Google+ Followers

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Nigella's first book was on pasta

     The first time I heard about Nigella Lawson was when I watched her program Nigella Bites on the Style Network.  Instantly, I took a liking to her.  She was witty, polished, modern and oh so British.  Her posh accent and vocabulary were enriching in itself, and the way she presented her cooking, quite unique.  She reminded me a bit of Doña Petrona, the great Argentine cook that was just as witty and wrote THE elementary  cookbook for the Argentine housewife.

     I remembered how her production team admired her after becoming a widow relatively early in life, and succeeded making it on her own whilst pulling her strings with two very young children in tow.  The idea conveyed was of a struggling, lonely housewife with almost no recourse other than her wit.  Although I’ve no doubt that the woman went through a difficult time (she admits to have suffered from depression at the time), she was hardly ever in a financially desperate situation.

     Lawson is the daughter of ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Thatcher government Nigel Lawson, and Vanessa Salmon, a socialite and heiress to the magnanimous J.Lyons & Co. catering empire. Although her childhood was a bit difficult due to her parents’ disagreements and subsequent divorce in 1980, she shone academically and graduated from Oxford University.

A composite photo from 1965, showing a glummy Nigella to the left, with father Nigel,
deceased sister Thomasina and mum Vanessa, ever the great organized hostess.
      She became a journalist and wrote for prestigious publications, such as The Observer, The Telegraph, The Times in the United Kingdom  and Gourmet and Bon Appétit in the United States.  It was during this time that she met her first husband, also journalist John Diamond, and the father of her two children Cosima and Bruno.  They married in Venice in 1992, and Diamond died of throat cancer in 2001.  I still have recordings of Nigella Bites with him on it, sitting at the table with guests during a meal and unable to eat anything because of his terrible disease.  I thought at the time how cruelly ironic life can be, having a wife who is a famous cook, along with a disease that’s killing you, but also in the meantime, precludes you from tasting anything she makes.  Shortly after Diamond’s death she started dating art collector Charles Saatchi.  They married in 2003 and have been together ever since. 

     Lawson’s enjoyment for cooking came about from her mother, who loved to entertain and cook, being who she was, the heiress of such a large food-related organization.  Unlike Nigella though, her mother suffered from eating disorders.  This may have been the cause of her rather early demise at the age of 48 due to liver cancer.  In a recent interview with the Daily Mail, she declared her relationship with her mother was less than ideal: “I never thought I could please her,' she said.  'She was funny, but depressed and so sensitive to noise.” 

     Still, being the daughter of such entertaining-loving mother obviously influenced her life.  Her first book, How to eat, was published in 1998 and sold 300,000 copies.  But contrary to what most everyone believes, this was not her first written contribution.  I consider her very first work one called Il museo immaginario della pasta, which she co-wrote with Pier Luigi Bassignana, a curator and contributor to various technical Italian publications.  The collectors’ tome was written to commemorate the First World Congress on Pasta, which took place in Rome, between the 25th and 28th October, 1995.

    Lawson wrote for the book an essay entitled “A food with divine origins”, in which she traces the origins of pasta offering surprising revelations.  For instance, who would have thought the Arabs played a prominent role in the development of pasta?  Lawson reveals how the food was eaten in ancient Persia and appeared in the cookery books of medieval Islam.  She also delves into the history of badly cooked pasta, emphasizing the fact that this food should never be overcooked but always “al dente” and with a small amount of sauce, as opposed to drowning in it. 

     The amount of pasta shapes and sizes shown in the book is amazing, and has appealed to an esoteric taste like mine.  Recently I found some colourful pasta at my local Homegoods called “monumenti”.  They are just that – monuments and buildings of Italy in your plate.  It was very important, like Lawson suggests in her essay, not to overcook these shapes, as they would otherwise disintegrate very easily.  I found 4 minutes were more than enough, and I served them with an excellent Ligurian pesto topped with freshly grated Parmesan, and piece of cheese bread.  Simple, yet elegant comfort food to have while sitting cozily in front of the T.V.

     But who can claim they do not love pasta?  As far as Nigella’s first true written contribution to the world of cookery books, the English used to associate the word “pasta” with macaroni.  Here in America, macaroni and cheese is a classic, but for me, the best recipe for this dish does not come from Nigella, or from any American cook, but from a compatriot of hers, model turned celebrity chef Lorraine Pascale.  She makes a heavenly Glam Mac & Cheese, which elevates comfort food to a new ideal, that of the gourmet one.  This dish has it all – the meatiness of the pancetta and the aromas of the fresh herbs combined with the yummy cheeses, whilst offering the comfort of pasta.  I encourage you to try this tasty recipe, which will have you licking your fingers to no end.  The amount makes four generous servings.

Glam Mac & Cheese


  • 340g macaroni
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 80g pancetta, diced
  • 1 small handful of fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 scallions, trimmed and finely sliced
  • 100g breadcrumbs
  • 1 handful of chopped parsley
For the cheese sauce:

·         3 Tbsp butter
·         5 Tbsp all-purpose flour
·         Pinch of ground nutmeg
·         1 tsp mustard powder
·         Generous ¾ cup milk
·         Scant 1 ¼ cup of heavy cream
·         200g dolce latte or Gorgonzola cheese
·         115g Parmesan cheese, grated


     Cook the macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water.  They need to be cooked to just under what you would normally do, as the pasta will be cooked again in the oven.  Drain, then return to the pan and set aside.  Preheat the oven to 400 F. 

     Fry the pancetta in a medium skillet over gentle heat until it starts to brown and crisp up, then add the scallions and cook for an additional 3 minutes.  Remove the skillet from the heat and add its contents to the pasta.

     For the sauce, put the butter, flour, nutmeg and mustard in a small pan set over medium heat and cook until the butter has melted.  Mix the milk and cream together in a pitcher and add a little to the flour and butter in the pan, stirring well.  Keep adding the milk mixture, bit by bit, stirring well each time.  This will prevent the sauce from going lumpy.  Resist the temptation of putting all the milk in at once, since you will be left with clumps of flour floating on the surface.  Should this happen, take the pan off the heat and whisk it like crazy – it should make all the lumps disappear.  Make sure you get the spoon into the corners of the pan, as stray mounds of flour often lurk there.  Once the sauce has fully come together, turn up the heat and boil for a minute or two.  The sauce will thicken considerably.  Once this happens remove it from the heat and add two thirds of both the cheeses to it while it’s still hot and combine well.  It may be a bit lumpy, but that is fine.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and add to the pasta mix.  Stir everything together and spoon into a shallow casserole dish or 4 individual ramekins.  This latter option is my favourite, as I then have the freedom to freeze part of the preparation at this point in the recipe.   
     Once ready to eat, sprinkle the top with the thyme leaves, the rest of the cheeses and the breadcrumbs, and bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until the cheese starts to bubble and the topping goes crumbly and brown.  Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve hot.