Cooking the Books Retro Style – a Review of Nigella’s Classic ‘How to Eat’

Nigella’s How to Eat is considered to be a cooking bible for many.  It’s held up for it’s beautiful prose and her ability to empower the reader to cook confidently and intuitively. It’s also known for being good for explaining classic recipes in a really straight forward way – roasts, stews, pastry, victoria sponges, trifles – it’s all there.

I fully expected to be wowed by this 1998 legendary cookbook. It had been sat on my shelf for two years untouched apart from a stunning mushroom ragout I made as part of the 69-er cookbook challenge. Neglecting this book had actually been more to do with it not having any photos than anything else. But I felt duty bound to review read it as part of my  ‘Cooking the Books’ series because I’m such a big Nigella fan.

My Nigella experience until this point has been a heady one.  I’ve been cooking her recipes for over seven years and everything I’ve ever cooked (with perhaps two exceptions) has been not just a success, but a true triumph.  Her recipes combine incredible and exotic flavours with an idiot proof recipe – allowing me to be lavished with praise by work colleagues and dinner party guests in exchange for very little effort on my part.  Favourites included the toffiest banoffee cheesecake, the sweetest, juiciest egyptian tomato salad, a fragrant courgette and lime curd cake, a dense chocolate guinness cake and the laziest, but most impressive cherry cheesecake. In fact I could fill the page with my Nigella wonder dishes – she’s done a lot for me (and my popularity!).

But How To Eat was a different deal.  It was classic food (little of her more recent fun stuff) and if I’m honest a little on the dull side!  And the sprawling way it’s written and designed makes it an uphill battle – there’s Nigella ramblings about general cooking and eating advice, interspersed with haphazard recipes on the same page and with NO photos.  I really wanted to like it, but I found it a drag.  However as you can see below we did still enjoy some really tasty food so I won’t knock it too much! I guess I just didn’t find it punchy and inspiring like her other books.

The Favourites

  1. Pea orzotto – effectively pea risotto made with pearl barley instead of rice with loads of cream and butter! Unsurprisingly it was creamy and rather tasty.
  2. Mushroom risotto – just an easy and delicious risotto with some porcini mushrooms thrown in.
  3. Lebanese moussaka – not a moussaka as we know it. In fact barely anything like it.  A stew of tomatoes, chickpeas and aubergines with cinnamon and all spice. Earthy, sweet, spicy – a great dinner.
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Pea orzotto, mushroom risotto, lebanese moussaka

The Disappointments

  1. Vegetable Curry – as curries go this was again ‘alright’ but quite bland for a curry. The raita saved it, but it wasn’t even Nigella’s.
  2. Sausages and onion and wine gravy – I think we didn’t help ourselves by buying crap sausages – butchers’ ones would have made a big difference.  The gravy was just very average if I’m honest – for the 30 mins of simmering you would expect it to pack a punch and it didn’t.
  3. Fish pie – again, I thought – a Nigella fish pie, she’ll take it to another level.  She didn’t.  It had some porcini mushrooms in it which I thought might spice things up, but nope, there was nothing special about this pie.
  4. Beer braised beef – I thought this would be amazing – it was just quite nice.  The prunes were a lovely touch though!
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Vegetable curry, sausages and onion and wine gravy, beer braised beef, fish pie

I’m glad I did this How To Eat immersion, just so I can say I’ve read it as it’s held in such high regard.  But it’s definitely not a book for contemporary recipe inspiration! Yes it was written in 1998 so you can’t expect it to be that modern, but Nigella’s Domestic Goddess was written in 2000 just two years later and is bursting with adventurous, inspiring bakes that still stand up in 2016.  Clearly things got better on the recipe front for Nigella after this first book.  But that’s my slightly negative experience of the book, if you like Nigella’s writing style and want to learn how to cook some classics in an idiot proof way – fill your boots!

My marvellous culinary journey with Cracking Good Food

In 2014, mid divorce and feeling like I needed some new hobbies in my life, I made a very good decision: I started volunteering with the cookery school and charity Cracking Good Food.

I’ve always loved the look of the courses they offer – they were unusual and intrigued me – Nepalese – Japanese – elderflower foraging – pasta making.  Volunteering would be a way of learning for free and a great opportunity to meet interesting, foodie people.

So I signed up and oh my! have I learnt a lot.  In the last eighteen months these are just a few of the courses I’ve helped on:

Punjabi Vegetarian

Indian born, Neha grew up being taught to cook by her family.  I’ve done this course twice and the food is an incredible combination of spicy, yet gentle and wholesome – you feel comforted and soothed by this delicious food. Neha herself is part of the charm of this class – she is a wonderfully sweet and caring young woman, clucking around the class, making sure everyone is okay and explaining and demonstrating whenever help is needed.  The class culminates in a massive feast at lunchtime of dhal, spinach paneer, okra marsala and parathas (a gorgeous buttery version of chapatis).

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A vegetarian Punjabi picnic feast
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Spice heaven

Bread and Easter Treats

Rob is the bread expert.  He’s been with Cracking Good Food for all it’s six years and his bread courses are extremely popular.  So much so that he runs ten a year.  I suspect it’s not just his wonderful bread expertise that attracts the punters – Rob is a fantastic teacher – he’s dramatic and witty and brings the subject to life. And this session was bread with a twist: focaccia, hot cross buns and chelsea buns.  In fact hot cross buns and chelsea buns are in essence pretty much the same and I can’t get enough of either of them.

