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- Title: Nigellissima
- Autor: Nigella Lawson
- Publisher (Publication Date): Chatto & Windus (September 13, 2012)
- Language: English
Portions & Courses
Note to the Reader
IT WAS WHEN I was sixteen or seventeen that I decided to be Italian. Not that it was a conscious decision; nor was it even part of the teenage armoury of pretension – the battered Penguin Modern Classic stuffed conspicuously into a basket, the Anello & Davide tap shoes, the cult of the Rotring pen filled with dark brown ink – of the time. No: I simply felt drawn to it, to Italy. While doing other A-Levels I did a crash course in Italian and, before I knew it, I’d applied to read Italian at university. I sat an entrance exam in French and German – in the olden days you still sometimes had to do this – with a plea to swap French for Italian. Certain universities then, and I would guess still now, took a slightly condescending view towards the Romance languages: at Oxford, the authorities saw no reason why Spanish, Italian or Portuguese couldn’t be studied at degree level from scratch; if you knew Latin and French, they blithely assumed you were pretty well there, anyway.
At my interview, I talked of spending my gap year in Italy, and it came to pass that I did. I think I may have implied that my destination was along the lines of a stint at the British Council in Florence. And Florence was, indeed, where I went – at first – not as a student of culture, but as a chambermaid. I’d sworn to do anything to earn a living except clean lavatories, so of course that’s what I ended up doing. But I did learn Italian – after a fashion. A year or so on, in a translation class at university – we had been given the task of rendering, orally, a piece of the History of Western Philosophy, or some such – my tutor said to me: “That’s fine grammatically, Nigella, but I’m sure Bertrand Russell wouldn’t have sounded like a Florentine greengrocer!”
I wish I sounded like a Florentine greengrocer now; I am afraid my Italian these days has the halted stammer of any smitten British tourist. But if I don’t spend as much time in Italy as I’d like, I bring as much of Italy as I can into my kitchen. And that is what this book is about.
I fear I never write the introduction to a book without claiming that I had the germ of an idea for it way, way back. It’s how I work, though: the books I really want to write are the ones I put off for longest. I will be charitable to myself here, and claim that it must be because I need to let them filter through and become part of me first. It is true that the book I have now written is not quite the one I originally intended. That’s how it should be if the process of writing has any meaning. I had thought that one day I would write my “Italian book” and that it would concentrate on food as it is cooked in Italy. As someone who, since putting the project on the back-burner, has bought a whole wallfull of Italian cookery titles (about 500 titles at the most recent count), I no longer felt so driven to write it. I also had a sense of embarrassment about my original idea; without the fearlessness (or arrogance) of youth, I blushed at the presumption of an English person’s finger-wagging on the subject of authentic Italy – for all that I derive much pleasure as well as instruction from many Anglophone Italian cookbooks. And yet still I felt that Italian food was so central to me, and to how I cook, that I couldn’t drop the project altogether.
In that family-run pensione in Florence, where I worked as a chambermaid, I spent a lot of time with Nonna – the paternal grandmother, straight from Central Casting – in the kitchen. She didn’t teach me to cook, but I learnt from her. Actually, I cooked already but, being a child of the time in general, and of my Francophile parents in particular, my way in the kitchen was profoundly influenced by France and its cuisine. In that tiny little kitchen in Florence, I learnt about pasta and how the sauce that dresses it mustn’t swamp; I learnt to cook meat on the hob, and to make the simplest, scantest gravies with de-glazed pan juices; I learnt about verdura, cooked soft and served at room temperature, so unlike the crunchy vegetables that were strictly comme il faut in France-festishizing Britain at the time. I learnt a lot more besides. I had very little money (chambermaiding is hardly lucrative, and a schoolfriend and I were sharing the position and hence also the accommodation and the wages) so eating out was limited. I mean, we did eat out a lot, but that mostly involved stretching a carafe of wine, a basket of that unsalted Tuscan bread, and a bowl of tortellini in brodo over an entire evening; luckily, when you’re nineteen and female in Italy, you can pretty well get away with anything. When we ate in the evenings in our room with a view (squished together on a window ledge overlooking the Duomo) we could just afford a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, a kilo of tomatoes and some olive oil between us. And when our wages didn’t stretch to wine, we drank the vodka and gin we’d bought duty-free on the way over, spritzed with the Aspro-Clear from our medicine bag; mixers, costing more than wine, were beyond our budget.
