My mum seems to have been on an unnecessary diet since she popped my brother out in the early 80s and would be more than thrilled if the human need for fuel became redundant. I can only owe my love of eating to the DNA accrued from my dad. Seriously, the man eats like a shire horse. But there are two other people responsible for this obsession with buying produce, cooking it and inhaling it so quickly that if you blinked you might have thought there was nothing on the plate to begin with. Tip: make sure the food isn't boiling hot while inhaling. Especially soups and casseroles. You can permanently damage the nasal passage. The two wonderful people to whom I refer are Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Their influences were significant and quite different to each other.
Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef made cooking look like the best fun you could have with your clothes on. Actually, I was a pretty young and insecure lady at that time. Keeping my clothes on was likely a huge bonus. It was new and totally different to any food TV I'd seen before. In fact, if you imagine that the main staples of food telly at the time were Queen Delia of Smith and Food & Drink, fresh-faced Jamie Oliver's unashamed Essex chat, camera shots which darted around like a stunned wasp and his incessant scooting around trendy London on his super-trendy moped to collect some salmon steaks seemed like something I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to be his friend. OK, I'm lying. I wanted to be Jools.
Set to a soundtrack of indie music so current some of it hadn't even been heard yet, I was completely hooked. Especially when they showed him shaking his mop of highlighted hair while drumming with his very own indie band, which he did just for fun. Serious swoon. There was one memorable incident where my loins became rather uncomfortable while watching Jamie knead olive oil into a large tray of focaccia dough, but mostly it was about the food. Maybe. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he kneads his focaccia, you know. Anyway, that's what Jamie Oliver did for me and I will always be grateful.
Nigella Lawson, however, did something far more important. She completely changed the way I felt about food. When I first watched Nigella Bites on Channel 4, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Here was this gorgeous, sexy woman who didn't just enjoy cooking and make it look easy, but she loved eating what she cooked. She loved eating as much as I did. And that's a lot. We both were and still are unapologetically greedy. The way Nigella spoke about food and the words she chose just spoke to me. It was like poetry. She never apologised for using butter and double cream. She tasted everything and made Mmmmm noises with such authenticity that I imagine they had the same effect on men as Jamie's kneading had on me.
She made being me feel OK, which admittedly seems like quite a dramatic statement to make. But what I mean is that, having grown up with diet fiend, I sometimes felt like I had to play-down how delicious I found certain foods. Weird, I know. Nigella made going to the fridge in your pyjamas to have a few extra spoonfuls of trifle because it was just that yummy seem perfectly reasonable.
Her mistakes made me feel better too. Not being a trained chef, she was occasionally mildly clumsy and I distinctly remember her describing her carving skills as "Mauling with a bit of knife work." Possibly my best loved Nigella Bites moment came when she roasted a slab of beef and informed the camera that if it wasn't pointing at her, she would quite happily lick the wooden board it was sitting on clean of the juices oozing out of the meat. How can you not love a woman who literally licks her plate clean?
I hot-footed it to town, purchased a mezza-luna chopping blade (because she always used one) and cooked from the Nigella Bites DVD.
Many of the recipes from that programme are still some of my favourite things to cook. While the cookery world swooned over the How to be a Domestic Goddess book, I decided to take Nigella rather more seriously. I bought How to Eat.
I remember my mother catching glimpse of it on the kitchen counter, her eyes lighting up thinking that I'd brought a 500+ page diet book into the house. If the sub-title, The Pleasure and Principles of Good Food, weren't enough to explain that this wasn't a book about calorie counting, page number 243 should have cleared things up:
Even now, if I was only allowed to own one cookbook, this is the book I would keep. It means a great deal to me. The first thing I cooked from How to Eat was the Lemon Linguine recipe and it tasted like pasta heaven. My family weren't that keen, but I fell in love with it. I try to resist the urge to cook it too often, so as not to make it feel ordinary. It isn't. Not to me anyway. A few weeks ago Nigella returned to British television after what felt like an eternity. After watching the first episode of KITCHEN on a Saturday afternoon, I set about making the Lemon Linguine for my tea. I have something of a ritual while cooking and eating it. Indulge me.....
Even though I know how to make it as if it had been tattooed on my brain, I always have to open the book and read the recipe just to be sure. This would be why these particular pages have been stuck together with flying egg white and lemon juice several times over.
I then spend a few minutes debating over how much linguine is reasonable for one person. One greedy person. I get the pasta simmering away and go about whisking the egg yolks, cream, parmesan, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and parsley. I carefully balance the lemon juice and the cheese until the whole creamy mixture tastes like one marvellous ingredient with no beginning or end. Grating lemon zest and parmesan with a blunt microplane usually causes quite a lot of mess. I'm usually too excited to clean it up until later.
Once the pasta's cooked I drain it and, just like every other time I've made it, it's expanded to being enough for two people. Being careful not to drain too much water away, I sling it back into the pan and briskly mix in a significant amount of butter until it's combined with the hot water left coating the linguine. From here I tip the cream, lemon and cheese mixture into the pan and mix it furiously to stop the eggs from scrambling. And that's it. I pour the whole lot into a deep bowl and tell myself I won't eat the whole lot. That would be piggish.
I eat the whole lot and don't really care how piggish it is, because it's bloody lovely. Once the creamy sauce starts turning cold it tends to solidify a little, so I eat it very quickly. That much pasta is not made to be eaten quickly. This usually ends in my gripping my stomach with two hands within about 30 minutes of eating the Lemon Linguine, grimacing but not regretting a thing.
This week, I tried a new recipe of Nigella's and I'm in love all over again. On a recent episode of KITCHEN she cooked her mother's Praised Chicken (half poached, half braised) and just like all the best recipes it was simple but incredible. To be honest, it's just poached chicken and vegetables on a bed of rice with the stock it's been cooking in ladelled over the top.
The best way I can describe it is that it's like a meal my grandmother would make, which is most definitely a compliment. I cook lots of different meals to try new things out. Sometimes they work out rather well, like last week's whole roast duck, fat rosemary chips and gravy or this week's steak & noodle stir-fry:
The best way I can think of to end this post is to say thank you. Thank you to Jamie Oliver for making cooking seem like the coolest past-time on the planet, and thank you to Nigella Lawson for truly teaching me how to eat. I'm more grateful than you'll ever know.