Nigella Lawson has been an Italophile since spending her gap year—that is, the year between high school and college—in Italy. In each of her books, Lawson reaffirms her deep love of all things Italian, proclaiming her wish to be Italian herself. Barring that, each of her eight cookbooks abounds in Italian recipes.
With the publication of Nigellissima, Lawson ostensibly delivers on her long-held promise: finally, the Italy Book.
For those unfamiliar with Lawson’s cookbooks, she writes two kinds: relatively short 200-pagers and 400-page-doorstops. This is not a criticism. While her earlier books are serious, requiring actual cooking, later works (those books published as her fame grew and she became a television personality) begin taking shortcuts, using stock cubes or canned broth, canned beans, pre-washed, bagged salad greens, and ready-cut vegetables.
Dessert making dwindles from extolling the joys of real baking in How to Be a Domestic Goddess to egg whites in cartons, purchased cookies, ice creams, and frozen fruits. Lawson pays scant attention to seasonality, and vacillates on organic items. For all this, her books are full of felicitous writing and useful recipes. I had hoped, expected, the Italy Book would be a Big Book. I was sorely disappointed.
At 272 pages, Nigellissima is long on glossy photos, short on text. In the introduction, Lawson writes “The book I have now written is not quite the one I originally intended.” She goes on to say that after reading 500 Italian cookbooks she, an Englishwoman, felt disqualified to write about Italian cooking. Instead, she wrote a “Britalified” cookbook, a culinary mishmash she claims to cook from regularly.
Thus recipes like “Meatzza”, involving ground beef, bread crumbs (or, for the wheat-averse, oatmeal) garlic, canned tomato, and Mozzarella.There are the demanding Shortcut Sausage Meatballs, wherein you must remove the sausage casings, then roll the innards into meatballs and cook them in a tomato sauce. There is the bizarre Tuscan Tuna Tartare: bizarre because Italians vastly prefer their food cooked. While Lawson suggests sashimi-grade tuna, she does not suggest sustainably caught fish. (Wince.)
Blurred geography aside, Nigellissima is clearly aimed at a different audience than its predecessors. Despite enormous fame in the United Kingdom, Lawson hasn’t quite caught on in the United States. Her appearances on the television show The Taste may be part of a plan to conquer the Red, White, and Blue, along with this considerably idiotized cookbook.
Granted, Lawson has long been moving from cooking completely from scratch, but none of her cookbooks to date use so many prepackaged and/or canned goods. Sausages with Beans and Roasted Red Peppers calls for three cans and one jar—beans, tomatoes, and roasted peppers. Broccolini with Parmesan and Lemon vaguely calls for Parmesan that is “freshly shaved or store bought”. Does that mean the sawdust they call ‘parmesan’ in those green containers?
As for Cannellini Beans with Rosemary, well, it calls for two cans of cannellini beans. Add some rosemary. Did you need a recipe for that?
Serious cooks may also question the complete lack of seasonality. Tomatoes, Mozzarella, and Basil, My Way, appears in the “An Italian-Inspired Christmas” section, along with Gorgonzola and Cannellini Dip with a Tricolore Flourish. The Tricolore Flourish is provided by red bell peppers, sugar snap peas, and cauliflower. According to Alice Waters, my lodestar in all things seasonal, bell peppers arrive in fall, sugar snap peas in spring. Only cauliflower is available year round, and only people who either are oblivious to or don’t care about sustainable eating won’t blanch at tomato salad in December.
Nigellissima has one final, serious problem. She writes: “…all the recipes that follow are newly published in book form…”
Not quite. Lawson must have really panicked, for numerous recipes are lifted from her earlier books, most with only with minor tweaks. After recognizing several in Nigellissima, I sat down amidst my library of Nigella books and searched indexes. Here is an incomplete list of what I found before giving up:
Beef Tagliata appears in How To Eat. Roast Butternut Squash with Sage and Pinenuts is pretty close to the Spiced Roast Squash in Nigella Christmas and even closer to the Butternut, Arugula, and Pine Nut Salad in Nigella Kitchen. In Nigellissima, we have an “Italian Tray Bake” calling for potatoes, chicken thighs, Italian sausages, rosemary, lemon zest, olive oil, pepper, and salt.
From Nigella Kitchen: “When I’m frazzled, I firmly believe that a ‘tray-bake’ is the safest way to go.” The ingredients? Olive oil, chicken thighs, chorizo, potatoes, onion, oregano, and orange zest.
Peas and Pancetta appears in Nigella Christmas, while a variation on Instant Chocolate Mousse appears in Nigella Express. In the case of Feast’s Baci di Ricotta and Nigellissima’s Sambuca Kisses, the recipes vary only in flavorings. There are other recipes that are just flavor swaps—Pomegranate No-Churn ice cream becomes Coffee No-Churn Ice Cream. And so on.
My point isn’t needless bitchiness, or becoming a crazed type who hunts down every riff Led Zeppelin stole from an impoverished blues musician. My point is that Nigellissima costs $35.00/€26.90. That’s too much money for too many repeats.
If you already have the older books, stick with them. If not, I suggest starting with Nigella Express and Nigella Kitchen. Both are full of recipes engaging cooks at all skill levels. I’ve never had one fail, and they’re invariably good.
If you long to bake but fear it, I cannot recommend How to Be a Domestic Goddess enough. Even I baked from it successfully.
There are some viable recipes in Nigellissima, and it would be unfair to overlook them. Lawson introduces readers to farro, which is emmer wheat. It sounds completely unappetizing, but in fact makes an excellent side dish or vegetarian entrée, here with sliced mushrooms. Parmesan Shortbreads uses real ingredients—butter, eggs, flour, parmesan—for an appetizer people won’t stop eating. Spinach Baked with Ricotta and Nutmeg sounds like lusciously adult baby food. Chicken with Tarragon Salsa Verde calls for all fresh ingredients and even suggests the chicken be “preferably organic and corn-fed”. The aforementioned Tomatoes, Mozzarella, & Basil, My Way in the “An Italian-Inspired Christmas” section would be excellent, just about now.
As I write this, Lawson’s personal life is capsizing, and I wish her comfort. She is an intelligent woman, a talented writer and fine cook, and capable of far, far more than Nigellissima would indicate. Perhaps one day she’ll reconsider and we’ll get that Italy Book after all. No boxes, no cans, and heaven help us, no sashimi.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.
// Notes from the Road
"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.READ the article