So, of course, it made sense to be in the kitchen, eating with Nonna. This was strictly prohibited by her son, but he and his wife – Ugo and Gabriella – were often at their farm in the country, and her grandson, Leonardo, was at school, so Nonna would invite me in for company, unaware that she was teaching me how to cook. She taught by example and involvement, the only way any of us really learn anything important. Thus, she drew me in, and from then on, I never wanted to be anywhere else.
But the recipes that follow are not those that issued from Nonna’s kitchen: they are what I cook and, more importantly, how I cook, in mine. I’ve often joked that I pretend to myself that I’m Italian, but actually it is just that, a joke – against myself, more than anything – and I feel strongly that it is essential for me, in or out of the kitchen, to be authentic. What I am is an Englishwoman who has lived in Italy, who loves Italian food and has been inspired and influenced by that: my food and the way I cook demonstrate as much.
So, no I don’t claim that these recipes are authentically Italian, but authentic they are nonetheless. Food, like language, is a living entity: how we speak, what we cook, changes over time, historically and personally, too. As I’ve said elsewhere in these pages: usage dictates form. It has to. Quite apart from there being something hopelessly reductive about endless discussion of whether some recipe may be considered authentically Italian or not, it doesn’t make real sense. Not only has “Italy” existed for a relatively short time (since 1861 to be precise) but customs change and, while tradition is to be cherished, the way we cook must evolve. In fact, one of the aspects that is most admirable about Italians and their food is that they manage to safeguard their culinary traditions – with all their anarchic variety – while remaining constantly interested in the new. (Not that this kind of culinary cultural embrace will surprise any Roman Empire obsessives.)
This quality, however, is entirely unregistered by many people, since it doesn’t fit with our romantic idea of Italians or their cooking. Our picture of authentic Italian food is conveyed by an image of some glorified peasant past, when food was simple and good, and was enjoyed by large families around a kitchen table. The reality is that the peasant class did not own kitchen tables, often did not have kitchens, and frequently didn’t have food. What we outside Italy tend to think of as Italian food is, most commonly, food from the Italian diaspora. In some very real sense it was the Italians who left who furnished the table for those who stayed behind. Their hankering after the produce of home created a huge industry, the vast Italian export business, which fed Italians abroad and enabled those in Italy to afford to eat similarly. And when emigre Italians who’d got used to the spoils of the soil from the Land of Plenty returned to their homeland, they brought new habits and newly indulgent ways of cooking back with them. At the same time, a worldwide market for Italian food was created. Italy (post Rome) has never had much of an empire, but its culinary colonization of the entire world is now almost complete.
