Dinner with Nigella

Cookbooks...the joyous combination of words and food.

Cookbooks…the joy of combining words and food.

Those of you who follow this blog with any regularity will know of my Holy Trinity of First Principles: words, music and food.

These are my three main sources of nourishment, and without their sustaining, inspiring and stabilising presence in my life I would probably end up in jail or in what used to be called (in the good old days of political incorrectness) a lunatic asylum.

But those of you who know me personally will know that there’s another thing that I am slightly obsessed by — planning.  Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m one of those people who loves lists. Particularly of the old-fashioned hand-written variety, the kind that can be crossed off with flourish and flair.

I am also, I’ll confess, a bandit for spreadsheets, tables, and — more recently — menu plans. And when the menu planning mood strikes me, I find there is nothing more pleasurable than sitting down with a couple of old friends and working out what my family and I will eat for dinner for the next month.

Nigella...the original domestic goddess.

Nigella…the original domestic goddess.

Technically speaking, they’re not ‘friends’ at all, they’re cookbooks: the tried and trusted tomes I turn to when when my soul’s kitchen needs re-stocking.  But when I’m happily ensconced at the dining room table with a pile of cookbooks beside me, it begins to feel like Nigella and Jamie are my friends (obviously…after all, we’re on a first name basis here).  Similarly, the likes of Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer feel like neighbours who pop their heads over the back fence to chat about what’s growing in their veggie patches, while Yotam Ottolenghi — whose latest volume I have only recently acquired — feels like an exciting new acquaintance who I want to get to know a whole lot better.

Seriously — what’s not to love about cookbooks?  They’re where words and food collide, with delectable results.

Cookbooks are also packed with beautiful photographs, enticing recipes and, more frequently in this age of the celebrity chef, introductory pieces that allow the author’s passion for creating delicious food with locally sourced, seasonal produce to shine through. I suspect I find Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver particularly accessible because their cookbooks read like the television scripts they no doubt once were, and I can hear their voices in my head as I read the (sometimes pithy, occasionally rambling) comments that preface each of the recipes in their books. They don’t just make me feel hungry, they make me want to cook.

Jamie: what's not to love about this guy?

Jamie: what’s not to love about this guy?

I am equally inspired by food memoirs, especially Ruth Reichl’s widely-acclaimed trilogy of her lifelong journey with food. In my opinion, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the TableComfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise are all well worth a read. Novels that include recipes for dishes cooked by the characters also fill me with joy — but I suspect that may be the topic of another blogpost altogether.

To be honest, I think I’m a better cook when I’ve sat down with my culinary ‘friends’, or even when I’ve simply been side-tracked by a recipe when I’m looking for something else entirely.  I know I’m definitely more willing to try new things in the kitchen afterwards, despite the fact that I have been known to tune out the kids clamouring for their evening meal over the top of the television blaring the Octonauts theme just because my attention has been entirely captured by a new way of cooking with chorizos…or artichokes…or tangellos…or any number of other ingredients.

It's pretty simple, really...

It’s pretty simple, really…

And, notwithstanding such lapses of maternal attention, my kids are developing a great relationship with food, not doubt partly because I am interested in what I am cooking for them and because I willingly express my love for fresh, local produce. They are eager to try new dishes and to have a crack at cooking too, and are particular fans of purple carrots, pomegranates and many other fruits and vegetables I had never heard of when I was a child.

Needless to say, I’m running out of space in my kitchen for all my cookbooks, much to my chagrin. Even so, I find it hard resist the siren song of a new volume culinary inspiration, despite my lack of cupboard space and my husband’s (probably well-founded) dismay.

But I do know this: sticking to my First Principles is good for my health — mentally, physically, and spiritually — and, by extension, it is good for my family’s health too. So my argument (and believe me, I’m sticking to it) is this: if I splurge ever now and then on a cookbook, everybody benefits.

And besides, if my habit of making friends with cookbooks continues, I’m sure we could renovate the kitchen…

Who’s Afraid of the Wizard of Oz?

Miss Malaprop came home from preschool the other day and informed me that one of her little mates had brought in a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. Now, given that both my children are in equal parts blessed and afflicted by active imaginations, The Wizard of Oz is one movie we’ve, shall we say, kept in reserve for the time being.

