When my older sister spent a year studying in Edinburgh during university, she returned with many new friends, interests and souvenirs. The most important thing she brought back with her, however, was Nigella Lawson. Yes, Nigella came into my life in the form of a hardcover book called Nigella Bites, and completely transformed the way I thought about food, food writers, and celebrity. I never looked back.
See, up to that point in my life, I thought of cookbooks as, well, books you looked in when you wanted to cook. Purely and simply resources. It never occurred to me that food writing could actually be exciting. But here was Nigella in all her glory, her gorgeous face and her even more gorgeous food, luring me into her world, where pasta was slurped with wild abandon and chocolate was consumed guilt-free. All of a sudden there was a cookbook that I wanted to read- on the couch, in the bath- and to cook from. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that Nigella was also a contributor to the British version of my favourite magazine, Vogue.
So, for many years, I was a Nigella disciple. There were more books, there were afternoons spent cooking with my sister, there were memories. But, as people do, I grew up and moved on, finding new books and new writers to enthuse about. My rediscovery came about last Christmas, when my cousin received Nigella Express as a present. I spent the better part of the afternoon pouring through it, reacquainting myself with an old friend. As soon as I arrived back in Britain (for by now I had moved here myself), I was off to Waterstone’s to purchase my own copy.
Since, then, Nigella Express has become a fixture in my house, both by my couch and in the kitchen. A collection of quick recipes for time-pressed cooks, the book is organized into chapters with titles like “Workday Winners” and “Get Up and Go”. This approach, rather than the more usual organization-by-type, allows for Nigella’s own cooking style to come through. For instance, “Instant Calmer” contains recipes for quick versions of the comfort food for which Nigella is known, and “Holiday Snaps” features her own brand of impressive party food at breakneck pace.
These dishes are fast, but not necessarily because of quick cooking times. The time-saving secret of this book lies with the ingredients. Nigella calls into service a wide variety of shortcut products, from pre-chopped vegetables to garlic- and ginger-infused oil (sold as Wok oil or Stir-fry oil here in the UK) to various condiments and, in one case, dried mashed potato granules. The problem with these specialty items is that they’re a) unnecessarily expensive, b) often unhealthy, and c) difficult to find, depending on where you live.
Luckily for me, I don’t care about speed in the kitchen. While I don’t want to be standing over the stove all day, I’m much more concerned that a meal be delicious than quick to prepare. After all, I like being in the kitchen. So, where Nigella reaches for a quick-fix ingredient, I just reach for the real thing. Soaked and simmered chickpeas rather than canned, raw prawns rather than precooked, lettuce that you actually have to wash and trim yourself- you get the picture. (Confession: I did try the infused oil, but it didn’t pack enough of a flavour punch for me, so I ended up adding extra garlic and ginger, somewhat defeating the point.)
Among these are some real gems: Spaghettini with Prawns and Chili (pg. 293) is delicious, as is White Bean Mash (pg. 140) and Sesame Peanut Noodles (pg. 261). The Tuscan-influenced Tuna and Beans (pg. 284) has become a weekend lunch staple for me, and the Caramel Croissant Pudding (pg. 23) is so delicious that my boyfriend rarely requests another dessert.
Of course, Nigella Express isn’t all winners. In true Nigella style, the ratio of sweets to mains is rather high, some might say inappropriately so for a book about quick meals. (I was always under the impression that eating “real food” should be the priority, and dessert should come after, if one has time and room.) Similarly, the focus on entertaining and starters seemed odd to me- or am I the only one not regularly having company over on weeknights? Some recipes barely seem to count as recipes at all, merely suggestions for ingredient combinations (Naan pizza, pg. 19). Add to this the abundance of meat dishes that I can’t eat, and those dishes I just plain don’t want to eat (New Orleans Coleslaw, pg. 277), and I have to admit, this isn’t my favourite Nigella book.
Don’t let that dissuade you, though. There are plenty of great ideas in Nigella Express, and most of the recipes are the kind that are easily adaptable to what you have on hand. Of course, if you’re a Nigella-junkie like me, you’ve probably already got it anyway.