Best Practices: Nigella Lawson's Lemon-Chicken Orzo for the Soul
The British author dishes on her intimate new cookbook written during lockdown, why brown food rules, and how she engages with readers on Twitter.
Editor's note: We could all use a little inspiration and light during these strange days. Enter Best Practices, a F&W Pro interview series where we share how leaders and creatives are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.
Cook, Eat, Repeat, is the title of Nigella Lawson's eleventh cookbook, and what so many of us have done at home day after day for the past 13 months. The author and TV star means it as invocation to find joy in the act of feeding yourself.
My own cooking, eating, and repeating starts every Saturday or Sunday by jotting down a list of dinner ideas for my family of three, swapping in a few new ideas every week to mix in with the stalwarts. I suppose you could call it meal planning, though that phrase sounds too clinical for what I do. I just call it family dinner. I don't want to sound too Pollyanna about this because I actually broke my sink from the weight of too many dishes during all of the rinsing, washing, and repeating. I'm over the dishes. But the cooking and being at our table part has been a magical balm, especially when my dinners don't land on the dreaded "fail list"—the penalty box where my daughter Frances sends recipes that don't satisfy her 9-year-old-going-on-16-palate.
GET THE RECIPE: Chicken in a Pot with Lemon Orzo
What's the opposite of a fail? Well, that's Lawson's Chicken in a Pot with Lemon and Orzo, which Frances requested twice last week. The recipe calls for stewing a whole chicken in aromatic broth until it surrenders itself. Then you add orzo to the pot until it sops up and swells with all of the concentrated chicken flavor. The pot roast makes your house smell wonderful. You can bring the whole vessel to the table, tear off big shreds of meat, ladle it all into a bowl, and feel like a hero. It's a perfect Nigella dish: confident, sensual, riffable, forgiving, golden brown.
Lawson champions brown food. In one of several essays in the book that serves as a counter-argument to the Instagram aesthetic, she defends the color. "Everything has to make a statement these days all the time (including us) and brown food most definitely doesn't do that: it gently beckons us with a whisper rather than a shout," she writes. And the truth is, we need the calm that it bestows. As my notebook reminds me, and in capital letters what's more: COLOR FADES AS FLAVOR DEEPENS; a metaphor for much of life, I suggest."
She told me over the phone recently that she developed most of the recipes and essays in her London home during lockdown, a solitary time when she was mainly cooking for herself for months on end. Some of the recipe yields, like a pot de creme for one, reflect this time quite literally, and the isolation helped her focus and delve deeper on single subjects like anchovies and broader, more philosophical treatises, like a call to ban the phrase "guilty pleasures."
"I have to say, because I was writing a book during lockdown I did feel I really could stay with it," she said. "Repeat was a companion to me. I was sorry to let it go. I'm thrilled it's out in the world, but I could have written six more chapters."
I've edited the interview below for clarity and brevity, and for an even deeper dive, you can listen to my colleague Kat Kinsman's interview with Lawson here on the 100th episode of the Communal Table podcast. It's a bit of a Nigella Bonanza here at Food & Wine HQ this week, so I'll be over here in my kitchen chanting some of her mantras: "Color fades as the flavor deepens." "Cook, eat, repeat." And, as she writes about pork ribs, "You are in for such a treat."
Well, how are you today and what are you cooking tonight?
I am very well. It's a really beautiful day. Blue sky and warm, and I feel like we've needed spring very badly this year. So I'm feeling very happy. I am going to cook spaghetti with anchovies. I had it the other day, but I'm always ready for it. I didn't have any chard in the house, which is what I normally do, but I do have what we call cavolo nero, and I think you call it Tuscan kale.
What is blooming in your garden during this early spring?
I'm rather excited to see I've got some wild garlic coming up, which I don't think you go in for as much as we do here. I've got a form of daisy and I've got my snowdrops. And I have some hellebores out. Otherwise, some herbs. I have thyme and rosemary and marjoram and some bay leaves. My garden is quite shady. So it's more green than floral.
With the massive vaccination campaign underway, what's the collective mood like in London today?
Well, I think that everyone is in a stage of a bit of excitement. They have spring sap in their blood. Yesterday, we began our opening-up program. We're allowed to have six people in the garden or anywhere outside and meet up with them. I think people are feeling that it's a beginning of, I wouldn't say going back to normality, but it's the beginning of a slightly more expansive life.
We're sensing that here, too.
Well, I think it does feel like the beginning. I think people are apprehensive, but I think mostly it feels promising. It's been a long time. We've been locked down for a long, long time here. A year, really. We had a few months off, but I didn't. I carried on in lockdown when it opened up a bit last year, because I hadn't been vaccinated and I thought it was a bit unwise. Whereas now, it feels that it's built on something a bit more trustworthy. I work and I'll still be careful, but that's because I've been vaccinated. I feel different. I feel freer. Even if I don't act on the freedom, I might feel it.