What is happening today in Italy is riveting. Where once was a country of regions with often little in common, and where culinary tradition was everything, for no other reason (we are not talking about France here) than that there was nothing else on offer, or nothing they had come across, now Italians are turning a greedy gaze outward. It is true that they still respect their traditions but – as mooted above – Italians are suddenly learning and wanting to learn about other ways of cooking. Not least, this is due to the internet and to global markets in television programmes which mean that Italians, like the rest of us, see people on TV cooking cupcakes and muffins, or fiery Thai curries, in a way that wouldn’t have been within the comprehension of earlier generations. I’ve gone a little further into this blossoming of non-Italian cooking in Italy (and specifically from the Anglo-American culinary canon), where relevant, at the beginning of certain recipes; and I do find it remarkable that one of my most interested audiences is Italian (at time of writing this, the highest number of non-Anglophone followers of my Twitter account come from Italy). Personally this is deeply gratifying, but I find it objectively interesting, too. What I admire about this new-found curiosity is that it doesn’t come at the expense of the old. You are welcome to cook, for example, a dish of pasta with aubergines and tomatoes and feta (where “authentically” in Italy ricotta salata would be used) and no one will ridicule you for doing so; they may well try it themselves – provided you don’t call it “Pasta alla Norma”. (And, by the way, you can find my own shamelessly inauthentic version on my website, should you want to.) In other words, innovation is not viewed with suspicion so long as there is no misappropriation going on. It is for that reason – among others – that I have tried to avoid giving recipes here Italian names. I am not attempting to pass recipes off as Italian. In most cases, it is the inspiration for, not the identity of, the recipe that comes, authentically, from Italy.
You could say that this book is just part of my long love affair with Italy and Italians, one that started as a heady teen romance and has weathered the ensuing years intact. But (compared with some of my others) this is a fairly slim book, and my passion is huge. I am aware, too, of the irony that the number of Italian recipes in all my other books combined, exceeds the number of recipes in this, my “Italian” book.
I was, indeed, tempted to include some old favourites, but forbade myself: all the recipes that follow are newly published in book form, although three of the recipes included have been printed in Stylist magazine, another is adapted from a piece for the Guardian, and a further one has appeared on my website. It pained me, initially, not to present my Spaghetti Carbonara again, until I realized that, since it is freely available on my website, I could allow myself to move forward, as they say in that splendid foreign repository of Italianness, America.
But before I do, I should acknowledge that my version of this classic is not, in any case, authentic: I use pancetta, not guanciale, and I add cream. Also, I add wine (or, more usually, vermouth) and remain unapologetic (for all that I broke the rule by giving my recipe its Italian name). I have made many conquests with this recipe, all of them culinary, I hasten to add, and a lot of them Italian. What is accessible to me to cook with is both more limited and less limited (according to ingredient) than might traditionally have been the case. That’s how cooking evolves. After all, we think of tomatoes as being an essential ingredient of Italian cooking and yet they are not originally Italian at all but from South America, and were introduced to Italy only in the sixteenth century.
Similarly, Italians, like all of us, now have access to ingredients that have never been part of their culinary traditions thus far and they cook with them; just as we cook with ingredients that would have been unknown to our ancestors. And, for me, it is in the acceptance not denial of this, that authenticity actually lies.
Now, all this harrumphing may be heartfelt, but “a tavolal” as they say in Italy: time to eat! And, although I am the last person to want to come between a person and their food, I have to keep you from the table for just a little while longer. It’s time for practicalities. So that all the recipes that ensue will make sense fully, I must discuss the contents of my kitchen cupboards with you. Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you to store canned tomatoes and pasta or the other essentials that anyone who steps into a kitchen has already, but I do want to tell you what I need in order to make my daily (Italian-inspired) cooking life easier.
The first thing I have to say to you is vermouth. I have, in earlier books, written about my enthusiasm for dry white vermouth: it costs no more than wine, it comes with a screw-top and can be kept for as long as needed in a cupboard; thus, you can, in effect, create wine flavour in food without having to uncork a new bottle. I have now expanded this enthusiasm and my supplies, and rely all too readily on dry red vermouth (which is rubily mellow, and doesn’t require the long cooking time that red wine needs to fuse itself with other ingredients); and I am ecstatic about my latest discovery, rosé or rather rosato vermouth (I have found only Italian variants so far) which is sensational in cooking, bringing a blossom-fresh fruitiness to anything and everything, but is also pretty damn good, as it is, to drink, and makes for fine cocktails, too. Highly recommended.
