Thinking Cookbooks: Nigel Slater

I have standards—high ones—for the men, friends, and the authors whom I invite into my kitchen. Only the exceptional need apply. Be funny, be bold, be smart, be fun. Do not be fussy or fake. Do have a good appetite.

Nigel Slater made the cut a long time ago. Over the past two decades, his column in London’s Observer and eleven (count them) cookbooks have championed real food, simple food, food full of flavor and imagination that’s cooked spontaneously. In a world drowning in prissy celebrity chefs touting obscure ingredients and complicated techniques that require fancy equipment that I can’t afford to buy and don’t have space in my galley kitchen to house, Slater is the voice of reason. Ease trumps pomp when I cook, and Slater agrees. He’s date night in worn jeans and a sweater instead of a tight dress and tippy heels.

“This is … a collection of recipes … written for anyone who enjoys good food eaten informally… Most of the recipes are based on fresh food with as little as possible done to it, ” he writes in Real Fast Food (Overlook, 1995).

“I like the idea of buying one ingredient that looks particularly good, then mixing it with some pantry staples, and seeing what happens to it.” So, we have that in common, I thought.

“If I am cooking for myself I forget all about cups and spoons, and go with whatever tastes and looks right.” So, I can stop pretending I ever use my kitchen scale? I knew Slater was a keeper from the get-go.

Rare is the cookbook that’s as much fun to read as it is to cook from. But Slater’s nailed the coupling. Though his words make me swoon, it’s his food and easy way with instructions that has kept me coming back.

Real Fast Food starts with a starring ingredient and then proceeds to spend several pages riffing on it. He considers, for instance, mushrooms, and offers them up broiled, stir-fried, served on toast, teamed up with potatoes and garlic, simmered à la crème, turned into mushroom beignets, and then again, wrapped in flaky pastry. Eggs and canned fish get a lot of airtime, too, encouraging weeknight cooks to stick to what’s easy and at hand, however humble. Slater ends each chapter by challenging readers to imagine variations of their own, like the blank pages found at the back of a community cookbook.

Like most of Slater’s books, Real Fast Desserts (Overlook, 1997) is organized by season and relies heavily upon fruits and nuts, say blackberries, apples, oranges, and almonds. The book is full of simple recipes (syllabubs, fools, basic cakes, and sauces to pour over ice cream) and lists of variations that cooks can use as springboards to their own inventions.

I liked the man already. But I fell hook, line, and sinker for Slater when I got my hands on The Kitchen Diaries (Viking Studio, 2005). Chronicling a year in the cook’s kitchen, the book is a treatise on home cooking as well as a calendar of sorts. I’ve used it to remind me of the joys of a particular time of year.

One particularly dreary Saturday morning, deep in the belly of February, I awoke to snow. Again. I’m so done with winter, I thought. I’m tired of gray skies and celeriac, sick of apples gone mealy, mounds of potatoes, bone-chilling wind and slushy sidewalks. I’m ready for spring, for the first tender leaves of lettuce and ramps, cress and peas. Looking for sympathy, or perhaps just to poke at the sore a bit, I reached for the book.

I started with February 1, for the sake of taking in the whole moody arc of this shortest of months.

  • February 1. “The thought of shopping for home-grown fruits and vegetables in February makes my heart sink.” Into his basket, wrote Slater, went beets, carrots and kale for juicing, and (he added, without an ounce of irony) fresh heavy cream.
  • February 21. “There is something romantic about falling snow. I now want something more suited to a world whited over.” Slow-roasted lamb with chickpea mash.
  • February 23 and 24. “There is still snow but it has turned to slush, the odd bits of snow taking you by surprise on your way to the shops.” Bones and gravy for an icy day, aka braised oxtail with mustard and mashed potatoes.

I flipped forward to see if March brought a gentle and promising new start with it. No such luck.

  • March 2. “Fat flakes of snow are pattering against the panes of the kitchen door.” Flatbread and a homemade dip.
  • March 4. “Snow and a chicken stew.”

I know how you feel. Relentless, they are, these drag-on days of late winter.

I paged forward, peeking at the early fava beans of London’s May (Slater dresses the first of the season with hot bacon and its fat) and the apricots of early June (served fresh with orange blossoms and pistachios). What a tease.

The Kitchen Diaries may be my favorite of Slater’s books (I’m champing at the bit for the second volume, due out in the U.S. later this year), and it’s certainly the one I cook from most. But I also have a soft spot for Tender and for Ripe (Ten Speed Press, 2009 and 2010, respectively), that beautiful duo borne of Slater’s experience building, tending to, cooking from, and eating in his backyard garden in London.

“I guess I have always grown something to eat,” he writes in the introduction to Tender. First there were experiments with cress seeds on wet paper towels as a schoolboy, then early attempts in his parents’ garden, followed by pots of tomatoes on a university room ledge, and herbs on fire escapes. “That I would one day turn my own lawn into a vegetable patch was, I suppose, inevitable.”

Huddling by the radiator, scowling at the falling snow, I close my eyes and spirit myself away to the scenes Slater paints. He takes me to a garden picnic on a hot summer afternoon, delivers me to eating barefooted and by candlelight when dinner has been put off until nearly midnight. The first turn of the fall leaves. Dinners on my Brooklyn roof may not carry all the leafy magic of Slater’s London yard, but visions of hot nights when the cooking is foreplay for long, languid conversation makes a protracted winter seem almost worth the wait.

I’ll serve grilled lamb with eggplant and za’atar, and a salad of crisp pole beans, fennel, and Parmesan. To end, there’ll be rhubarb sprinkled with sugar and baked until it turns limp and luscious. Even the dream of the meal is an ode to the days when the living is easy.

It also seems inevitable that a cook so honest and real would become more and more himself, more idiosyncratic and evermore relaxed, with the publication of each book. In Tender and Ripe, Slater wanders out to the garden and his local markets for inspiration. But unlike so many American cooks these days—for whom seasonality has become solemn and a little too predictable—for Slater, it’s all about improvisation and spontaneity. The man buys ripe, messy mangos (surely from farther afield than even the hottest greenhouse in London) to brighten the grumpy days of winter. And, after catching sight of a deliveryman with a hole-punched cardboard box, he chases down discount lychees in the Chinese part of town. What he does with them when he gets home isn’t the point. This is food shaped by mood and whim. Because often, Slater recognizes, we’re not even sure what we’re hungry for until it knocks us upside the head. This is the secret to gratification. All of us have appetites, it’s just that Slater, more than most, lets go enough to sate them.