International cookery show host, author of nine cookbooks, master of the seductive stir and innuendo-tinged kitchen tip, and home cook (not chef) who launched the concept of domestic goddessery: Nigella Lawson is many things to many people—not least the ones who can appreciate the need for extra goose fat.
Much of Nigella's appeal seems to stem from her belief that good food shouldn't require a complicated ingredients or stage at El Bulli to achieve. Her new book and accompanying TV series Simply Nigella (see? Simple) focuses on laid back cooking, with recipes including Middle Eastern minestrones, fish tacos, and comforting potato bakes.
While this chilled out approach (one of the book's chapters is actually titled "Breathe") incurred the wrath of certain Twitter users, who argued that avocado on toast couldn't possibly be considered an actual recipe, most of us were pretty relieved to hear that you could make a cauliflower and cashew nut curry without re-hauling your spice cabinet or deciphering a 15-point recipe.
But as anyone who has attempted to make a pig-in-blanket from scratch will know, Christmas cooking can be anything but simple. We reached out to Nigella via email for her advice on making a Christmas Day game plan that doesn't involve dry turkey or getting despair drunk off the cooking sherry before midday.
Oh, and why you should probably be cooking your ham in Coca Cola this year.
MUNCHIES: Hi Nigella! Tell me about where the idea to create a book of simple recipes came from. Why is it so important to make cooking simple? Nigella Lawson: Well, in all of my books my recipes are simple, because that's the way I cook—I am a home cook and not a chef. It's true that in this book, I wanted to show the variety of recipes that make up a balanced diet, and the sort of food that makes me feel good while I cook, as well as when I eat and in my life generally.
Food has to give pleasure—in the kitchen and at the table—and that means recipes that positively reduce stress, rather than add to it. I admire chefs but I do not want restaurant food at home and moreover, I think sometimes the food that we see chefs cook on TV or in their books can give the idea that cooking is more complicated than it needs to be.
I know that cooking can be simple but just because the process itself is simple, doesn't mean that the flavours can't be complex. Too many people are put off cooking because they think it's difficult, and people need to know how seductively simple it can be to cook food that is truly delicious. It's a real source of joy to learn that.
Food has to give pleasure—in the kitchen and at the table—and that means recipes that positively reduce stress, rather than add to it.
Do you have a favourite dish from Simply Nigella—one that you always return to? It's so difficult to choose just one recipe from the book, as there are a clutch of recipes I seem to cook in rotation. But I think possibly my chicken, bitter orange, and fennel traybake is the recipe I've cooked the most. It also has a special resonance for me, as it's the first recipe I cooked in my new kitchen.
But the reason I return to it again and again is that it's so easy to do—and makes the house smell delicious when people come round. I just put some chicken thigh portions into a large freezer bag along with sliced fresh fennel, fennel seeds, orange and lemon juice (when bitter oranges are not in season), orange zest, olive oil, and mustard and leave the flavours to mingle and the chicken to tenderise.
Then, an hour before I want us all to eat, I tip the contents of the freezer bag into a shallow oven tin and bake for an hour in a hot oven. It comes out beautifully every time.
Sounds delicious. Your Nigella's Christmas cookbook was very popular, in part because it also features simple recipes. Is there too much pressure to go over the top with our cooking at Christmas? I do think Christmas is a high pressure time, not least because people take on too much and somehow think they are mean to turn their homes into Christmas-themed restaurants. I think many of us have had the experience of cooking so much food that we are exhausted and stressed out before people even arrive, and then are left with far too much food once they've left.
I love abundance, and this is indeed a time of indulgence, but when that happens I don't like the waste—of effort and food. I want to celebrate with my family and friends without feeling overwhelmed, and I write and cook recipes that make that possible.
What's a Christmas recipe that didn't make the book—perhaps a guilty pleasure you enjoy making during the holidays? Well, I don't think I have a recipe I haven't included in a book, but I do have a recipe in Simply Nigella that is not in itself a Christmas recipe, but lends itself splendidly to the season.
It's called "old rag pie" (an adaptation of the Greek patsavouropita) and is a quite fabulous layer-up of Filo and feta, baked with eggs, milk, and butter. It then has honey poured over once it's out of the oven. I can best describe it as tasting like a Greek cheesecake! Because traditionally, it was made with leftover scraps of Filo (the "old rags" of the title), you don't have to keep the Filo covered and work swiftly and carefully as you go. You really can just throw this together. Cut into small squares and eaten with more honey poured over it, it makes for a sumptuous sweet feast.
But it's certainly not a guilty pleasure: I feel very strongly that pleasure is something we should feel grateful for, not guilty about.
Wise words. Have you ever had any Christmas catering disasters? Well, one year my oven just broke and I had to go to a friend's house down the road and roast the turkey and potatoes in her oven. It meant I had a few walks carrying heavy baking trays up and down the chilly streets and lunch was a bit late, but all was fine in the end!
What's your advice to someone making a Christmas meal for friends or family for the first time? I would say to write a list of everything you plan to cook and then go away, drink a cup of tea, and come back and look at the list again, and strike out about half the dishes you'd planned. Everyone overreaches on that first list. And then, once the list is winnowed down, work out what needs to be cooked when (lots can be prepared in advance), and write a schedule for yourself. (Though if it helps, I have just such a schedule in my Christmas book!)
Always have someone at the Christmas meal that your family don't know well enough to behave badly in front of.
One last (non-culinary) tip: always have someone at the Christmas meal that your family don't know well enough to behave badly in front of!
What's your least favourite Christmas food? People feel pretty strongly about fruitcake. I love absolutely everything about the Christmas meal. I think that the reason people are prejudiced against fruitcake is because they have, sadly, only ever eaten fruitcakes that are horribly dry.
Which is a travesty. And finally, I have to ask: where did the ham in Coca Cola recipe idea come from? It's been a favourite in my family for years! It occurred to me that the sweet spiciness of Coca Cola would infuse the ham with an almost barbecued richness so I tried it—and it did!
But I'm always happy to try out new ways of cooking ham. There's a ham in Simply Nigella that you don't have to boil (so no wrangling in hot liquids), but just put on a foil wrapped tin, pour molasses or black treacle over, then wrap well in more foil, and cook for hours and hours in a low oven. It hasn't taken the place of the Coca Cola ham in my heart or home but it is a new addition I am hugely happy with, and will be cooking at Christmas this year.
Thanks for talking with us, Nigella.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December, 2015. Illustration by Yuliya Tsoy.