So, too, is Marsala, as many faithful readers will already know. This Sicilian fortified wine lends its distinct but flexible flavour to many a recipe that follows; please note that “Marsala” in any ingredients list generally means dry – not the sweeter “all’uovo”, though when the recipe is for a dessert and not savoury dish, you can of course use sweet Marsala; for my part, however, I find it less cupboard-cluttering and more cost-effective to use dry throughout.
When you start reading the recipes in this book, you will notice that there is much evidence of what I have always known as a banana shallot, but which is these days often sold in the UK as an echalion shallot. I mentioned these most useful of alliums in How to Eat (1998) but I am newly enamoured of them. The point is this: when you’re strapped for time or energy, peeling, chopping and cooking an onion can seem burdensome (even if it is embarrassing to admit). In Nigella Express (2007) I presented the labour- and time-saving properties of the spring onion; now I want to urge you towards the banana shallot. I won’t linger, but you do need to know that a banana shallot is much easier than an onion to peel (you just cut off each end, more or less, and the skin falls away) then you chop it, much as you would a spring onion. And because it is sweet and tender, it cooks much faster than a regular onion. I find all the above things gratifying, but on top of all this there is the fact that the taste of a shallot is transformational, providing richness and depth, but delicately.
I feel I should hover around the subject of anchovies here, if only because so many favoured recipes of mine start with a rich base of these, melting in a warm pan of garlic oil (another essential for me, even though it is not widely considered a creditable ingredient); and I do want to urge even those who think they don’t like anchovies to try them once, cooked just to create a base of intense, rounded saltiness, and to give them a fair go. But I, too, wish to play fair and so, wherever I think that another ingredient could be used, or the anchovy be disregarded, I have said so in the introduction to the respective recipe.
The only recipe for which I have not offered an anchovy-opt-out clause is the Spelt Spaghetti with Olives & Anchovies. I’m not saying you couldn’t make this without anchovies, but it wouldn’t be anything like this recipe. Not that I want to sound unduly proscriptive (here or anywhere else), for I firmly believe that cooking is what we do while in the kitchen rather than while obeying a cookery book – this is not to discredit what I do, but to remind you that a recipe is always just a starting point.
PORTIONS & COURSES
Still, the mention of pasta prompts me to tell you what my starting point is, portionwise, at least. I reckon on 100g dried weight of pasta per person, on average; there are variables of course, appetite and age chief among them. Other factors that come into play, when it comes to weighing out pasta, are what – if anything – else is being eaten and which kind of sauce partners it. Now, you will notice that the book is not divided into Antipasti (though some of these can be found in the chapter entitled An Italian-Inspired Christmas), First Courses, Second Courses and so on: this is because I don’t eat like that. When I make my supper, I make my supper, and it tends to comprise one course, whether that course be pasta or meat or, indeed, vegetables. I concede that many of the vegetable dishes are designed as accompaniments, but not all. Most of the recipes in the vegetable chapter are vegetarian, though not exclusively.
On the whole, I’ve tried to place the recipes here in the way that most clearly echoes how I cook and eat them at home. This is my way of explaining why not all pasta or pasta-related recipes are, in fact, included in the pasta chapter; though you’ll find a list of other pasta recipes or suggestions at the end of the pasta chapter.
What I haven’t done in the pasta chapter, however, is to give full rein to my enthusiasm for pastina (small, soup pasta) in general and orzo (the one that looks like rice, or more accurately, barley) in particular; all the other names for this type of pasta are listed here. I often make this as an effortless potato substitute, if that makes sense, and here’s how. You cook the orzo, about 50–75g per head as an accompanying starch, according to packet instructions but check a couple of minutes before the pasta’s meant to be ready. Before draining, reserve some pasta-cooking water and when the orzo is draining, melt a little butter in the saucepan, and whisk in a little of the starchy cooking water to help make an emulsion. Add salt and pepper to taste, tip in the drained pasta and beat in a sprinkling of grated Parmesan to taste and as much of the pasta-cooking water as you need to make sure the pasta grains are just coated with a lightly flavoursome gleam of sauce.
