Nigella Lawson Shares the Comfort Food Dinner She Makes on Repeat

We spoke with Britain's most famous home cook about her new book and how to simplify recipes and cook with intuition. Plus, learn what item Lawson says you should never have near you when cooking, what sparks her creativity in the kitchen and the one thing she and Ina Garten have in common.

Nigella Lawson

You know Nigella Lawson from her 14 books and plethora of TV shows that have aired in the U.S. and Britain, dating all the way back to Nigella Bites which debuted in 1999. We spoke with Lawson as she kicked off her stateside book tour in support of her latest cookbook Cook, Eat, Repeat. We talked about why she doesn't take notes when starting to develop a recipe, how she both honors and alters her grandmothers' cooking and her "lasagna of love."

EatingWell: What does eating well mean to you?

Nigella Lawson: It's whatever I'm in the mood for in that particular moment. I feel that so much of what seems like the ideal food depends on our mood. And I suppose more and more I think that is what eating well means to me. Whether they're gentle flavors or bold flavors, they're flavors that absolutely absorb my attention while I eat. There's this wonderful sense of being taken out of the world momentarily and into this bubble of nourishment and pleasure. And, I suppose, at the same time, food connects us to everything else in the world, so it's not in isolation, but rather a moment of calm and appreciation and gratitude, and that, for me, is as well as I ever need to eat.

EatingWell: Cook, Eat, Repeat has a lot of stories in addition to recipes. How did you know how you wanted to structure the book?

Lawson: I work in this pretty unstructured way. I mean, not in terms of the writing and so forth, but I feel that each book I write, in a way, demands a structure of its own. I think I've only once done a book which had fairly conventional chapters. I really started Cook, Eat, Repeat in my head—with the various ingredients I wanted to write about. I wanted to write a loving defense of brown food. I wanted to dwell on the anchovy. I mean, actually, it would have been like 10 times as long—I had so many other chapters in mind. As you develop a book, first finding the recipes and reflecting on them, it's almost as if you have to do what feels right in that moment. And I don't particularly like the idea of everything too ordered. Nevertheless, there has to be some rationale for what recipe goes where.

We slightly remodeled recipes I remember eating at either of my grandmothers' homes, thinking about what it was like eating that then and how I cook differently than she did. A case in point is, one of my grandmothers always used to do a chicken with a creamy mushroom sauce, bit of garlic, not much. I was thinking how cream sauces have fallen out of favor, and yet there's something so comforting about them. I cook in a much more garlicky-fierce way than my grandmother would have done in the olden days. Garlic was really considered something you had to make sure people actually liked. It was a very English thing. When I did my chicken in cream sauce, I put four garlic cloves minced in it. Now, if I ate my grandmother's it would taste a bit floury and bland. I've cooked it in a way that's quicker and livelier and suits my palate.

EatingWell: What is your process for simplifying a recipe, making it as quick and easy and delicious as possible?

Lawson: I cook a recipe so many times that somehow it's more my intuition that leads me to leave out certain processes. The more times you cook something, the easier it becomes to simplify. I might think [about simplifying] before I set off, but I'm more likely to start thinking as I'm cooking. Something comes to mind while I'm doing it and I'll feel that was a waste of a bowl. I could have put it in the same bowl as everything. As I cook, simplification for me also means not really giving people any more dishes, pots and pans to wash up than is absolutely necessary.

EatingWell: Why do you think intuition is important when cooking and how do you get in touch with it?

Lawson: It's so important because I think that if you always think there's some other authority you have to check with to see if you're allowed to do something, that doesn't actually help you gain competence. Do what I do: repeat the same dish quite often. You'll get to have some sense that you understand what's going on. Cook for yourself and yourself alone.

What really hinders people is a fear of judgment. And so when you cook just for yourself, you're not frightened of that. Therefore, you're less stressed to start off with; your shoulders relax a bit so you can actually be present. Your mind is not endlessly jumping, nervously, to the finished dish and what people are going to say about it, which means you're not there. You have to make yourself in the present. No phone near you. You want your attention to be to the sound of the onions that are cooking and the smell of a lemon as you might grate it to flavor a dish, and the feeling of some dough on your fingers—whatever it is you're cooking. It makes it more enjoyable if you just let your intelligence leave your fizzing and popping brain a bit, but take up residence in your fingertips, your sense of smell and hearing, and really appreciate the beauty of all the ingredients. Give yourself something to cook, something to return to that is a recipe you really want to eat. It's that simple. That teaches you so much about cooking.

EatingWell: Where does developing a recipe start for you? What do you find challenging about it?

Lawson: I'm thinking about what I'm going to eat for lunch or dinner. And then sometimes that leads to a recipe and sometimes it doesn't. I might open my fridge, see what I've got—it's a very good force for creativity in the kitchen, apart from being satisfying in its own right. And then I don't write down anything as I'm doing it because I'm cooking my supper and it's hard to think spontaneously while taking notes. So, the minute I've eaten, if I carry on, then [I write].

The challenge is reproducing that the next time. It can then take me quite a lot of actual recipe testing and development in order to get back to what I cooked without paying an awful lot of attention to weights and measures. That's the greatest challenge, but I also find it so fascinating. I don't resent it, but sometimes I do resent myself for not having taken better notes. Sometimes I just can't get back to that first moment of deliciousness, but generally I can.

EatingWell: If you had to choose one recipe to cook on repeat, what is it?

Lawson: I've got a recipe so very much from the heart of my home, which I call "lasagna of love," and it's the lasagna I cook for all family occasions. While it's a recipe which a lot of people have cooked, it makes me so happy. As I say in the book, it's a labor of love, lasagna. It's not complicated, but to make a lasagna properly takes time. As evenings get darker, sometimes an afternoon pottering about in the kitchen, preparing a lasagna, is such an enjoyable thing to do. You should never do it when you're in a hurry.

EatingWell: Is there a dish that you love from the typical Thanksgiving fare in America?

Lawson: Your Thanksgiving meal is not enormously different from our Christmas meal. I find I love the tradition of pies that you have. There's something about that; just the word "pie." The idea of people coming together and bringing the pies that they might have grown up eating at their own table or their grandfather's table or their mother's table. That, to me, is what is so wonderful about the Thanksgiving meal. But, I pretty much adore every part of it.

EatingWell: Are there any food items you like to give as gifts during the holiday season?

Lawson: Well, if I have the time, I do like to give chutney. It's very much a holiday thing for us. You can give chutneys to people to keep for a while rather than having to eat it straightaway. I have a particular Christmas chutney I often make with quince and cranberries and lots of cinnamon. It's the sort of thing that adds a little bit of interest, suddenly, when you've been eating the same cold turkey for a while. It is a lovely present to make, and it's so simple. There's something wonderful about giving people your time and something delicious to eat. But I don't think the aim is to impress with something difficult.

EatingWell: Your book-tour stop in New York [was] billed as a conversation between you and Ina Garten. What makes her a good conversation partner?

Lawson: We come at food in a very similar way. We like to be transported by pleasure and just really enjoy the flavor of the food, and it's very much not restaurant food. I find her such a warm and lively person, and someone that you can have such a wonderful conversation with. I'm just interested to talk to someone who's got that uplifting sense of what food can give you in terms of pleasure and comfort—simply put, joy in life. I feel very strongly about that.

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