Your recipes go deep with context. There was a web developer here in the United States who created a site recently that scrubbed recipes of their story and context. He was met with outrage on Twitter and he shut it down. You write cookbooks with essays and recipes with stories, and clearly the stories matter. Tell me about that.
I think no one comes to my book expecting them to be models of economy, word-wise. Because I like to write about food and I certainly gave myself freer reign in this book than I have for a couple of books. I love that, do you see? To me, a recipe isn't really just a set of instructions. You need some context. You need to have room to explain why the recipe matters to you. What kind of a thing it is. What mood does it belong to?
Then I get to the enthusiasm for the spin-offs you could do, or how you could use one or two of the ingredients in the recipe but in another way. It seems to be how we cook. We get an ingredient and then you want to use it more. You don't want it just sitting in your cupboard. I think that, to me, it's an important part of what I do. Recipes are about language and food. Both are important ingredients.
Also, in terms of brevity, many books only have one-page recipes. Sometimes if you just glance at them, they're going to seem simpler. But what it means often, is you have to cut out those key elements that would explain more. So they look simpler, but I think you can often make the recipe much simpler by writing more.
It's not just about the introduction or headnote. It's all about each stage that you're talking about within the recipe. It's obviously going to be shorter to say to someone, "Simmer for 20 minutes," but you're going to let the person know much more if you say, "Simmer for 20 minutes or until the sauce is thickened and is gathering oil on the top." There's something conversational about it, which makes them feel slightly more relaxed and you're really sharing more then. It seems to me that you're communicating the recipe rather than just barking instructions and then leaving the person alone.
There might be a recipe where the cake batter looks like it's not going to fill the tin. So I do want to say, "Don't worry. It looks very thin now, but it will be fine. Don't think you have to add more." I think that's important because if I have that thought when I'm making it, someone's going to have that thought when they're following the recipe.
You've called yourself an absolute dictator in terms of how you create. Tell me about your creative process for both writing and for recipe development.
Yes. I am an absolute dictator, but I do enjoy the creative collaboration. That's certainly a very key part for me in what the book is, and I've worked very closely with the same book designer [Caz Hildebrand] for the last 22 years. She can turn recipes, thoughts, and writing into a book. So that's very important to me.
I just cook and then as my ideas develop, I know which direction I'm going in, and I do a lot of thinking. I'm jotting down notes, I'm trying everything, and I don't write till the end. I test recipes over and over again. I always do them in the context of a meal and something that's real. Because I think if you test under laboratory conditions you're not cooking in the same way as your readers are going to be cooking.
There was no one to stop me last year. So really I went on and on and on and on and on, which I enjoyed. I get to give full reign to my obsessive nature. Then when it's more or less done, I just start writing. I do an awful lot of writing in my head before I start. I have to wait until I feel I absolutely need to do it. I was writing alone last year. Writing is always solitary, but I actually found it very helpful because I could focus.
I think it also has enabled me perhaps to write a book that was very personal to me. I don't like to be edited until I've done everything. Even though I often am under time pressure and give the publishers parts of my book as I go, I can't do editing and writing at the same time. I always add more. I'm always adding recipes. Re-shaping things. I carry on, frankly, until I'm metaphorically clutching onto my manuscript and the publisher is dragging me across the room with me until I let go.
So that's the moment you know when it's time to stop?
Well no, because I then proof. I do another re-write on proof and I add things. Until it's actually at the printer, I carry on. There's always something and whether it's making something better or explaining something more clearly. You see, in a way tinkering is what you do when you cook as well. So there's a similar need every time you cook something you think, "What should it have? Could I do it differently?" I think the same thing with writing. I need my own voice and I'm very lucky that I have editors who know that I want to write in a certain way.
Tell me about using your own photographs to art direct how you see the image on the page.
The pictures are very important to me. I do the cooking and the styling for my book, and I take pictures at home every time I eat. I couldn't have let someone else decide what the look of something is. I use so many of my own bits and pieces as well. I need it to be mine. But again, it's a collaboration because really I rely on the photographer's eye as well, very much, to say how it could be. The photographer [Jonathan Lovekin] who I used for my last book, is very, very patient with me. I show him my photos. I go, "Sorry, Jonathan, but I thought about this set up." And, "How do you feel?" He always laughs when he looks at my photos. But I keep them all and I show them to him so he gets the feel of the food before he embarks on the shoot.
Each book has to have a slightly different feel. I knew I didn't want this book to be over-propped. I wanted some darkness and warmth so the colors could come out and it has a coziness, but not a pretty, pretty coziness. I always think if you can get a mixture between elegance and coziness, that sort of sums it up.