With this easy orzo, the pasta water comprises most of the sauce, but elsewhere in the book, you will find this technique of holding back some pasta-cooking water to help bind a sauce to the pasta – and it is a particularly Italian technique. Please, promise me that you will get into the habit of doing this every time you cook pasta. Indeed, you should make yourself incapable of draining pasta without first lowering a small cup into the cooking water to remove and reserve some for the sauce.
If it makes your life easier (not too much bubbling away on the stove), when you’re feeding a lot of people, you can follow a pasta-cooking tip from Anna Del Conte: the Vincenzo Agnesi method, which reduces the risk of overcooking and is as follows. Bring your water to the boil, add salt, then tip in the pasta, stirring well to make sure it’s all in and not clumped together. Once the water comes back to the boil, let the pasta cook for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat, cover the pan with a clean, thin tea towel (not a waffled-textured one) and clamp on a tight-fitting lid. Let the pasta stand like this for as long as the packet tells you to cook it normally. When the time is up, drain the pasta, remembering to remove a small cupful of cooking water before doing so.
My only remaining word of wisdom on this subject is also from Anna Del Conte and it is that the water you cook pasta in should be as salty as the Mediterranean. Contemporary dietary mores could not run more counter to such a recommendation; you, of course, are free to act on my advice or ignore it, as you see fit.
The only time that I am in accordance with the anti-salt brigade is when I cook rice, apart from when it’s in a risotto. What I have mentioned within the book’s pages, but not given a recipe for, however, is a non-risotto rice, the black Venere rice from Italy that adds glamour, to be sure, but more importantly, is easy to cook and has a gloriously comforting aromatic flavour. I haven’t offered a recipe, because you don’t need one, but it would be helpful to have a method. So here goes. For 2–4 people (it will stretch to 4, but I love it left over to make for a very unItalian rice salad, so I cook no less if there are two of us eating) you need 1 cup of black rice to 1½ cups of cold water; I find volume the best way of cooking rice, but if you want weights and measures, 1 official cup will give you 200g of rice and 1½ cups filled with water will give you 375ml. Put both in a pan (salting if you wish) and when the contents of the pan come to the boil, clamp on a tightly fitting lid, turn the heat down to very, very low and cook for 30 minutes. If, by that time, all the water is not absorbed, then turn off the heat, remove the lid, drape with a clean tea towel, clamp the lid back on and leave to stand for 5–10 minutes. And you can leave it standing for up to half an hour.
NOTE TO THE READER
Before I finally let you into the kitchen, there are a few things I am either honour or (disagreeably) duty bound to tell you, namely:
Always be sure to read a recipe right through before starting to cook.
The symbol above the list of ingredients in a recipe indicates that you can click through to the Notes section for information about preparing ahead, freezing or keeping.
I often use ready-grated Parmesan, even if it is shaming to admit it out loud. If you want to adopt this bad habit of mine, then do, but please be sure the cheese is fresh Parmigiano Reggiano or Gran Padano from Italy and comes in a resealable tub to be kept in the fridge.
When you have people coming for supper, make sure you get any ovens heated or pans of water filled and hot well in advance. I often do this quite a long time before. Once the pasta or vegetable water has come to the boil, I turn off the heat, but leave it with a lid on to keep warm. When it’s time to eat, you can bring the water to boil again, salting and proceeding with the recipe, without making everyone wait for 40 minutes to eat. (But see also tips for pasta cooking.)
All eggs used in these recipes are large, organic, though sometimes, where mentioned, I use pasteurized egg white from a carton. Dishes containing raw or partially cooked eggs should not be served to those with weak or compromised immune systems, such as pregnant women, young children or the elderly, unless you are using pasteurized egg which can be bought in frozen, liquid or powder form (and do check the carton to make sure they are indeed pasteurized).
When deep-frying, please regulate the temperature of the oil as instructed and keep a careful watch on your pan at all times: you must always be alert and vigilant.
