I love Nigella Lawson. I remember the first time I saw her on television and was tickled by her obvious sensuous delight with food and cooking. Her kitchen was amazing and her blasé, randy comments funny and engaging. And the food, oh, the food! Her recipes hinted of faraway lands and exotic flavors and she punctuated her glorious spreads with gatherings with friends and family. For what is finer than food, family, and a bottle or two?
My romance with food and cooking started when I moved into my first apartment. My initial cooking attempts were comical, Minute Rice with frozen vegetables and Ragu tomato sauce. Then I progressed to buying the pizza made at the local grocer and adding my own pepperoni and green peppers. Daring, indeed!
But my new apartment came with something else, cable. And that opened up a world of culinary delights to me. I religiously watched the Great Chefs Of series, Floyd On (following the cooking adventures of the wonderfully colorful Keith Floyd, now there was a notable character!), and Graham Kerr.
My initial food pairings were awkward. One boyfriend got homemade vegetable beef soup with a baked potato. He thought that was hysterical. I was in love with my next boyfriend so he got the same soup but I covered my card table with my grandmother’s linens and used her fine china. No baked potato this time.
I took notes, wrote down recipes, bought The New Basics cookbook. Soon I began to experiment. My first “dish” was the chicken noodle soup (homemade noodles and all!) from The New Basics. Divine and lovely, still a staple in my kitchen. I jumped around from there, casseroles, cassoulets, tagines, Italian—I was really stuck in that groove for awhile. My attempts at pies fell flat, however. They would emerge golden and succulent from the oven, plump with baked fruit, only to deflate minutes later. Still tasty but hardly photo-worthy. And I came from a long line of impressive pie-makers so my pedigree was rock-solid. My grandmother and Godmother could bake pies that would bring tears to your eyes: elderberry apple, rhubarb with melt-in-your mouth meringue, coconut cream, key lime pie, pumpkin pie with real whipped cream. They were prolific bakers. Every meal was finished off with a piece of homemade pie, dessert was a given and something eagerly awaited. Apparently when that pie baking torch was passed to me, I fumbled and dropped it.
So I don’t do pies, I do tortes, and mousses, and trifles. I can do a mean trifle. And if it has the word “chocolate” associated with it, I pounce. Just typing the word “chocolate” and my mind begins to wander…should I do a hazelnut chocolate torte? Or rich dark chocolate truffles?
Back to Nigella. I had my family in from out of town one weekend. I usually take them out to dinner one night and then the next evening, I pull out all the stops and cook for them. I opened Nigella’s Forever Summer and found one of my favorite recipes, Watermelon, Feta and Black Olive Salad. I loved her closing declaration at the end of the recipe: “The taste of Tel Aviv sunshine!” I found that completely romantic and was inspired to create my dinner around this salad.
I played fast and loose with geography and made hummus for the appetizer, chicken with spiced potatoes for the main entrée. Everything smelled enticing and my table was set to perfection.
My meat and potatoes parents stared doubtfully at the hummus but my sister dug right in. Then I presented the salad in all its crowning glory. My family just stared at it.
“Are those olives with…watermelon?” my mother asked tentatively.
“That’s not goat cheese!” my sister said. She hates goat cheese and swears that I put it in everything I make.
I sighed. I was going to be eating a lot of salad over the next few days.
“Just try it; it’s really delicious, I swear. Be a bit adventurous!” I tried to encourage them. Politely, they all took a portion, a very small portion, of the salad. At the end of the meal, most of it was left on each of their plates.
“I have pie…?”