Oh, to eat at Nigel Slater’s table. That’s what I think (wistfully), and what I imagine any sane person would think, on leafing through the food writer’s new book Tender. Published to coincide with the TV series Simple Suppers, I received a copy for my birthday last month (thanks, Hil!), and have been dreaming of its contents ever since.
Tender is actually a two-part publication, the first volume of which focuses on vegetables. In Volume II, which is due out next year, the emphasis will be on fruit. As fruit doesn’t interest me nearly as much as vegetables (I dislike it cooked, anyway), I’m thrilled that Nigel saw fit to start at the beginning.
And “at the beginning” is apt: in the vein of Jamie at Home and others like it, Tender is as much about growing vegetables as cooking them. The introduction speaks of Nigel’s love for growing food, and in particular for his west London garden, which was transformed over several years to provide him with a generous, if not entirely self-sustaining, amount of fresh produce with which to cook.
This introduction (all 12 pages of it) is strangely one of my favourite parts of the book. It’s not that I find the subject matter all that interesting, but the prose is a treat to take in. Nigel Slater is beloved by the British in part due to his wonderful writing, which is at once charming, self-deprecating, witty and honest. He even manages to make a section titled “Slugs, snails and other buggerances” sound amusing, which I imagine is quite a feat.
While all of Nigel’s books are wonderfully readable, Tender is probably one of the prettiest to date, at least in my opinion. Printed on beautiful matte paper, the pages are full of simple type, wonderful photography and enough clean white space to bring it all together. The photos especially, mainly of food but occasionally of Nigel’s garden or some raw ingredients, are considered and elegant without being styled to death. In short: this is my kind of book.
Broken into 30 chapters, each covering a different vegetable, the books is large but hardly an exhaustive vegetable lexicon. Of course, it wouldn’t be; Tender is all about eating locally and cooking seasonally, so it only covers those vegetables grown by Nigel here in Britain. This makes it especially useful for those of us who buy produce at farmers’ markets, or who grow our own food.
Each chapter follows the same basic formula: an introduction, some information about growing the vegetable in question, a “diary” following the planting, growing and harvesting in 2008, and some information on the different varieties available to gardeners. Following this is a bit about cooking with the vegetable (methods, classic flavour pairings, tips and things to try), and around 5-10 recipes using it. This may sound like rather a lot of “extra stuff” taking up room in a cookbook, but it’s far more interesting than it sounds. In fact, there are just as many ideas for dishes hidden in these sections of prose as there are recipes themselves.
Now, about those recipes. While I haven’t been cooking from Tender for all that long, I don’t need to cook everything here to know it will be delicious. Nigel’s recipes rarely disappoint me; in fact, I’d consider him one of my most trusted food writers, in terms of “doing what it says on the tin”. And he hasn’t strayed far from his trademark cooking style here, relying heavily on fresh ingredients, simple cooking methods, and the occasional indulgence. (Nigel seems to be a man who likes a good dose of cream or cheese now and then.) While the recipes aren’t strictly vegetarian, non-meat-eaters will find little to complain about, as it only makes a rare and subtle appearance here. Additionally, very few things read as “sides” to me, leaning instead toward being meals in their own right.
I first tackled A Rich Dish of Sprouts and Cheese for a Very Cold Night (pg. 126), which was so good that my boyfriend went back for thirds (quite something, considering that he’d previously claimed to dislike Brussels sprouts). Pasta with Sprouting and Cream (pg. 114) was also a success, as was Kale with Golden Raisins and Onions (pg. 321). I hope to try the Carrot Cake with a Frosting of Mascarpone and Orange (pg. 179) soon, and I’ve currently got some chickpeas on the stove for tonight’s dinnner of Chickpeas with Pumpkin, Lemongrass and Coriander (pg. 506).
The negatives of this book are few and far between. If you aren’t interested in gardening or eating locally it probably won’t be for you, as you’ll get more bang for your buck with a larger, more comprehensive vegetable cookbook. I suppose Tender could contain more recipes; I mean, four broccoli dishes is hardly all the vegetable has to offer, is it?
Still, what Tender does, it does very well. This is a collection of reliable recipes, made from ingredients local to many of us living in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m giving Tender a solid four stars and a strong suggestion that you check it out. While cooking from this book might not feel exactly like sitting down to dine with the author, it’s as close as I’m likely to get.