Review: The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater

The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen“Well, well, it’s Nigel Slater, buying a bag of frozen peas,” the woman said to him archly, in her British accent (I would presume, as Nigel lives in London). He sheepishly  pays for his purchase and slinks out, trying to remain anonymous.

Why would anyone make fun of a man for buying a bag of frozen peas? Maybe if that same man also touts the benefits of fresh local foods, cooking simply and beautifully to bring out the foods best flavor, living and eating seasonally — and also happens to be a famous writer and columnist for the London, “Observer”.

At the point that this little blurb appears in the book, I had become so interested in involved in his story – as Slater shares his simple kitchen diary, what he made, how it tasted, and some special notes – that I laughed out loud. Truly, it was a bit out of character for him to do this. But also, it really shows, I think, the approachable nature of this book, for me. It is summed up by the first line of the book, really:

“Right food, right place, right time. It is my belief — and the point of this book — that this is the best recipe of all. … This is the food of the moment — something eaten at a time when it is most appropriate, when the ingredients are at their peak of perfection, when the food, the cook, and the time of year are at one with each other.”

Sound a little too lofty? Well, its really not. His recipes are delightfully simple, and what makes this more than a cookbook (and therefore, an interesting page-turner from start to finish) are the narratives that string together the diary.

Arranged by month, here is a sample from January:

January 11 – Onion soup without tears – I do love the classic onion soup, simmered for hours in a deep iron pot, but if I’m honest, I hate making it. Onions make me cry at the best of times, but slicing enough for an entire pan of soup is more than I can handle. 

Or again, from June:

June 21 – An homage to yogurt – I  cannot remember a day when I didn’t eat yogurt. It is as much a part of my life as mineral water, salad or coffee. Sometimes I buy the Lebanese variety, so white and dense you could spread it with a knife. Other times is has to be the delicate French sheep yogurt that comes in glass pots the size of an egg cup. Mostly is it British goat yogurt from the healthfood shop … The only yogurt I will not eat is the mild, bland, sweet stuff the supermarkets excel at. Yogurt disguised as a dessert. 

At this point, you are either requesting the book at your local library, or thinking, “What? Yogurt?” I was telling dear Hub’band about the book as I was reading, and telling him how much I loved reading this type of book, and he looked at me indulgingly and loving and said, “Yes, I know you do.” 😉 (Which was a beautiful moment in itself, both of us admitting we have differences where books are in question, at least, books about food, but we can still be supportive listeners to what the other is interested in!)

The other take-away from the books, for me, is actually a kind of sadness that we don’t have the great variety of artisan-made cheeses, meats, etc, in local shops that we can walk to. Much of the books details his DAILY shopping trips, in which he can walk a short distance and be at different markets, some ethnic, some farmer’s, buying when he needs for the next day or two. For a mom with a family of 6, I shop once every two weeks, and make a menu plan for that amount of time. I can walk to one local store, but its not my store of choice. That style and kind of shopping outlined by Slater just doesn’t quite exist here.

However, the books, besides giving me several new recipes to try, has also encouraged me in my first Food Goal of 2013 (remember that post where I said I don’t make resolutions? Well….a goal is different from a resolution. So there. My blog, my rules.) — Explore the local ethnic markets and shop there more regularly. Not only does spreading out my food dollar help local people, it also helps my family to further broaden our horizons of good healthful eating! I just read in the local paper that a Russian food store recently opened here – perhaps that will be my first stop!

If you read it:

The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater. Published 2006, Gotham Books (a trademark of Penguin Group USA).

Other cookbooks by Nigel Slater: Real Fast Food; The 30 Minute Cook; Appetite. Among others.

Found: The Lost WPA Files….Book review

I am in the midst of reading a really interesting book, by Mark Kurlansky, titled,

The Food of a Younger Land

During the Great Depression, unemployment, and despair, were at all-time highs in our nation. Through the New Deal, programs sprang up to get people back to work. Opinions abound on the New Deal, but without it, I wouldn’t be reading this book (though I’m reading the book published in 2009, for the first time, is part of the interesting and quirky nature of this story). So, its got that goin’ for it.

Author Mark Kurlansky found a huge box of old files from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writer’s Project. This project produced, first, guidebooks to all regions of the United States,which were quite successful in their day, and are still admired to this day.Their longevity can be accounted for due to the fact that they weren’t just maps with facts, but aimed to get more to the cultural heart of the country.

The second major project was a book called, America Eats.  America Eats, again, aiming for that cultural heart, would surely feature recipes, but also how, why, and with whom Americans are eating. It would include diversity of culture in its selections, and each region’s entry would have a chance to show its unique “flavor”, with local ingredients and regionally obtained foods. This gets to the long secondary title: A portrait of America before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen foods. Unfortunately, the original book “America Eats” was never completed. Pearl Harbor was bombed, and that pretty much ended the Federal Writer’s Project, as the nation dealt with a second War to End all Wars….

Now, Kurlansky’s book: I’m appreciating the biographical information about the contributors in each region’s section – there were writer’s of all kinds involved in the project – experienced authors with books to their credit, and some people that really had no history of writing, but needed a job and were allowed to give it a try — and the recipes are fun to read. Some take the form of essays interspersed with cooking directions, some tell a recipes story in more of a narrative form, like the one I read just the other night, about the maple sugaring process in Vermont (kind of like a Lake Wobegone description).

I do like recipe books that read like novels, and novels that contain recipes. Do you have any interesting ones you’d like to pass on? Please leave a comment, and I’ll update my library queue.