Kitchen Confessional

The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater
By Nigel Slater
Gotham, 2006; $26.40

Food writer Nigel Slater has long been an advocate of a certain cuisine of ease, built around good shopping and minimal intervention with ingredients. (Is it an English thing? Fellow Brits Nigella Lawson, Rose Gray, Ruth Rogers, and, I suppose, Jamie Oliver are all adherents.) Perfection is never the obvious goal of this kind of cooking—in its stead are big flavors, soulfulness, and a certain emotional connection.

Slater’s latest book, The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater, is a glorification of this approach to cookery. It is a diary of a year’s meals, tracing the seasons as well as Slater’s whims. He includes recipes or half recipes, sometimes just poetic observations, and elegiac photographs of the meals, taken, we are told, as they happened—a cookbook with a neorealist touch. Those traces of real time and real meals serve to heighten the sentiment and immediacy of the work.

All that reflection is ambitious for a cookbook, and could easily flop if the writer weren’t as surefooted as Slater, who knows how to unearth emotions about food without overdoing it. In his memoir about his lonely childhood, Toast, he wrote of his mother—who always burnt the bread and who died when he was a boy—“It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.” The journal format of The Kitchen Diaries allows him to capture moments that are perhaps less heart-wrenching but remind you still of the connection between hearth and heart. There are boisterous dinners with friends and solitary, TV-lit meals of frozen fries and baked beans; an instance of boredom at a late-winter market and plenty of minor failures, like a caprese salad ruined by an experimental touch of blue cheese.

I am a sucker for food writers who reveal their failures and dislikes, since so much of a passionate cook’s work is experimentation and judgment. Like a salesperson who tells you when not to buy an article of clothing, Slater inspires trust because he reminds you that not all food is equally delicious. “Yesterday produced a white cabbage and apple salad that was no nicer than it sounds,” he notes, or “Supper is boiled purple beans tossed in olive oil, which turn out to be more interesting raw.” And like me, Slater always seems to have something wasting away in the fridge or the pantry. “I want the last of the melons out of the larder,” he writes in late July (to get rid of them, he makes melon sorbet). Maybe it’s because of Toast, but I find it hard to shake a slightly mournful tone in the book: in its unpeopled photographs, passing seasons, snail-eaten tomatoes, and moldering kiwi fruits.

Don’t misunderstand: Slater’s year is full of happy moments and plenty of good, inspiring food; in fact it’s crowded with recipes. He’s not quite an innovative cook, but he knows how to revive simple, oft-forgotten pleasures, and he carves a bit of lyricism out of every dish, no matter how straightforward. “A plum is never worth eating,” he counsels, echoing the great Jane Grigson, “unless you have to shoo the wasps away with a dish towel.”

Occasionally, Slater’s prose can get overripe. It’s hard to buy his description of mackerel skins “shining like something from Tutankamen’s tomb”; but within a sentence he redeems himself with an oddly evocative bit of olfactory depiction: The same shiny fish have a “tarry smell that reminds me of oak, boats, and old string.”

One might argue that all this description gets in the way of the cooking. Simple as the recipes are in the book, they’re perhaps a shade too gestural for someone who doesn’t already feel at ease in the kitchen, with vague directions for heaping tablespoons of this and handfuls of that. But Slater’s recipes are appealingly minimalist: Most call for fewer than 10 ingredients, including the salt, and with a few gamy exceptions, most are made with readily accessible ingredients. (Although I am envious of his seemingly endless supply of red mullet, which I can never seem to find.) He’s even got a couple of recipes for chicken wings—try the one with lemon and black pepper.

Slater knows how to nail a culinary grace note, that extra fillip that makes an easy meal stand out. I took his cue and strewed some quick-grilled lamb chops with thyme and crumbled feta; the thyme would have been enough, but the white cheese made an awfully pretty picture in the book and on my dinner table, and it added a lively piquant note to the already succulent lamb. His desserts are also simple—picnic cakes and cobblers and such—but with nice touches like the tiny hint of rose water in a pistachio cake so dense it had to be eaten in slivers. With the exception of his Christmas fare, most of the recipes Slater provides are just as uncomplicated as those found in the “quick,” “easy,” or “weeknight” cookbooks that crowd the store shelves these days, but his sensory-rich prose reminds you that meals inspire declarations beyond “Yum-o!” And it’s that kind of writing that gets me back in the kitchen when I’m feeling burnt out.

Warm Pickled Mackerel

{This dish had one of the loveliest photos in the book. The photos might be “real time” and rustic, but they are still styled in their own way: The knot of onions on the fish is carefully arranged, and I noticed some dill-like fronds garnishing the dish that didn’t make it into the recipe.}

mackerel—3 filleted {Obviously Slater and I get different kinds of mackerel in our stores—I had to go with larger horse mackerel; the fillets from one fish, each cut into thirds, made for three very hearty appetizer portions. You could bulk it up to an entrée by serving more potatoes.}

a small onion {Note the lowercase—suggesting a low-key attitude in the recipes—it’s a slightly twee conceit, but I let it slide.}

tarragon vinegar—2/3 cup {Again, here I failed—tarragon vinegar has gone out of fashion it seems—I threw a few stalks of tarragon in with the pickling juices to make up for it.}

white vermouth or white wine—1/4 cup

juniper berries—12, lightly crushed

mustard seeds—3/4 teaspoon

white peppercorns—6 {Am I the only one who hates the smell of white peppercorns? I used them anyway, because they taste OK.}

black peppercorns—9

superfine sugar—2 generous tablespoons {More of that offhandedness: things only half measured.}

bay leaves—2

sautéed potatoes, to serve {If you hunt around the book, you can find a few notes on how he makes these.}

Set the oven to 350F. Rinse the mackerel fillets and lay them in a shallow oven-safe dish of china, glass or stainless steel (not aluminum). Peel and thinly slice the onion and put it in a non-corrosive saucepan, together with the vinegar and vermouth or wine. Then add the juniper berries, mustard seeds, white and black peppercorns, sugar, bay leaves, and a good pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then pour the mixture over the fish. Add enough water just to cover the fish—no more.

Cover the dish lightly with aluminum foil and bake for twenty minutes. Serve the fish warm, two fillets each, with sautéed potatoes. {Or beets—this recipe would pair beautifully with salty roasted beets. In any case, it is very tasty. I am a big fan of even cheap pickled herring, and this recipe is a slightly more refined version—less sweet, and less firm, with a gentler pickle than the jarred stuff. Don’t ignore the onions, which are delicious in their own right. The mackerel was a big hit at a dinner party; one friend copied down the recipe and made it again within the week.}

Enough for 3 {Double-check the amounts in this cookbook, because often they cook up to just two portions, or, as here, an odd number.}