet what happens if this guidance is confused? When one recipe pulls you in one direction–of say a no fuss 15-minute meal–and the other recipe pulls you into the direction of intricate and involved baking?

The central problem of Flavour is that it simply is not sure of what it wants to be—or how it wants to guide you. After having cooked from this book for a few weeks, I now see much clearer warning signs in this paragraph from the book’s introduction:

This book is for everyone who likes to eat, whether you’re a new cook or a devoted foodie, a fast food queen or a restaurant critic, old or young.

In creating a book that she hopes is for everyone, Tandoh has created a book that will appeal to no one.

Even the central message–that we should stop demonising and elevating certain (arbitrary) food types is lost in a cookbook that consists of a confusing mishmash of cuisines, techniques and approaches.

Structure

Hardback.

368 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Vegetable and Herbs
  3. Fruit
  4. Eggs and Dairy
  5. Meat and Fish
  6. Storecupboard

Within each of these chapters are a variety of smaller sections. For instance, the Fruit chapter has sections for Apples, Pears and Rhubarb, Tropical Fruit, Citrus, Stone fruits and cherries, and Berries and Currants.

I cannot say whether or not this structure was Tandoh’s decision or her publisher’s. I can say with certainty it is a terrible system of organisation. Not being able to quickly look at similar recipes is painful. If you want to make something with chicken, you might have to look at 10 different sections under a few different chapters.

It is a hard book to browse: I have had to rely on the index to an unprecedented extent. Once you do find your way, things improve slightly. The recipe format is workable: a generous headnote (occasionally, far too generous, such that the recipe does not start until the last paragraphs on the page). The ingredients are given a column on the side, and the method is given in paragraph long chunks.

Tandoh’s writing is much stronger in the headnote than in the recipe method. This, I think, reflects the problem I have with the book: it does not know what it wants to be, so the writing is really inconsistent. It can be really chatty and go into far too much detail, yet at times glides over steps and omits helpful advice.

The photography is not bad, yet tends toward an out of focus, instragram-filter aesthetic. It is serviceable, yet you get the sense that food is rarely the hero. You can see what I am talking about on the blog for the book.

Thoughts

No cookbook is going to be perfect. Every book I have reviewed here has suffered from flaws (which I hope I have managed to convey in my reviews.)

I would be more willing to overlook some of the things that I have discussed if the food from the book was good. Instead, it ranges from fine (at best) to boring and uninspiring (at worst).

Despite the unclear focus and audience of this book, it does not seriously position itself as being something for those who are new to cooking. Yet the recipes for one dimensional, simple food often seem like they would be more suitable for a kitchen novice.

The first hints of concern started when I was flicking through the book. Normally I get quite excited by a new cookbook. It is a whole world of possibility. Within every cookbook there is the potential for a recipe that will change your life or become the one recipe. So I am often almost giddy when I flicking through a new book for the first time. And yet, I remember flicking through this one and just thinking ‘hmm’ after each page.

This, by itself, is not alarming. In fact, the opposite. The best cookbooks can turn an unlikely or underwhelming series of ingredients into something incredible.

So I persevered. We cooked from this. We gave it our best shot.

And, well, I am just glad this week is over, so I can stop cooking from this book. I have given it my all, and can conclude, sadly, it is not a good cookbook.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Quick Broccoli satay stir fry (totally fine; something you would make, eat and never think of again.)
  • Zesty Chilli Prawn Noodles (the curious addition of orange zest does nothing for a dish that tends towards bland, stodgy, and goopy) 
  • Berbere roasted sweet potato (the spice mix is tasty and certainly enlivened the dish. While perhaps not life changing, this at least was slightly exciting to eat)
  • Korean inspired rice bowls (the recipe as it stands would have resulted in a very dull dish; I had to make substantial modifications. So the end result was actually quite nice, but that was more of a result of tricks I had learnt from Bowl then the advice from this recipe)
  • Roast garlic and goats cheese frittata (again, as the recipe stands it would have been unimpressive. For a book called Flavour, Tandoh seems so keen to avoid any accusation of that!)
  • Ghanaian groundnut chicken stew (one dimensional: if you like peanut butter and chicken I guess you will like this. If you require slightly more complex flavour profiles, you will not.)
  • Lemon Courgette Risotto with Summer Herbs (if you ignore her instruction to use arborio rice—the garbage rice—it turns out to be a fine risotto. The pine nuts do not add much.)
  • Warm Spiced Chickpea and Carrot Salad (see above: mediocre food)
  • Summer Pineapple Camomile cake (this was nice. the timing instructions were off (but given how variable ovens are, this can be expected. The pineapple curd was a treat.)

Why not this book?

  • Because it s confused – its tone, purpose and content is just all over the place
  • Because the photography is often lacklustre and sure to feel dated by year’s end
  • There are simply many other better books out there (in each of the categories that the book has a hand in)

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and easy?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ||||| Tax returns And does it just spark joy?

 

Notwithstanding the above, if you would still like to buy it, you can do so via Amazon.