Okay, it’s been a while since I posted a Nigella update. I seem to have been either in Sydney or on holidays in New Zealand so haven’t been spending the time that I would like to be spending in the kitchen. When I have been home, however, I haven’t been entirely idle and progress through How To Eat has been happening – albeit slowly. Since we started back in the middle of January I’ve cooked 23 of the just over 300 recipes – or recipe ideas. We have a long way to go.
Before I get into some of what I’ve cooked, although this challenge has only been underway for a few months, I’m learning loads – not just about cooking (or baking) but about why I need to cook or bake. And, spoiler alert, it’s not just because I like to eat – although obviously, I do. It’s more about the process, the transformation, and the outcome. Cooking centres me in a way other things don’t and provides a transformation and outcome that’s lacking in most of my work days.
Since starting this challenge I’ve changed the way that I cook. My husband says that I’m the world’s messiest and most disorganised cook – and to a certain extent he’s absolutely right. I used to rarely read a recipe before I began making it and then would be a whirl of chaos as I’d grab ingredients from the pantry, measure them out roughly, and leave them on the bench while I got the next out. At the end of the cook, the bench would be completely covered – in both a cloud of flour and with jars and boxes and tubs that needed to be put back where they belonged.
Grant would walk in, tutt tutt about the mess and make some comment about how messy I was, but always with a smile so that I’d think he was saying it with affection whereas I really knew that it gave him the irrits. (I nearly said something else then but remembered just in time that my parents read this and hate it when I say things like pissed off….ooops, I just did.)
I’m still not a tidy cook, but I am more organised. I read the recipe first – after all, who wants to get halfway down and find out that the dish you’re intending to serve for dinner needs to be marinated overnight – and I measure everything and put away as I go. The other week he came into the kitchen when I was making the Bakewell tart, sat down at the bench and automatically said ‘you’re such a messy cook darling.’
Seriously? There was literally nothing on the bench. Nothing. Except for a wooden cutting board. It had even been wiped down and the sink was clean. He’d said what he did out of habit – but following my reaction will probably look before he speaks in future. Just saying.
I’m also thinking more about the structure of dishes, their foundation – how certain ingredients and techniques can be used in other ideas. Like the horseradish cream from the Sunday roast. The other night I used it as the base of some canapes. I topped lavosh crackers with some smoked mackerel that I’d bought at the markets and added a little grated beetroot to finish. (I cook my beetroot whole and unpeeled in foil in the oven. They cook in their own juices and the skin slides off.)
Mostly though I’ve discovered that the process calms me – helps me find a balance that’s missing during my workday. In actually following a recipe (something I have tended not to do) the measuring, weighing and chopping slows my brain and forces me to focus on each task and then the next whereas in the day job I’m juggling numerous disparate functions simultaneously. It makes me more mindful and present at the moment.
Okay, to some of the recipes (or ideas of recipes) that I’ve cooked and haven’t yet told you about… oh, and given that most of what I’ve made has been prepared for dinner ie at night, the photos are crap – so I’m not using them. (Sorry, I said “crap” Mum, but they are…) Besides, there are no photos in How To Eat at all so if it’s good enough for Nigella, it’s good enough for me.
Not to be too boastful, but I make a Lyonnaise-style salad dressing that I’ve had a guest drinking it from the little jug it’s poured from. That dressing does, however, turn a healthy salad into one a tad more calorie-laden.
For midweek dinners I usually pop the bowl of leaves on the table along with a bottle of good olive oil and one of store-bought vinaigrette. Drizzled over the top we still tend to use more oil than is required. Now though, I dress my salads the way Nigella tells me to in How To Eat: use the barest minimum of olive oil in the base of the bowl – just a few teaspoons – and toss the leaves in it. They end up with the thinnest of films of oil – which is all you need. I then toss across some salt and squeeze a lemon and toss again. Simple commonsense really, but it does cut down on the amount of dressing we use without compromising the flavour.
In case you’re wondering, Nigella’s basic French dressing involves putting 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, barely 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon of salt, a decent grinding of pepper, 6-8 tablespoons of really good olive oil, and a drop or two of cold water into a jar and shaking it vigorously.
Bechamel Sauce and Parsley Sauce
I’m lumping these together (no pun intended) as the base of the parsley sauce is, in fact, bechamel – and I’ve made many over the years. For the Nigella challenge though, I’ve followed her recipe for each.
Bechamel is arguably the most useful sauce you’ll ever make. For starters, it’s the base for macaroni cheese and one day I fully intend to write an entire cookbook on macaroni cheese – or mac and cheese as I think it’s called in the States. It’s also integral to a lasagne, and at the heart of cheesy cauliflower, cheesy broccoli or tuna mornay (which I like to call tuna mac). You can also substitute some of the milk in the sauce for cooking water and use it to coat leeks or onions.
Essentially a bechamel is a roux – a mix of even quantities of flour and butter cooked for a few minutes to get rid of the floury taste – to which milk is gradually added and then stirred until it thickens. Basic, yeah?
Parsley sauce takes it one step further. The parsley stalks are heated in the milk to flavour the milk. The chopped leaves are stirred with the heated milk into the roux, and some fresh ones added before serving. We had it over pan-fried white fish fillets, but Nigella also suggests using it to make parsley and ham patties. I’m thinking it would also add an extra layer if combined with mashed potato and flaked salmon to make salmon patties.
I’ve got myself into some serious trouble with this custard. It’s that good. It also makes sense. Rather than a complicated set of ingredients, Nigella advises 1 egg yolk and 1 heaped teaspoon of sugar for every 100ml of milk (or cream) and some vanilla. Too easy – and no custard powder in sight.
Bakewell Tarts can be controversial. Even the name is controversial. In Bakewell itself, there’s a Bakewell pudding as well as a tart – two completely different products with a similar ingredient base. Whatever you call it, this almond and raspberry filled pie bears no resemblance at all to the supermarket dirty-grey iced versions Grant treats himself with occasionally. Hence when I announced that this was next on the Nigella list, Sarah screwed her nose up. ‘I don’t like them,’ she announced. When the finished product came out of the oven, Grant screwed his nose up. ‘Aren’t you going to ice it?’
Traditionally it was made with puff pastry, but this version – as with most recipes I found – is made with shortcrust which holds the frangipane, jam and berry filling much more effectively. Nigella’s version has almond in the pastry too – making the pastry a tad more difficult to work with, but much lighter in texture.
Her version also uses both fresh raspberries (optional) and raspberry jam. You can, of course, omit the fresh berries if you want, but they cut through the sweetness of the frangipane beautifully.
And the result? Both doubters were converted and the recipe was declared a winner. The only thing I’d change is the flaked almonds on top. Nigella tells us to scatter them across the top before baking for 35 minutes in a 200C oven. At about the 20-minute mark there was the distinct smell of singed almonds coming from the oven so I had to place some foil over the top to stop the almonds from burning. Next time I bake this I’ll add the almonds for the last 10 minutes only. And I’ll bake it during the day so I can take a photo as it really was quite lovely to look at.
I’ve taken on the challenge to cook my way through Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat. You can find other episodes here.