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Nigella Lawson On How To Find Peace While Cooking

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been the meals that have nearly done my head in during this pandemic lockdown, so, so, so many meals. Two eternally hungry teenage boys in our house, and honestly, it feels like we are still wiping down the counter and emptying the dishwasher from breakfast and lunch. And then, boom, it is time for dinner - to make dinner again, which is maybe why a new cookbook titled "Cook, Eat, Repeat" caught my eye. It counsels a new approach, an approach in which we focus on the joy - that is right, joy - of the repetition and ritual of making a nightly dinner. "Cook, Eat, Repeat" is by none other than Nigella Lawson. And she is on the line now from her kitchen in London.

Nigella Lawson, welcome.

NIGELLA LAWSON: Thank you so much. I could feel the strain in your voice as you said, joy.

KELLY: (Laughter) The tension just talking about it.

LAWSON: Yeah.

KELLY: So make the case for why I should have an attitude adjustment.

LAWSON: You can't be joyful all the time, but you can make life easier on yourself, I think. And sometimes that means thinking about cooking in a slightly different way. The first is somehow to let yourself ease into it. So if you think, oh, I can't bear to do this, and this is going to send me over the top, then everything is quite tense.

KELLY: Well, let me jump in. I want to follow on something you wrote in this book about that cooking is maybe the nearest you get to a meditative act because I have tried and failed at meditation. But you write that it's - it is the mindless repetition, the mundane actions that cooking consists of, that we shouldn't see that as tedious. We should see that, in a way, as the point, aside from the fact that we might have a lovely meal at the end, that that is an act of self-care, of decompression. I don't know. How do you think about it?

LAWSON: Yes, I think of it as decompression. I mean, the self-care is in the food for me, but yes, the cooking as well. So I think it's two things. I don't write complicated recipes. I'm not that kind of a cook. I mean, I'm a klutz in the kitchen, really. But - and it doesn't really matter when you're at home. It doesn't matter how long you take. But the thing that I think really is peaceful for me is the fact that you have to stop thinking and respond much more on the level of the senses, you know, pay attention to the feel of something or the smell as it cooks. And I think that's a very good way of short-circuiting the monkey mind.

KELLY: Well, let's dig in on your chapter on family dinners, which I should note is a chapter that was originally named something quite different. It was How To Invite People For Supper Without Hating Them Or Yourself. It was an ode to the dinner party, which, of course, has pretty much ceased to exist. And you open with a very simple recipe, about as basic as it gets - chicken in a pot. What do we do? How does it go?

LAWSON: The chicken in a pot is something I cook so often. So you put a bit of oil in a casserole - Dutch oven, I think you would call it - and put a chicken breast side down, so it's rather beautifully bronzed. Turn it the other way up. And then really, I use carrots and leeks chopped up if you wanted to use other vegetables, provided they weren't ones that cook in two seconds. And then I - lemon zest. I love a bit of dried tarragon, but you could use dried thyme, a few chili flakes, really quite lemony with juice and then water. And I put it in the oven.

And then I come down about half an hour before I want to eat. I put in some orzo pasta. And then that gets, you know, probably about 15 minutes. Then I take it out, and I let it stand for a while. So it's like the pasta absorbs that chicken-y lemon-y juice. And it's an all-in-one meal in a bowl. You know, you don't need anything else with it. And it's very comforting, and yet it's not bland in any way.

KELLY: But let me ask this. It is so easy these days to pick up a rotisserie chicken at my supermarket. It's still warm. It smells good. Why should we take the time to even, as simple a recipe as this, cook it from scratch?

LAWSON: I don't think there's a moral imperative. You know, I buy my clothes. I don't make them. I don't think, you know, one has to be doing everything oneself. I find there's something that's wonderful about those smells as they come out of the oven, the lemon and the chicken and the sweetness of the carrots and leeks. And there's something about that that somehow, you know, makes me really enjoy the prospect of the food that's going to come. And it gives a rhythm, the waiting for it, the looking forward to it. Now people have to do what they can cope with.

KELLY: You know, hearing you go through those ingredients there, I can hear the joy in your voice. Back to my original question about - is this - can this actually be fun? I think you're in the right line of work here because not only am I feeling very hungry now, but I feel happier than before we talked.

LAWSON: Oh, good. Well, I just think that, I mean, teenage boys often have to have two dinners a night. I mean, they do need to eat an awful lot.

KELLY: Yeah. I should confess here that with that in mind and myself in mind, my eye might have wandered from the vegetables and the chicken and all the good healthy stuff to the chocolate peanut butter cake. That looks so good. This is the go-to special occasion cake in your house?

LAWSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It's, you know, the family birthdays. It's quite a plain chocolate cake because it's got this incredible frosting on it. It's smooth peanut butter buttercream, but it has a slightly lighter mousse-y, voluminous and airy texture because after you've whipped the butter, peanut butter and powdered sugar together, you gradually add a bit of heavy cream. And you carry on beating. And it - even people who aren't mad on peanut butter seem to like it because what a lot of people don't like about peanut butter is that very thick texture, pasty texture. And, of course, by the time it's with the butter and the heavy cream, it's as light as anything. I mean, really, you could eat that from the bowl. It's so good.

KELLY: Last question. When you are on your own, what's your go-to when it's for one? So you don't want to spend hours and hours, but you want it to be something nice that lights up the kitchen, that makes...

LAWSON: What do you mean I don't want to spend hours and hours? I do very happily.

(LAUGHTER)

LAWSON: So I have a - this is my idea of an absolute treat. I do a fried chicken sandwich because, you know, deep frying is a real strain when you've got lots of people to do it for because you need a kind of alarming amount of oil. And it has to get very hot. But when you - you can do it in a small saucepan if you're just making yourself a fried chicken sandwich. And so that's one of my absolute treats. And I also - I've got a cream caramel like a flan, but the French style, for one, because then you make it, and you don't have all the panic about unmolding it in front of other people. It's just for you. And so I do think you can cook yourself lovely things. You can't treat it like, oh, it's not worth making an effort because I think that sends a bad message psychologically.

KELLY: That's a lovely way of thinking about it, the meditation and the joy of it and the producing a beautiful meal, whether it's for many or for one.

Nigella Lawson, thank you.

LAWSON: Oh, thank you.

KELLY: Speaking with us there from London about her latest book, "Cook, Eat, Repeat." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.