The Random Recipe Adventure
2018 will in future be known as the year of the Great West Norwood Cookbook Cull. But which books to get rid of, and which to keep? The Random Recipe Adventure will help us decide (you can read a bit more about the premise here). Each week, a book will be taken from the shelves, examined, and cooked from. Losers go to Oxfam – winners stay on the shelves, with a promise that they will no longer be neglected quite as much as they have been for the last decade or so.
How/where/when did I get it?
Again (see last week), I honestly can’t remember. A Christmas present, I’m sure. Possibly from my mother. (If you’re reading this and remember giving it to me, sorry and thank you).
Have I used it since then?
Yes, but not very much recently.
So what about it then?
Ah, well. Nigella.
Nigella Nigella Nigella.
All cookbooks are of their time. Some more than others. The ‘of-its-timeness’ of How To Eat is encapsulated not in the prevalence of extra virgin olive oil or pine nuts or parmesan – those have been constants in British culinary life since they were invented in the 1980s. It’s not even in the careful mention of salmonella in the introduction, which at the very least places the book in the post-Currie era. It’s in this sentence, from the section on Sunday lunch, that we can pinpoint exactly when How To Eat was written: ‘Rib of beef gives the best flavour, but it is very difficult to carve, and it is, at the time of writing, illegal to sell it.’
Now there’s a sentence to roll back the years, to send the pages of the calendar flying in the wind. This book, on that evidence alone, was written between 1997 and 1999, at the height of the BSE crisis. I remember thinking at the time that I’d never eat beef again. Mind you, given that I subsisted then almost entirely on extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan (oh, and polenta, slave to fashion that I was), that might have applied anyway. Ah, heady days.
Even without reading that sentence, though, Nigella-watchers would be able to deduce this work’s place in the Nigella canon. It’s from the pre-‘Nigella’ era, by which I mean that obviously she was already Nigella – she’s been that all her life – but she wasn’t yet ‘Nigella’, if you see what I mean. This was years before she became, ironically or otherwise, a Domestic Goddess. Indeed her biography at the back of the book talks excitedly of ‘a TV series of her own to be shown on Channel 4 in the new year’. Ah, heady days.
Anyway, the book. It is good. Very good, really. I’ve used it on and off over the years, and still refer to it for the annual Christmas Ham In Coke. And now, spending some overdue time with it, I find it’s full of little things – hints, tips and ideas rather than recipes – that make me go ‘Oh yes I should do that’. I know I probably never will, but that’s just the way of things, and it’s the thought that counts. I don’t beat myself up about that, by the way – it’s useless to fight it.
Some things I like, and one I don’t:
- I like the conversion chart that gives both accurate and approximate conversions for grams/ounces
- I like knowing that shelled nuts weigh half as much as unshelled and that for podded peas and beans you should divide the bought weight by three
- I like the way she makes me feel that yes I can do this stuff, even if I might not choose to.
- I like her line about egg whites: ‘I’ve got so many frozen my freezer is beginning to look like a sperm bank’.
- I do NOT like her recipe for brandy butter. Icing sugar and ground almonds? What foul witchcraft is this?
- And there are enough recipes for weekend lunch parties for eight to keep us going well into our retirement.
But there’s a good pile of practical everyday stuff in here – stuff you can easily find elsewhere, of course, but useful stuff nonetheless, and entertainingly written.
What Did The Random Recipe Generator throw up?
Prawns with Chilli and Garlic – this was good and quick and easy, but I didn’t feel we were in true Nigella territory. What we wanted was a recipe that would normally make me throw my hands up in horror, but that Nigella would despatch with no more than a flick of her raven locks and a knowing smile.
What we wanted was a Domestic Goddess recipe.
Step forward, Pea Soufflé.
This is absolutely prime Domestic Goddessery territory.
Her introduction starts thus: ’The first time I made pea soufflé (in response to an urgent request)…’
I try to imagine what circumstances could possibly have necessitated the urgency of this request, and conjure up a scene.
A Holland Park kitchen, 1990. The phone rings. A raven-haired young beauty answers, flinches at the volume and urgency of the voice at the end of the line.
‘N darling, we absolutely have to have a pea soufflé – Jocasta and Milo had it at Quag’s the other day and simply won’t take no for an answer – and we need it in an hour. You couldn’t possibly? You’re such a domestic goddess. ’K, thxbai.’
And Nigella is left forlornly holding the phone, fighting back tears at the cruelty of life and the demands placed on her by the selfishness of her friends’ children.
I haven’t made a soufflé in decades. In fact I’m not convinced I’ve ever made one, but if I had I’m sure it would have been in the 80s, when I learned a bit about food and thought I knew everything, and probably cooked an appalling one as a starter in an effort to impress friends who would rather have had a Burger King (as indeed, secretly, would I). And as Nigella correctly surmises, it’s not the kind of thing you might cook on a regular basis unless you were very confident and had lots of time at your disposal. Fiddly, technical, and prone to soggy disaster.
Reader, I am a convert. It took one hour from beginning to end, no more than that, and was no more difficult than making a cake. Those among you who are regular soufflé-makers – as well as those of you who would rather swim to the moon than make one – may cease your eye-rolling immediately. This is a voyage of discovery for some of us.
More to the point, it was bloody good. The only slight glitch was when I realised that our oven light was broken, so timing the extraction was more a matter of guesswork than it might have been. But the proof of the soufflé is in the devouring, and devoured it was by all three of us. Hats off to Nigella for making the recipe pretty much foolproof.
The Verdict: Keeper or Chucker?
Keeper, with a vow to use it more often and to throw more impromptu lunch parties for eight. (Yeah, right.)