More than any other cook in modern Britain Nigel Slater has pushed the notion that fine ingredients, cooked simply, are what make a good meal. No fuss, no messing about with fancy equipment, no fiddle-arsing with the ingredients, no “snipping, cutting, filling, shaping” food into little parcels. He is a firm believer that “anyone can make themselves something good to eat.” Though he relishes feeding others, Slater is a champion of the solitary pleasures of food—even, perhaps especially, food that needs no cooking at all. Devoured alone, late at night, the lonely left-over sausage dunked repeatedly into the mustard jar is a thing to be prized. Since 1992, his 13 books—along with his columns for the Observer and its Food Monthly—have tended to elide memoir with lyrical evocations of cooking, and it’s no coincidence that two of his best works, “The Kitchen Diaries I & II” (2005, 2012), are as much personal meditations on eating as they are recipe books.
INFLUENCES Slater’s long, shady, north-London garden is a constant muse: the fruit and vegetables he grows there “beckon and intrigue”. Freshly dug potatoes with vellum-like skin, glowing saffron pumpkins—he finds their sensual pleasures infinitely beguiling.
TABLE MANNER Suggestive, in all senses of the word. The joys of seafood are “loud, salty savoury flavours” and “wobbly, creamy, quivering flesh”. His description of the perfect sausage, “so hot that you have to jostle it round your mouth with your tongue”, has you sucking in little gulps of cool air, even when your mouth is emphatically, disappointingly empty. He can be encouraging, promoting “the pleasure, the sheer unbridled joy” of cooking without a recipe, but is palpably exasperated by those who ask him whether the two tablespoons of parsley he recommends are level or heaped. Recipes are presented as living things, to be treated lightly and allowed to breathe; many in his most recent book, “Eat” (2014), are based on his ruminations on Twitter and lack detailed instructions.
INGREDIENTS Slater lauds both the luxurious and the trashy. He revels equally in the bitter delight of a jagged shard of Valrhona chocolate, and the rude pleasures of sticking his tongue deep inside the crater of a cheap Walnut Whip. But mostly he is keen on anything not bought from a supermarket.
TYPICAL DISH Anything that ends up with “gloriously gooey, chewy bits” lurking at the bottom of the pan, to be scraped at surreptitiously while hovering over the stove. Also, dishes that mysteriously end up greater than the sum of their parts: the chorizo sandwich in “Eat”, its sausage blanketed with mozzarella, demands few ingredients, little skill and even less time. But the rewards are outrageous.
WHAT WORKS Baked onions in “The Kitchen Diaries” are deeply savoury, cooked first at a “bright simmer”, then slowly roasted, bathed in cream and parmesan, until golden and bubbling. His aligot—cheesy garlicky potato purée—in “Real Fast Food” (1992) is not only luxuriantly delicious, it is also a useful shibboleth. Those who balk at its dairy-thick lavishness will surely go on to reveal other, more serious flaws.
WHAT DOESN’T His duck stuffed and sauced with star anise, clementines and bitter orange marmalade: the instruction in “Real Cooking” (1997) is to roast it for only 50 minutes, nowhere near long enough for the marmalade to crust and the skin to crisp. In the same book, sticky lemon chicken wings, cooked in a few miserly tablespoons of oil, aren’t sticky, just flabby (chicken thighs tossed, several pages later, in a skillet with butter and balsamic vinegar are far more successful). And at times Slater’s expectations of the plenteousness of his readers’ fridges and larders feel, if not unreasonable, at least ambitious.
COOK HIM BECAUSE There is too much talk of cooking being an art or science. Slater reminds us, with affection, that all we need do is make something good to eat.