Cookbooks: Nigel Slater

Tender: A cook and his vegetable patch ( Ten Speed Press 2011 )  is the latest book by Nigel Slater, author of The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater, and Toast; The Story of a Boy’s Hunger . He is one of my favorite English food writers. In fact, I am always drawn to English food writers (Elizabeth David, Patience Grey, Jane Grigson, Tamasin Day Lewis) because of their reassuring tone and engaging,  conversational voice.

These writers view food through a different lens than other food writers. To them, food and cooking is not static, or a black and white formulaic topic, but a subject so beguiling that it merits thoughtful consideration. The best of the lot don’t just teach us how to cook but share with us their vision about food and cooking: they muse, debate, decide, select, and present us with situations that gives us the confidence to realize that, yes, I can cook like this, too. This approach shows us that after one has learned the basics of good cooking, that the need to follow recipes exactly-to-the-letter is less valuable than learning to develop one’s instincts in the kitchen.

Nigel Slater’s writing is very welcoming. For him, the process of selecting the foods and ingredients at market, and ready-ing himself to cook, and the steps involved in constructing and then cooking the dish are an important part of his engagement with the food. I think that under his influence, all cooks can find some area in the kitchen that they could pay more attention to.

His voice is personal, and spoken in an intimate and joyful way from writer to reader, cook to cook. His musings consider numerous variables: he wants the reader to find these details as  important as he does. For example, from the  March 7th notation in The Kitchen Diaries he writes: “I have no idea what I had in mind when I bought the two lamb chops that are now sitting on the kitchen worktop. Actually they are leg steaks and there’s enough for two. Whatever it was, the flash of inspiration  must have got lost on the way home. In the fridge are mixed salad leaves – arugula, baby spinach, and some baby chard – and a bunch of mint. I might be able to rescue a few leaves from the bunch of basil that has got to close to the back of the fridge and burned on the ice. There is also the unusual stuff in the fridge and cupboards. I put the chops into a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of light soy sauce and a crushed garlic clove and let then sit for twenty minutes. I get the broiler hot and chick the chops on it, a couple of minutes on each side. Whilst the meat is cooking, I toss the salad leaves into a bowl. Then I knock up a dressing consisting of a couple of small, hot red chili peppers, finely chopped, the juice of half a ripe lime, a tablespoon of dark soy, a handful of shredded mint leaves and a wee bit of sugar. I slice the lamb into pencil-thin strips, and while it is still hot, toss it with the salad and dressing, then divide it between two plates. The mixture of sizzling meat, mellow, salty soy and sharp lime juice is startling, especially with the green leaves that have softened slightly where they have touched the lamb. The few juices left on our plates are stunning, and we mop them up with crispy white rolls.”

This is not a traditional recipe but it shows us that thinking about food and how to combine simple ingredients at hand easily creates a tasty dish that shows off the main element of the dish – the lamb.  It is the personal voice, spoken in an intimate and joyful way from writer to reader, cook to cook, which makes the reader pay attention to details they failed to notice before. He never mentions that the food is good – we know it is because of the words he chooses to describe the lusciousness of the moment. The casual mention of the greens that have softened slightly where they have touched the lamb is but a tiny detail, yet it is a significant one, noticed and appreciate by a passionate and observant eater.

Slater has (and shares) a deeply-rooted connection to things ‘real’ that drives his relationship with food. His books ( as well those of other English, Irish and Scottish writers ) contain a lot of  detail, and they have a special way of discussing the ‘this and that’ kitchen topic – be it butchery, cheese choices, seasonal fruits, etc, that includes the reader in the discourse and process. It is as if we are guests in their kitchen and are privy to some of their private thoughts and kitchen notes. It’s a bit more right- side of the brain, subjective thinking and writing rather than left-side of the brain, objectivity.

We are given lots of explanations, too, in casual discourse, because details are important to these writers. Information might be about where the meat came from, how the animal was slaughtered, what farm raised it, the pros and cons of which vegetables to consider using in a seasonal vegetable casserole, the merits of different varieties of heirloom beans, the glories of farmhouse cider, old-time farming techniques, etc.   All of this matters and is fodder for discussion and consideration.

Tender: A Cook and his vegetable patch has a different focus but is equally compelling. It is the kind of book that makes me want to mess about in my garden and then cook whatever there is that is ready to be picked on that day. Digging about like that in the vegetable garden yields seasonal food at it’s freshest and most flavorful; those with the confidence to put it all together in a tasty dish for dinner that evening have really learned to savor the moments when vegetables are at their seasonal best.

Listen to what he says in the introduction to Tender: ” Vegetables beckon and intrigue me in a way no fish or piece of meat ever could. The beauty of a single lettuce, its inner leaves tight and crisp, the outer ones opened up like those of a cottage garden rose; the glowing saffron flesh of a cracked pumpkin; the curling tendrils of a pea plant; a bunch of long, white-tipped radishes; a bag of assorted tomatoes in shades of scarlet, green, and orange is something I like to take time over.”

I think the key to his genius is in the last sentence:  ‘……is something I like to take time over’.  His gift to us is his vision and his sensibilities, and the ability that he has to convey his thoughts in lovely prose. He makes us stop, slow-down and want to look, feel, taste and appreciate our food and foodstuffs for their unique qualities. His words are every bit as savory as his recipes, and I think he belongs in the same category of food writer as  MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David.

This is a stolen snippet that appears on Nigel Slaters website: ” Author, columnist and broadcaster, he remains very much an amateur cook. Nigel is not a chef and has no restaurant or commercial connections. His food is understated, handcrafted home cooking that is easy to accomplish and without a trace of what he affectionately calls ‘celebrity cheffery’. He is not fond of fussy food and prefers simple suppers made with care and thought. He believes that making something good to eat for your self or for others can lift the spirits in the way little else can. “

I for one will always have a place on my bookshelf for more of his books.

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