If you happen to have two ovens, a salamander broiler and a full set of copper pots and pans in your kitchen, then celebrity domestic goddess Nigella Lawson’s eleventh cookbook, At My Table, may not be for you.
The volume, which was just published in the U.S., celebrates real home cooking. You know, the down-and-dirty cooking you usually do when you’re trying to feed loved ones, while juggling the hundreds of other things demanding your attention on any given day. It is “crucially different,” says Lawson, from fancy-pants restaurant cooking, which is typically the kind of cooking that cookbooks written by professional chefs expect you to do.
No offense to professional chefs, but restaurant-style recipes can be very annoying to make for amateurs. “Too often they haven’t quite factored in that you don’t have thirty people prepping and washing for you,” points out Lawson, who does not consider herself a professional chef. “And they’re very technique heavy.” You might be expected to heat up different ingredients at different oven temperatures or figure out exact portion sizes. Worse, the cleanup can take hours as you furiously scrub just about every tool and measuring device in your kitchen.
Enough. There’s an easier way. Lawson’s cookbook is like a breath of fresh air, a welcome opportunity to loosen your apron strings. “There’s more messiness and spontaneity when it comes to home cooking,” Lawson says. “There’s more generosity.”
Central to home cooking is the table. Lawson happens to have a matched pair. “I work on one and eat at the other,” she says. “The difficulty of having one long thin one is that when only a few of you are sitting down for a meal you have dead space,” she says. “It’s not cozy.” Usually, she’ll fit six or so at one table. “It’s a squeeze,” she says. And when she’s feeding a larger crowd, she clears the clutter from her working table, pushes the two together, and instantly creates a festive place for 18 people to gather and share a meal.
When you are Nigella Lawson (or, presumably, someone who takes the lessons in her cookbook to heart), a gathering of 18 eating at your table doesn’t faze you. That’s because it’s less about the eating and more about the gathering. As a result, she took great care to explain the significance of the table. It’s where food, security, and love meet. (Those are the three human necessities, according to the late great writer M.F.K. Fisher.) She refers to her table as the “nexus of my life now” in her book.
Lawson is partial to tray bakes, including the Indian-spiced chicken recipe she offers below. “They’re easy,” she says. They greatly reduce the number of things you need to wash and it can be placed right at the center of the table. “You serve the food right from the pan,” she says, “and your guests serve themselves.”
She actually prepared this very dish—a twist on Indian flavors—about ten days ago, she tells me. “People came on a Saturday. I worked hard that week, so I wanted that day to be a lazy day—a wonderful, unwinding kind of day with the dinner gathering as the culmination. So I said, ‘Let’s make it easy.’” The dish actually started out as separate potato and chicken recipes, but then inspiration struck: It occurred to her that the spuds taste great with all the flavors from the chicken pan melded together. So she simply tossed the potatoes in and never looked back.
“People think potatoes have to be fried or crisped, but they don’t. With a little lime juice and a bit of cold water, the potatoes don’t get dry and they soak up the chicken juice,” she says. “It’s an optimal arrangement.”
Indeed. The tray bake cooks by itself (“You put it in the oven and forget about it,” she says)—thus allowing the host/cook to sail back, worry-free, to the company of his or her family and friends, and join in on the conversation. “Home cooking is about bringing harmony,” she says. “Or at least that’s the intention.” Which is why she advises potential hosts to avoid overreaching. Try this tray bake if a more complicated dish jangles your nerves, she says. “You don’t want to be staring at your guests glassy-eyed and jumping up all the time to check on the food. And if cooking anything at all makes you miserable and resent your guests, then don’t cook.”
Purchase your food instead. No need to be ashamed about it. “I love to cook,” she explains, “but it’s not a moral good. I don’t make my own clothes, and I don’t feel terrible about buying them.” Besides, she says, “I happen to think that bread and cheese is one of the finest meals in the world. The thing is to make people feel welcomed.”
That said, she never judges the success of her dinners by the compliments she receives on the food. It’s nice if people finish every last lick on their plate, she says. (Ideally, there is just enough left over in the serving dish to enjoy the next day; this Indian-spiced chicken, for instance, makes a fabulous sandwich.)
But the true measure of a party’s success is the overall experience and not just if people liked what was served. “It’s about the guests looking back at the meal, and saying, ‘Wasn’t it funny when someone said this?’ and ‘Remember when someone said that?’ It’s about the laughter.”
As Lawson recommends in her book, all you need is a bitter-leafed salad to complete the meal. “I am always keen on an escarole,” she writes, “but a ruby mound of radicchio and a small bowl of Bollywood–pink quick-pickled onions are just clamoring to be put on the table alongside.” She has served this with beer, white wine, red wine, whatever. “I don’t think there should be rules,” she tells me. As for dessert, Lawson recommends a white chocolate cheesecake (also in the cookbook), which offers a nice counterpoint to the bright flavors of the tray bake.
- 3.25 pounds Potatoes, peeled and cut into approximately 1-inch cubes
- 2 tsp Cumin seeds
- 2 tsp Fennel seeds
- 2 tsp Yellow mustard seeds
- 2 tsp Nigella seeds
- .5 tsp Ground turmeric
- 2 Limes, zest finely grated, and juiced
- 4 Cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 tsp Sea salt flakes or kosher salt (plus more for sprinkling)
- .25 cup Cold water
- 12 Chicken thighs, skin-on and bone-in
- 2 Tbsp regular Olive oil
- Quick-pickled onions, optional (1 small red onion, peeled and cut into half-moons; let steep in the juice of 2 or 3 limes, covered; lift out and serve when your tray bake is ready)
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Put the cut potatoes into a large, shallow roasting pan and sprinkle with the spices, followed by the lime zest and juice, garlic, 2 teaspoons of salt and the water.
- Tumble the chicken into the pan and toss everything well together, then turn the chicken skin side up on the top of the potatoes. Drizzle the skin with the oil and sprinkle over a little salt, then cook in the oven for 1 hour, or until the potatoes are tender and the chicken cooked through, its skin golden and crisp.
- Serve scattered with chopped cilantro, and if wished, the quick-pickled onion.
- If you have leftover chicken (which you should store in an airtight container within two hours of cooking—it can last up to three days), make a sandwich: Mix together a tablespoonful of mayo, a pinch of salt, and a teaspoon each of mango-chutney and garam masala, then shred and stir in the meat from one chicken thigh and clamp between two slices of bread.
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking (Flatiron Books)