Not because we’re cruel, unfeeling parents — no, no, no.

We simply value uninterrupted sleep. Possibly to the point of obsession.

“Did you watch it?” I inquired, as casually as I could, trying not to hold my breath or to further elevate my already rapidly rising blood pressure.

“Well, not all of it,” came the initial response, at which I might have winced: my sleep deprivation sensor had, even at this early stage, been well and truly triggered.

“Did you like it?” I asked, unable to keep the slight tremor of trepidation from my voice.


Cue klaxons, sirens, alarm bells of varying intensity…

Yes, true to form, instead of merrily singing, “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”, my poor Miss Malaprop proceeded to inform me that there was a wicked witch with a horrible green face and finished up with a plaintive, “Oh Mummy, I just can’t get it out of my head.”

And so the fun began…

Oz Plot

Lee Winfrey tells it like it is…

We dealt with the green faced witch first, given that this was Miss Malaprop’s main object of preoccupation. Marvel Girl raced to her room and returned with a Guardians of the Galaxy poster she had pulled from her wall, pointing out that Gamora not only has a green face but that she is also roughly twenty-seven kinds of amazing.

Gamora: it's OK to be green.

Gamora: it’s OK to be green.

Now I should point out, as I have before, that our kids are not old enough to watch any of the Marvel movies yet, though we do explain various plot lines to them and leave out the parts that are…most graphic and violent? That said, it didn’t seem like a good time to tell either of my girls that before she became a Guardian of the Galaxy, Gamora did a whole bunch of dirty work for Ronan, the Kree fanatic, or that she probably listed her occupation as “assassin” on any official intergalactic paperwork.

It did seem like a good time, however, for me to draw Miss Malaprop’s attention to various outrageous acts of artistic licence that MGM took when they made The Wizard of Oz way back in 1939, including the fact that in the book the Wicked Witch doesn’t have a green face at all. No, L Frank Baum did say the Wicked Witch was hideous, but he certainly did not say she was green.

Then, quickly applying the First Rule of Parenting — which is, of course, Distraction — I went on to express my umbrage at Dorothy’s shoes being glittery red in the movie (no doubt sparking an untold multitude of shoe fetishes around the globe), when in the book the shoes are specifically described as being silver.

Our discussion then moved on to how the movie actually finishes, and the standout role performed by Dorothy’s shoes (regardless of their colour) in returning her safely to Kansas with Toto — whose name, naturally, means “everything”. I may have proceeded to wax lyrical about how it wasn’t the Wizard of Oz who was powerful, it was Dorothy, and finally brought matters to a head when I explained that once you are no longer afraid of something, it has no power over you.

David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King.  If you want to see the spandex pants in all their glory, you'll have to look elsewhere.

David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. If you want to see the spandex pants in all their glory, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Fortunately, Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop were both fascinated by this idea, and it appeared that the image of the green faced witch was finally be fading from my younger daughter’s highly impressionable mind. Seeing the opportunity to apply the Second Rule of Parenting — which is, of course, When in Doubt Change the Subject — I sneakily steered the conversation in the direction of another movie entirely, Labyrinth, and regaled my eager listeners with tales of Sarah triumphing over the Goblin King.

Again, my imaginative kids are not likely to be watching Labyrinth without adult supervision any time soon — not least because the sight of David Bowie clad in spandex could be detrimental to their otherwise normal development — but I did manage to successfully skirt the issue of Jareth the Goblin King snatching a child in Sarah’s care and skipped straight to the moment of Sarah’s victory. “My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great,” I intoned solemnly, “You have no power over me!

The kids cheered, and the rest of the evening unwound as it usually would, excepting the fact that I may have shoved a bottle of wine in the fridge — which I wouldn’t generally do on a Wednesday.

And I won’t lie.  I gave Miss Malaprop the most carbo-loaded evening meal she has had in very a long time, and sent her off to bed hoping against hope that digesting said dinner would act as some kind of nightmare-preventative and she would slumber blissfully until morning.

To her credit — and my eternal relief —  she did.

Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.