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Fresh from the oven – chelsea buns

Chocolate Truffles

What’s not to like about a chocolate truffle course? And this one I was attending rather than volunteering so even more fun than usual!  Isobel from Dormouse Chocolates runs the only bean to bar chocolate making business in Manchester.  She trained to be a chocolatier at Hotel du Chocolat before setting up her own company in 2014.  It was a privilege to hear all about the chocolate making process at Dormouse where they use a stone grinder to grind raw coca beans. And making chocolate truffles with 70% Ecuadorian chocolate callets was a hoot! I have to confess to not fully taking on board all the different processes of what we were doing (I know we tempered the chocolate at some point) because I was too busy yapping to my new best friend on the course – Diane.  And that is what I love about these courses – it’s the fascinating people that go on them.  Cracking Good Food attracts interesting, broadminded clients – and they are a joy to work with. It was an entirely female group and it felt gloriously girly – especially decorating the truffles at the end with edible glitter and chopped nuts and cocoa.

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Delightful chocolate truffles
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Perks of the course! Scraping the bowl out

Offal and Game

I was curious about this course, but I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of offal and game. However I knew I would like Iain Devine (@drunkenbutcher). He’s a bit of a legend on twitter and I’d heard a lot about his lively supper clubs.  I wanted to meet this man!  And Iain lived up to expectation – he was funny and fascinating and knew his cooking. And the food and offal was TASTY!  Seriously – devilled kidneys on toast? Oh yes – melty and spicy. Pigeon on fondant potato? Succulent – great combo with the creamy potatos. Chicken liver pate? Rich and flavourful. I have been turned.

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The Drunken Butcher (aka Iain Devine) butchering a rabbit
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Pigeon on fondant potato

Pastry

This was a long day.  A 9am start and a 4.30pm finish.  I was a little anxious that I’d run out of steam and want to go home.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Neil Buttery – Mr Pastry himself – was a captivating teacher.  The whole class hung on his every word! Neil whilst doing a PHD in Evolutionary Biolology (yes really!) started blogging about food history as a way of practising writing.  This led to a lot of experimenting with game pies, sparking a passion for pastry and Neil hasn’t looked back since. He now runs the Buttery at the POD in Levenshulme – a  restaurant specialising in pies. On the menu for the course: custard tarts, savoury pies and eccles cakes. So much buttery, crumbly goodness. Those 7.5 hours whizzed by.

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Learning about pastry and custard tarts

Foraging

On a cold saturday in January we headed out to Fletcher Moss Park in Didsbury. The delightful and very knowledgeable Jesper Launder guided us through a very unpromising barren and soggy park.  But it was very fruitful – we came back with a colourful variety of mushrooms and leafy greens.  And my favourite bit (unsurprisingly) was the cook up at the end. We tipped our goodies out onto the wall of the park and Jesper cranked up the camping stove and magicked up some exquisite buttery, mushroom, leafy omlettes!

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A beautiful basket of foraged mushrooms

Lucky me!  It really has been a journey in every sense.

I won’t lie, I usually wake up on a Saturday morning at 7am wondering why on earth I’ve signed up to a course! There’s usually a bit of cursing and grumpiness as I get myself ready for a 9am start.

But without fail when I come home in the afternoon I’m energised and excited and I’ve made some new friends!

Every single chef at cracking good food that I’ve met is passionate and inspiring.

If you’re interested to see the Courses Cracking Good Food have on offer – have a look:

http://www.crackinggoodfood.org/

 

 

Tasty pie time at the Buttery, at POD, Levenshulme

I recently did a pastry course run by an inspiring chef who is appropriately name Neil Buttery.  Neil was charismatic and had a fascinating knowledge of food history and pies.  I was intrigued to try his newly opened restaurant – The Buttery at POD – out in Levenshulme.  So one Saturday in March Jamie and I went to investigate.

The restaurant is in a delightful old Post Office building near Levenshulme station.  As soon as you walk in you’re welcomed into a lovely, cosy, stylish and atmospheric venue.  It’s a small place with about eight tables and the lighting was wonderfully low and mellow.  The decor was simple and well thought out – a good combination of contemporary with retro touches – like second hand wooden furniture and a wood panelled bar with Victorian style white tiling on the wall with beer pumps on.

We were immediately looked after by the front of house bar man – in fact all the staff were very enthusiastic and attentive in a really pleasant way.  We were shown to our seats and talked through the menu and specials.  It didn’t take us long to decide on the pies: beef and Guinness for Jamie, Lancashire cheese and leek for me – with both of us going for welsh rarebit for starters.

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Zingy Welsh Rarebit

We made good choices.  The rarebit was just the right size and wonderfully zingy and tasty whilst the pies were perfect comfort food for a freezing spring evening.  The rarebit sparked a debate between Jamie and I.  He liked the bread and I was adamant that it was from the excellent local Levenshulme bakery – Trove. Jamie was unconvinced – so I raised the stakes – betting him £1000 that the bread was from Trove.  And damn it! I was wrong. We asked Neil the chef and it turn’s out his business partner’s mum is making all the bread and cakes.  In my defense, Neil is in negotiations with Trove at the moment to see if they can provide bread as she is a little overworked! Jamie is considering my offer of indefinite tea making instead of a cash sum.

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Steak and Guinness Pie with gravy, mash and peas

Anyway back to POD! Jamie and I were blown away by the atmosphere.  Yes the food was delicious and very reasonable (£36 for two mains, two starters, beer and wine) and Jamie tells me the selection of beers was great too.  But above all the place had passion, style and a real sense of community.  There was something very comforting and welcoming about the venue and it felt like a broad mixture of interesting people hanging out.  I felt like if I’d got a bit more tipsy I could happily have shuffled across to another table and just gatecrashed the conversation.  So, give it a go yourselves! We 100% will be back for more pies and chilled evenings.