All olive oil listed is regular (not extra-virgin), unless otherwise stated.
All milk for these recipes is full-fat.
Meat should, for preference, be organic.
For garlic, I use a fine-grade Microplane grater and generally grate the peeled garlic straight into the dish I’m cooking – no crushing or chopping required – but you can mince finely by hand and add it as usual, if you prefer.
If you don’t have a cake tester, I suggest you do as the Italians and use an uncooked stick of spaghetti.
For Stockists of specialist items, see my website www.nigella.com
Nigellissima takes inspiration from Italian cooking to bring the spirit of Italy into the kitchen and onto the plate, pronto. At the heart of Italian cookery lies a celebration of food that is fresh, tasty and unpretentious; Nigella Lawson reflects this in recipes that are simple and speedy, elevating everyday eating into no-fuss feasts. Italian food has colonised the world. Nigellissima shows us how and why in over 100 delicious dishes – from telephone-cord pasta with Sicilian pesto to the crustless Meatzza, from Sardinian couscous to Venetian stew, from penne to papardelle, from ragu to risotto, from Italian apple pie and no-churn ices to panna cotta and sambuca kisses – in a round-Italy quickstep that culminates in a festive chapter of party food, with an Italian-inspired Christmas feast as its mouthwatering centrepiece. From the traditional to the unfamiliar, here are recipes to excite the taste buds and the imagination, without stressing the cook.
“At her best once again… With dozens of colourful images and easy-to-follow recipes, this book is a fantastic starting point for anybody who wants to try their hand at Italian cuisine” * Italia! * “In this new book she conjures up, with passionate relish, the warmth, simplicity and directness of Italian cooking, with an Anglo-twist” * Mrs D-Daily (Blog) * “We love Nigella for her infectious enthusiasm and her pure unadulterated joy in cooking and eating. This book made us ravenously hungry” — Jocelyn Doyle * Easy Food * “Taking the fuss out of Italian cooking” * Look * “I wouldn’t eat if it weren’t for Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi, so thank God they both put out books this year” — Caitlin Moran * Observer *
About the Author
Nigellissima is something of a sentimental journey for Nigella Lawson. She lived and worked in Italy (as a chambermaid in Florence) when young, and read Italian at Oxford, before becoming a journalist and food writer. She is the author of eight bestselling books – How To Eat, How To Be A Domestic Goddess, Nigella Bites, Forever Summer, Feast, Nigella Express, Nigella Christmas and Kitchen – which, together with several successful TV series and her iPhone App, Nigella Quick Collection, have made hers a household name around the world. She is also a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Italian Literature. She lives in London with her family.
I have been a fan of Nigella’s since I first saw her on the Food Network years and years ago. I own all of her cookbooks and have cooked out of them over the years. Her recipes are all winners. When I heard she was doing an Italian cookbook, I couldn’t wait to see it. Like her other books, they use easy to find ingredients. The photos are beautiful another plus for this book. She uses fresh ingredients that you can find in a grocery store or online nowadays. Her recipes are not the kind that you have to use every pot in the house to do one dish. This was another plus for me. I am very picky about cookbooks I buy, if there is only one recipe I want then I go to my local library to borrow it. With Nigella’s books especially this one, there are so many I could cook a new one each night and never get bored. This book is even perfect for people who don’t cook but love to look at beautiful cookbooks. If you are an old fan of Nigella’s or a new one, this book is worth purchasing. I know there will be people who are food snobs who will say they aren’t authentic Italian recipes. So what! Authentic or inspired just another way to look at recipes. Some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten weren’t authentic to the cuisine but inspired by the cuisine. Nigella Lawson writes for those of us who aren’t CIA graduates but people who love to cook at home for people we love. This book is another incentive to get people to love going into their kitchens and cooking for family and friends. So yes, I highly recommend this book and hope whoever buys it will enjoy it as much as I am. Thanks Nigella for hitting another one out of the ball park.