Kitchn Love Letters

Nigella Lawson’s Lemon Linguine Is the Carby, Creamy, Cheesy Recipe That Reminds Me How Much I Love Cooking

published Jul 29, 2020
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My beloved rescue dog, Quentin “Q” Compson, has never weighed more in her life. She and I both have put on a few pounds since quarantine, actually. Her excuse: old age, too many snacks. Mine: same. The odds are against us; this pandemic has meant that I’m mostly stationary and working exclusively from home. I don’t know what her excuse is.

You see, I’m currently writing a cookbook, which means I’m eating for four to six people every day. (The thing no one tells you about developing recipes is that someone has to eat all of the food from those tests, and when you live alone like I do, it’s usually you.) Not that I’m complaining. As stressful as these last few months have been, I recognize what an extreme privilege it is to get to write about food for a living, and to get paid to cook and eat. Still, there are things I miss now — like cooking for the sake of cooking. It sounds so obvious when I say it, but I suppose this is the great irony for many creative professions: You don’t realize you miss a thing until you’re doing it 24/7 for work.

But the other day, I was able to reset. It started at my desk with a cold beer. I sat there and wrote. For hours. With the additional help of an edible, I worked up an appetite and found myself craving something I hadn’t thought about in years: Nigella Lawson’s creamy lemon linguine.

Credit: Eric Kim; Brendon Thorne/Stringer/Getty Images

My obsession with this dish is as boundless as my obsession with Nigella (an inordinately unhealthy amount). She’s my food writing hero, and, after my own mother Jean of course, someone I’ve always regarded as my culinary mother in the kitchen. So much of what I cook today is influenced by what she taught me through her myriad cookbooks and television series. The linguine recipe in particular is an apt microcosm of her laidback, and yet still luxurious, home cooking cosmos.

It’s also one of the first things I learned to cook. And I cooked it often, which for me is the litmus test for a good recipe: Not only can a beginner nail it, but it’s also so good, you’ll want to eat it again. And again. I used to make this dish for myself all the time in college between classes, namely because it came together in moments and required just a small handful of pantry ingredients I always had. It has everything you want when your soul is at its hungriest, in need of quick nourishment of the carby, creamy, cheesy kind. I also love that it features lemon, front and center — both zest and juice. And yet, as the best lemon dishes are, it’s tempered by less acidic ingredients like cream and cheese, making it, as Nigella says on her television series Nigella Bites (where I first learned about it), “rich but delicate.”

But not only is this recipe delicious, but it also taught me some basic principles about cooking — tenets which I follow to this day.

  1. The water you cook your pasta in should be as salty as the Mediterranean. (Also, water comes to a boil faster without salt already in it.)
  2. Linguine is a totally underrated pasta shape (move over, spaghetti and fettuccine). It’s meaty and substantial, but still delicate and smooth, which makes it the perfect vehicle for slicking with lemony cream sauce.
  3. Speaking of which, add lemon to anything and instantly that food will feel less heavy. As Nigella writes in her first book, How to Eat, “There must be something about the smell of lemons, so fresh, so hopeful, which makes this instant good-mood food.” Not that there’s anything wrong with a creamy white sauce (I love an Alfredo as much as the next guy), but adding both the juice and zest of a lemon, the latter of which has so much perfume, just lifts all the flavors up.
  4. After draining the cooked pasta, always return it to its still-hot pot so you can toss it with butter, which is, for Nigella, “the best flavoring, best texture, best mood enhancer there is” (after lemons, that is). Although the burner is off at this point, the lingering heat aids this process and also helps to thicken the cream sauce, which gets added next.
  5. A note on the sauce: Egg yolks help to emulsify the lemon juice and cream once it hits the hot pasta, thickening and coating the noodles gorgeously. If you’re squeamish about raw eggs, don’t be; they cook in the heat of the pan as you toss, toss, toss the noodles with hungry vigor. (This is also the recipe that taught me that pasta should always finish cooking with the sauce so the two can meld.)
  6. Parmesan cheese tastes best when it’s finely shaven with a Microplane. Like little curls of cheesy salt (in fact, there’s no need for additional salt in this dish if you’ve followed Step 1).
  7. Last but not least: This baby sauce whisk is the cutest kitchen tool in the world and will make you feel like a giant. I bought mine at a restaurant supply store in Paris almost 10 years ago because of this exact Nigella Bites segment — and I don’t travel anywhere without it. It does everything a regular-sized whisk does; it’s just smaller, cuter, and easier to clean.
Credit: Eric Kim

The reward of this lemon linguine recipe is obvious: You get to eat it. But secondly, there’s a calming joy in preparing it. It’s easy, but just demanding enough, requiring you to boil, whisk, and toss, so that the motions — not to mention the fragrant, comforting scent of fresh lemon zest — will wake you up from your quarantine slumber. For me, additionally, it’s a blast to the past (as I haven’t made this dish in years), and as an emotional water sign, I find great inspiration not just in discovering new flavors, but also in rediscovering old ones. As Melissa Clark once said to me on Twitter, “Nostalgia is a powerful spice.”

In a way, this works for dogs, too. Every few months I have to switch out Q’s food because she gets bored of it, but eventually I’ll always circle back to the first kibble and she’ll eat it up just as if it were new. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, right?

As for our extra “padding,” Q and I are wearing it proudly for now (thanks for asking). For me, her weight is just another reminder of how far she’s come since her shelter days when I first brought her home, a shivering mass of skin and bones. Now she’s a thick, warm body, the little spoon to my big spoon, pressing into my own sizable beer belly during long afternoon cuddle sessions in the sun. Because the thing about eating big bowls of creamy, lemony pasta for lunch is that you either have to walk it off, or sleep it off.