NIGEL Slater’s original Kitchen Diaries, published in 2005, was groundbreaking both for its day-by-day writing and the exquisite production.
The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater
Fourth Estate, 544pp, £30
Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration by Nigella Lawson
Chatto and Windus, 288pp, £26
If this sequel, which covers several years rather than just one, seems less remarkable, that’s because “artistic originality has only its own self to copy” (Nabokov). Since 2005, Slater has attained fame as a TV presenter and it is to his credit how little this has affected his style, which is intimate, even confessional, as he tells us about himself and how food works for him.
In any other writer, the first person assertion of his own sensibility might seem precious or tiresome: “I need a banana to be firm, crisp, almost under-ripe”; “I have always regarded mopping food from my plate with a piece of bread as one of life’s better moments”; “I regard the juices left in the pan or roasting tin as nothing less than treasure” – and so forth.
But the whole point of the way Slater writes about food is to share what he himself has enjoyed – and that is necessarily a form of autobiography. He says he is happy to learn that his books spend as much time on the bedside table as they do in the kitchen and his prose is indeed a sensual pleasure. “You can smell that summer has arrived,” he writes on 7 May. “I brought the first of the new season’s pearl-white garlic home this morning, its waxy skin flashed with paintbrush streaks of green. Two fat heads still on their long, flexible stalks. These youthful bulbs have a subtle, fleeting charm that is destined to disappear as they age.”
To be able to read writing as seductive as this and then to cook the recipes – all so simple yet such decisive acts of taste – and thus actually share the experience is just a great treat. Those who know Slater’s other books will be familiar with his palate, which hasn’t changed much – but it is notable that he cooks more than ever with grains (a risotto of spelt, chicken with wheat) and less with pasta.
Can there be any point to yet another book about Italian food by a celebrity? Nigella surprisingly proves there can. She has a strikingly thoughtful introduction about how Italian food is changing and incorporating other ways of cooking. In any case, she explains, “I don’t claim that these recipes are authentically Italian, but authentic they are nonetheless.” They are all inflected with her own tastes, so that this really is cucina Nigella once again and therefore incontrovertible, so far as that goes.
Nigel and Nigella have always had this approach, of starting from the position of being honest about what it is they want to eat, rather than cooking to impress others. Her tastes are a bit jammier, less restrained. The numero-uno dish here, she reckons, is Meatcea, a culinary pun intended to amuse. “It looks like a pizza, but its base is made out of meatball mixture” – simple as that. You can just finish it with tomato and mozzarella or you can try more excessive toppings. It gets a joyous reception, she says, especially from the kids.
This may be a bit of a monstrosity but there are plenty of other recipes here – a farro risotto, a way of making a decent caprese salad in winter – that are just begging to be cooked.
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