Nigella Lawson keeps it simple
Nigella Lawson has achieved that ever-elusive balance other so-called domestic goddesses can only strive for. Gwyneth Paltrow’s eco-conscious Every Mom is often received with tepid skepticism at best, cynical hostility at worst. Ina Garten’s lifestyle empire is based on her version of bourgeois home comfort but doesn’t rest on presenting herself as an enviable vision of personal glamour. Martha Stewart is, well … Martha Stewart. And there are too many millennial-targeted personalities on Instagram and YouTube to go into here.
In a world where women in the media are subject to increasingly punishing scrutiny at all levels, Lawson — or “Nigella,” to her fans — has mostly managed to sidestep these pitfalls and emerge victorious when faced with public challenges, such as her recent divorce or relentless gossip in the British press about her fluctuating weight. (A bizarre obsession, given that she always looks terrific and at ease in her own skin.)
With her soft features and dark hair that could qualify her as a Rachel Weisz stand-in, her practical yet stylish wardrobe and her posh London accent that reflects her Jewish family’s prominent standing in Britain, Lawson is a rare example of the accessible and the aspirational comfortably melding.
Her latest book, “Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food” ($35, Flatiron Books), contains unfussy recipes, entertaining tips and an overarching take-it-easy-on-yourself philosophy that reveals where Lawson, 55, is at this point in her life.
“The food in this book is what I’ve been cooking for myself and, although the impetus was certainly to seek out food that made me feel physically strong, I have always believed that food you cook for yourself is essentially good for you,” she states in the introduction. “This is not just because real ingredients are better for you than fake foods, but because the act of cooking for yourself is in itself a supremely positive act, an act of kindness.”
The 125 recipes are organized into chapters with titles that reflect her philosophy of what she calls “mindful cooking” as well as more involved entertaining (“Quick and Calm” and “Dine”), along with headings that hew closer to standard cookbook formats (“Sides” and “Sweets”).
“Simply Nigella” carries on Lawson’s comforting image and brand that’s found adoring audiences on both sides of the Pond. (“Simply Nigella” is also a BBC program that might find its way to U.S. airwaves.) Even if you don’t cook any of the recipes, you’ll enjoy the Oxford alumna and former journalist’s prose for its personal, well-informed, engaging and — perhaps best of all — completely unpretentious manner.
The two following healthful recipes, from “Simply Nigella,” are ideal to serve alongside latkes during a spirited Chanukah meal. Her Chicken Traybake With Bitter Orange and Fennel reminds me of a Yotam Ottolenghi “Jerusalem” recipe I’ve found to be wildly successful — and easy to prepare — for group dinners. And the cauliflower is cooked with some oil, adding an appropriate thematic tie-in.
During the holidays, hopefully, you can relax while taking pride and pleasure in your efforts to be a great, mindful host. But don’t obsess over perfection. This is a particularly difficult balance, but if anyone can help show the way, it’s Nigella.
WARM SPICED CAULIFLOWER AND CHICKPEA SALAD WITH POMEGRANATE SEEDS
- 1 small head cauliflower
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 1/2 cups chickpeas, home-cooked or drained from a can or jar
- 1 to 2 tablespoons harissa, to taste
- 4 small ripe vine tomatoes (approximately 6 ounces total)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes or kosher salt, or to taste
- 3 to 4 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
- 2 1/2 cups Italian parsley leaves
Preheat the oven to 425 F.
Trim the cauliflower and divide into small florets. Pour the oil into a large bowl, add the cinnamon and cumin seeds, and stir or whisk to help the spices disperse. Add the prepared cauliflower and toss to coat. Pour the contents of the bowl into a small oven pan (a 12-by-8-inch disposable foil baking pan works well) and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Don’t wash out the bowl just yet.
Add the chickpeas to this bowl, then add the harissa, tasting it first to see if you want both tablespoonsful, then toss to coat. Quarter the tomatoes, add them to the bowl, and shake or stir to mix. When the cauliflower has had its 15 minutes in the oven, remove the pan, quickly pour the chickpeas and tomatoes over the cauliflower, and toss to combine before returning to the oven for another 15 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender.
Remove from the oven. Sprinkle the salt over the vegetables, then toss to combine with half of the pomegranate seeds before dividing between 2 bowls. Divide the parsley leaves — without chopping them — between the 2 bowls and toss to mix. Scatter with the remaining pomegranate seeds.
If you have leftovers, let them cool, then cover and refrigerate within 2 hours of making. Will keep in refrigerator for up to 2 days. Serve leftovers cold.
Serves 2 heartily, or 1 with leftovers.
CHICKEN TRAYBAKE WITH BITTER ORANGE AND FENNEL
- 2 large bulbs fennel (approximately 2 pounds total, though less would also be fine)
- 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon or so for drizzling on the chicken when cooking
- Zest and juice of 2 Seville oranges (scant 1/2 cup juice), or zest and juice of 1 eating orange and juice of lemon
- 2 teaspoons sea salt flakes or kosher salt
- 4 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 12 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in, preferably organic
Remove the fronds from the fennel and put them in a resealable bag in the refrigerator for serving. I discard (that’s to say, eat) the tubey bits of the fennel, but if you have a roasting pan big enough, use everything. Cut the bulbs of fennel into quarters and then cut each quarter, lengthwise, into 3 pieces. Leave on the cutting board while you make the marinade.
Place a large resealable bag inside a wide-necked measuring cup or a bowl, add the 7 tablespoons oil, the orange zest and juice (and lemon juice, if using), and spoon in the salt, fennel seeds and mustard. Stir briefly to mix.
Remove the bag from the cup and, holding it up, add a quarter of the chicken pieces, followed by a quarter of the fennel pieces, and so on until everything’s been used up.
Seal the bag tightly at the top, lay the bag in something like a lasagna dish, and squelch it about so that you make the small amount of marinade cover as much of the chicken as possible. It will look as if it isn’t enough, but it is, I promise. Leave in the refrigerator overnight or up to 1 day.
When you’re ready to cook, remove the marinating chicken and fennel from the refrigerator and pour the contents of the bag — marinade and all — into a large, shallow roasting pan (I use a half-sheet pan with a lip of 1/2 inch). Using tongs, or whatever implement(s) you prefer, arrange the chicken pieces so that they are sitting, skin-side up, on top of the fennel. Leave it for 30 minutes or so, to come up to room temperature while you heat the oven to 400 F.
Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon oil onto the chicken, and cook in the oven for 1 hour, by which time the fennel will be soft and the chicken cooked through and bronzed on top.
Place the chicken and fennel on a warmed serving plate and put the pan over medium heat (use a saucepan if your pan isn’t stove-friendly) and boil the juices, stirring as you watch it turn syrupy; this should take about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes in the pan, or about 5 minutes in a saucepan.
Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken and fennel, and then tear over the reserved fennel fronds.
Cool leftovers, then cover and refrigerate within 2 hours of making. Will keep in refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Note: The chicken can be marinated 1 day ahead. Store in refrigerator until needed.