I don't think I'm one of life's great delegators. I don't have a test kitchen. It is always my home and things that I've cooked just in my normal life. That's also how I come to recipes. For example, the vegan gingerbread I did was for a friend's birthday. I would say, "I'll do a dinner for you, okay?" There's nearly always a vegan. I prefer to do just the whole meal vegan, because I think the whole point is eating together. So I hadn't really thought about it before and I just thought, well, I'm going to have to come up with some great dessert.
I love that because a lot of people complain, just like they complain about recipe intros. They complain about having to make some things gluten free or dairy free or vegan for someone. But I love it because it gives one an incentive to think somewhat differently. If you've been cooking for a long, long time, you tend to have your ways and you have to question that and think I still want it to be my food, but still, how do I make that taste as good, absolutely as good, as if I weren't cooking with a prescription?
In my first book I say that a recipe is like the sonnet form. It's constraints are what make it what it is. Sometimes I feel those constraints that they put on you make you think more creatively with what you've got.
How has your work or daily habits changed during lockdown?
Well, it changed in lockdown because I wasn't cooking for anyone else. But it just really intensified the work for me rather than changed it. I was just cooking for myself, which was a joy in a way. I love feeding other people. But it was quite a ceremony in choosing something for myself, what I was going to eat and pondering about when I did it. I'm lucky I'm eating the same thing a lot if I'm in the mood for something and I'm enthusiastic. I want to keep trying it. Of course, I have to go just on my own thoughts and instincts. It probably meant each recipe took longer because there was no one to say, "Look. You tested that five times. It's worked every single time. You can put that away now."
I suppose it sort of just made me the same, but only more so.
I have to say, one of my favorite parts of the book is when you write about banning the tired old phrase of "guilty pleasure."
Yes. Well, I feel very strongly about that. The relationship you have with food and yourself is very, very important. If that is an unhealthy relationship, you're doing more than persecuting yourself. You're depriving yourself. I think that it just seems to me to be an unhelpful way to go about things. We live in such an age of clarities, I think people often misconstrue that. They think that means I'm saying heavy cream by the gallon every day, which of course it doesn't mean. It just means the body, naturally, tells itself what it wants to eat. But people seem to knock that calibration aside by either depriving themselves of food or them eating it in a frenzy of self-hatred.
So I think that it's much more peaceable and pleasurable relationship if you don't fight it, really. It is often easier said than done. I don't know how you feel about it. It's something generally women feel more deeply than men for various obvious reasons.
Was it Bertrand Russell who said, "There is no sincerer love than the love of food."? There's no point of someone telling you, "You shouldn't be eating that" if that's what you want to eat and that's what gives you pleasure.
Do you have any advice for a home cook like me who seems to use every dish in the house?
I think that if you're using every dish in the house, you may be creating more complicated recipes. But I can see that sometimes is enjoyable. Cooking the same thing quite a lot teaches you more about cooking than cooking different things all the time. If it's something you like and you want to cook it three times or more in a month, you're going to start noticing certain things like, do I really need to change that pan? I could have just wiped it out. Does everything fit in here? Or instead of stirring everything in a bowl, I'll just do it in the saucepan first before I put it on the heat.
I suppose I always seem to choose things which are quite simple and that you get to concentrate, perhaps, on the textures and taste rather more than doing something which is elaborate and restaurant worthy. In a way, that's why I have a chapter called A Loving Defense of Brown Food. But the Instagram age puts a prize on the boldly colored and photogenic. And yet so much of the food we know we like, perhaps isn't really made for having its photograph taken, and not by an amateur.
It's clear that that cooking sustains you and fills your soul. What else do you do to refill your well of creativity? What about books, hat podcasts, and music?
I feel that's a challenge for all of us at this time because people and places are the things that do that, and both have been lacking. But I read a lot. I went through certain periods when I just couldn't read. But I read quite a lot. There are some days, if I'm not working, that I will read all day. I also find a lot of inspiration and sense of connection by interacting with people on Twitter. I don't mean people who are shouting and barking. I meant my little community. My little patch of it. Seeing what people have been cooking, chatting to them, answering questions. I think in a year when we are remote from one another physically, that made a big difference.
I do feel I need maybe to travel and to eat foods that I haven't really thought of before to have that sense of newness. But I guess I think that opening up and seeing people, it's having things you don't have now. Going to see an exhibition or chatting to people about a book you've read. All those things make a big difference. It's quite hard to fire yourself up for something new when in order to stay relatively sane during lockdown, everyone's had to be at a slower pace.
I have to say, because I was writing a book during lockdown I did feel I really could stay with it. Repeat was a companion to me. I would have to say, I was sorry to let it go. I'm thrilled it's out in the world, but I could have written six more chapters.