Nigella Softens Her Bite

Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson's Simply Nigella is a paean to the pleasures of good eating, Paleo style.

After a nasty public divorce and endless scrutiny of her weight, Nigella Lawson returns to the spotlight on her terms with Simply Nigella. Long an outspoken opponent of the “Clean-Eating Brigade” Lawson begins her 10th cookbook by reiterating this stance, warning no diet can confer immortality, prevent loss, or allay suffering. But, she amends, what we cook and eat can offer “mastery over ourselves”.

While Simply Nigella exhorts the pleasures of cooking and eating, Lawson borrows heavily from the Paleo playbook. With its abhorrence of carbohydrates, sugars, legumes, potatoes, alcohol, and dairy, the Paleo diet is one of the more restrictive diets available, running counter to gastronomic pleasure.

This leads to a curious disconnect, wherein readers have the woman known as The Domestic Goddess offering recipes for chocolate cakes baked with coconut oil and Roasted Radishes on the one hand, only to suggest Pasta With Snail Butter and Chicken Crackling on the other. Neither are necessarily bad food. But raging against the diet police even as one lifts their recipes is, kindly, curious at best. When said recipes are mixed with the verboten — recipes for starches and carbs, sugars and booze — what are readers to think?

To be clear, I’ve nothing but compassion for genuine Celiac sufferers. It’s the non-Celiacs I take issue with; those individuals ascribing their every difficulty in life to gluten. As Lawson has always been a voice of reason regarding balanced eating and weight, why the unexplained glut of Paleo recipes in Simply Nigella? How did the author of How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking come to possess a “carb cupboard”?

Apparently Lawson, or her American publishers, are trying to maximize American sales. Ergo, Simply Nigella, a cookbook with plenty of white space, minimalist photography (by the talented Keiko Oikawa), and an emphasis on the latest inane dietary obsession. Lawson reports her latest culinary passions are the sweet potato, the avocado, and the coconut, appearing here as oil, water, and butter. Chia seed, matcha, and buckwheat also make appearances in breakfast and dessert. Evidently, we are to believe the woman who gave us Date Steaks alongside Baked Potatoes and Sour Cream and the Gooey Chocolate Stack is now “blown down” by a breakfast of chia seed pudding.

Gone is the Lawson who kicked her Crock-Pot into Nigella Kitchen’s hilariously self-deprecating Kitchen-Gadget Hall of Shame; said gadget inexplicably reappears in Simply Nigella, with a cast-iron insert, no less. Never mind Lawson gave away most of her cast iron cookware three books ago, citing its weight. Now Lawson finds cast iron’s “steady heft” “reassuring”. Yes, everyone is entitled to change their thinking. Is an explanation out of order here?

Look, I adore Lawson. When she appeared at San Francisco’s Omnivore Books last November, I schlepped out to see her in the midst of painfully severe tendonitis. Lawson, warmly friendly and, yes, drop-dead beautiful, did not disappoint. So understand that I write from dismayed disbelief, not a desire to inflict hurt.

Paleo aside, many recipes in Simply Nigella are easily found elsewhere. Like Yotam Ottolenghi and Diana Henry, Lawson turns to Southeast Asia’s lime, ginger, soy, and garlic to replace Western animal and dairy fats. Hence recipes like Mackerel With Ginger, Soy, and Lime and Steamed Branzino With Ginger and Soy. See also Miso Salmon, Sushi Ginger, Simple Salsa and Fish Tacos — all recipes commonly found elsewhere.

Despite my griping, there is much good to be found in Simply Nigella. Unlike 2012’s “Britalified” Nigellissima, Simply Nigella asks readers to actually cook. Carbohydrates are occasionally permitted to sneak into the proceedings, and when Lawson’s natural creativity shines through, the results are excellent.

Tamarind Marinated Flank Steak is a fine example of Lawson’s genius. Tamarind, the fruit pod of the same tree, is used in Southeast Asian cuisine to flavor chicken, fish, and vegetables. Never before had I seen it used with meat; yet its compelling sweet/sour flavor profile makes it the perfect foil for flank steak’s beefiness. Clever use of honey and soy sauce only points up these flavors, making the dish delectable.

Sake Sticky Drumsticks are, as warned, messy eating. They are also within reach of the most rudimentary cook, a matter of turning chicken in a few ingredients — sake, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil — before baking and eating. The resulting dish far exceeds the sum of its few parts.

Lamb Ribs With Nigella and Cumin Seeds hearkens back to the lavish Nigella of old; “a fatty cut”, but — that’s “a bonus, not a warning”. Not into fatty food? “Don’t make these. Commiserations.”

Your author, lacking the requisite packaged Massaman Beef Curry mix, made her own using an Internet recipe before moving to Lawson’s Massaman Beef Curry. The result was spicy enough to induce sweating, in the best way, even as coconut milk controlled the burn and added desirable richness. It’s advisable to eat this with (verboten) rice.

Braised Peas With Mustard and Vermouth takes a Lawson pet ingredient, the frozen pea, and cooks it with meager amounts of mustard and Vermouth. My husband, no fan of frozen veggies, declared these wonderful. “They don’t taste tinny.”

On the dessert front, who doesn’t love chocolate chip cookie dough? Yet who among us ever considered underbaking it? Meet Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Pots. Lawson suggests using ramekins; those without may use a pie pan, as I did. The results met with great happiness from our frozen pea convert, above.

Thirteen years and ten books later, Simply Nigella is a long way from her first book, How To Eat (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2002). That Lawson was erudite and opinionated, comparing the making of mayonnaise to reading Henry James: each a task complicated only by one’s perception. A ham recipe moved her to quote Paul Muldoon’s poem “Profumo”, with Muldoon’s mother going “from ham to snobbish ham”.

Doubtless there are readers who object to such comparisons, who have no idea who Profumo or Muldoon are, and could care less. They are too preoccupied with the ill effects of wheat on their bellies. Perhaps there are very few readers like me — perhaps too few — who wish for the Lawson of that first book, instead of this new-age Nigella-lite, a woman writing of “Bowlfood”, of her “new life”, post-divorce, freed, it seems, to become a consumer of short grain brown rice and kimchi tacos.

The question is, given the choice, what would Lawson prefer to write about?

RATING 5 / 10