10 Things I Learned from Watching Nigella in My Pajamas

(Image credit: JP Masclet)

When “Nigella Bites” started popping up on TV screens more than a decade ago, it became immediately apparent that Nigella Lawson wasn’t the average “celebrity chef” or cookery presenter, as the British might say.

Shot in her home, the program has an inviting, personal feel, with her kids popping in and out. Nigella Lawson eats out of the pot she’s cooking in and talks through a mouthful of food. She’s impatient and hungry, but encouraging and warm. She’s sloppy and lazy and makes mistakes, but readily admits to them. She wants to make cooking less daunting, and more fun.

Most people I know are hungry, impatient, and sample along the way, too. Kitchens are about not always pristine labs full of precision and sparkling countertops; for most of us, kitchens are playgrounds for making messes — delicious ones — and mistakes.

This is how most people cook and how most people learn to cook better. On weekend mornings, I’d binge-watch her various programs, which were produced in conjunction with many of her cookbooks — Nigella Bites, Forever Summer, Feast, Nigella Express, and so forth — and they taught me countless lessons. Here are the ones that have stuck with me the most.

Get to Know Your Purveyors

Nigella’s always seen on her TV shows in neighborhood markets, chatting with butchers as they pass her a piece of meat or fish wrapped in white paper. Shopping multiple times a week, as you need to, and getting chummy with your butcher may be a bit of an idealized European notion for the average person with a busy schedule, but making these kinds of connections is essential for any cook. Get to know your farmers, food purveyors, or the fishmonger at your favorite supermarket. Any truly respectable grocer should be able to help you sort out the best cut of meat or how to break down a whole fish. Just ask.

Greed Is Good

Although a cynic may believe it’s a conceit constructed for television, I can’t help but feel there’s some authenticity here: Nigella is well-known for ending her programs by slinking down into a dark kitchen, the only illumination coming from the open fridge door. There she stands, in her silk robe, hungrily sneaking leftovers with her hands. Who hasn’t done that — with or without the silk robe?

Guilt Is Not Good

Growing up as a child in the ’80s and early ’90s, the marketing messages — and matching pantry shelves at home — were all about low-fat, low-fat, low-fat. (Followed by low-carb, low-carb, low-carb; some things just get recycled, right?) Nigella cooks real food for the enjoyment of it — there’s no such thing as a “guilty pleasure” in her kitchen — and does not hold back whatsoever. As a late 20-something trying to find her way around the kitchen, watching her was instructive and inspiring. It encouraged me to just cook and bake because I wanted to, without being afraid of either making mistakes or messes, or worrying whether or not something was too indulgent. She advocates that food is meant to be enjoyed, and leads by example. Flavor rules here — not dietary fads.

There Is No Omnivore’s Dilemma in Nigella’s Kitchen

While she has talked about going through periods of eating certain ways, can you imagine Nigella Lawson going completely gluten-free? Paleo? Vegan? I can’t even fathom her as a vegetarian. Eschewing an entire food group for ethical or health reasons is certainly an admirable or necessary thing (right now gluten and I are on the outs), but in my idealized food world, I wouldn’t outright banish an entire food group. That’s what works for me and it doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve undoubtedly been influenced by Nigella on this one. It’s helped me find my own true north in the kitchen.

Be Aware of Trends

Nigella is both ahead of trends and embraces retro when it feels right. (Living in London and having worked as a restaurant reviewer was no doubt formative). For example, long before Yotam Ottolenghi exploded, Lawson was using za’atar, pomegranate molasses, fattoush, and other Middle Eastern touches in her cooking. Luckily I landed in a place with a sizable Lebanese population, and for about a decade, have had easy access to these ingredients, which have become pantry staples for me; I use pomegranate molasses in a marinade for chicken thighs and thyme.

There’s No Shame in Being Self-Taught

At her core, Nigella is a writer who likes to cook; she made it her domain and turned into a savvy, versatile bestselling cookbook author along the way. She refutes the concept of a celebrity chef and famously says something to the effect of her primary qualification is that she’s an eater. It takes any preconceived sniff of snobbery, British or otherwise, literally out of the picture, and it’s encouraging for those of us with no formal culinary education.

There’s Also No Shame in Shortcuts, Provided They Don’t Sacrifice Flavor

A classic Nigella recipe involves eliminating extra pots and pans when possible. As a side for her yellow pumpkin and seafood curry, she places dried couscous in a Pyrex measuring cup, boils water in her electric kettle, and pours it off into the measuring cup. To that she adds canned chickpeas to warm them through. She’s also a big fan of using kitchen shears instead of a cutting board and knife to snip herbs right over a dish, or chunk up slices of bacon right into the pan. It can make things move so much faster, with nothing lost.

The Devil’s in the Details, but Don’t Let Them Bedevil You

Nigella often preps and serves in the same bowls. Small details, such as wiping the rim of a bowl you’ve just made a chunky guacamole in, make for a lovely presentation.

The Freezer Is Your Friend

Whether it’s bones from a roasted chicken, leftover rice or other grain, egg whites for meringues, or “wine slushes” (frozen in one-cup portions), Nigella is always putting things in freezer bags for future use. Opening my freezer is a bit of an adventure, with pesto, chopped-up vegetables for stock, and balls of cookie dough ready for action. A well-stocked freezer is immensely satisfying.

Britishisms Are Fun

Words like bung, wodge, claggy, and the deep freeze. Sultanas for raisins. Coriander for fresh cilantro. Bicarb for baking soda. Clingfilm for plastic wrap. Pudding for dessert. Courgettes for zucchini. Aubergines for eggplant. The list goes on, but these words are lodged in my consciousness. There’s something about learning foreign words for things you use everyday that makes them sound more compelling.

Admittedly, I am a couple of cookbooks behind when it comes to Nigella — Nigellissima came out right as I was in the thick of recipe testing for two Italian cookbooks — but something in me is eagerly looking forward to Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food, which releases in November here in the U.S.