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In Dining

We caught up with Nigella Lawson while she was in Milwaukee to promote her new book "Nigellissima." (PHOTO: Hugo Burnand)

A conversation with Nigella Lawson

(page 2)

OMC: And now you've created "Nigellissima," a collection of Italian-inspired recipes. Talk to me about your connection to Italian food.

NL: Well, as you know, I've written about Italy in all of my books. I went to live in Italy during my gap year, the year off between high school and university.

I read foreign languages. I wanted to learn Italian. I wanted to be Italian. I learned to speak Italian. I also learned to shop like an Italian, and then to cook like an Italian.

Now, the food in this book is not traditional or necessarily Italian-Italian food. It's my take on Italian food, not in the least because I have written every single traditional Italian recipe I know in all my other books. Some of them are very traditional, but others are my twists on Italian food.

It's more trying to think about what is it about Italian food that everyone loves? I mean, you'll find Italian food in every country in the world.

And this is where it chimes with my own particular feelings about food. Whereas French food is all about the great chefs and the restaurants, for Italians, even Italian chefs, the truth of Italian cooking is in the home kitchen. And on the home cook.

OMC: It's with the Nonna.

NL: It really is. And it's not about fancy techniques. It's about respecting the ingredients for what they are. And, as a person with no fancy techniques, obviously I warm to that.

OMC: You've more or less covered the authenticity bit of the cookbook. That's a sort of buzzword, and people think you can compartmentalize cuisine.

NL: No you can't – any more than you can compartmentalize language. And look where that's gotten the French. The French have rigid rules about cooking and rigid rules about language. It's not been that helpful to them.

I mean, look, I think tradition should be respected. But, you can respect tradition – not mess with it – but at the same time let food and cooking evolve just like language does.

The Italians are cooking muffins nonstop now. You know, the modern world exists. They've got internet and cable TV. It doesn't mean to say they will ever mess with one of their traditional recipes, but they've incorporated Anglo-American baking. They all make a crumble, muffins. They're absolutely crazy for cheesecake.

It's not a question of blotting out the past, but it's about owning up to living in the present. And I feel that when people say "authentic," what they really mean is "theme park."

If I were to pretend to be Italian, much as I'd like to, I'd be being fake. I can only be authentic by saying that I'm an English woman who loves Italian food, who lived in Italy for a while and goes back every year. And yet I have to be true to my cultural roots, as well.

OMC: What's your favorite part of pulling together a new book?

NL: I love all of it. I love when I'm puttering about in the kitchen. I love writing, but I hate the period just before writing. As a journalist, you'll have some sympathy with that. You know, I think the pleasure of writing is a pleasure pain thing – like pouring candle wax onto the palm of your hand.

What I really adore – and I didn't really know this because writing is quite solitary – I like the making of a book. We photograph it at home. It encourages me to use skills I didn't know I had. And I'm incredibly involved.

I always work with the same designer, and I said to her, "let's go charcoal on the typeface. And let's make it so the only color is the food, so the color of the food really shows … grey and white and black props." I wanted it to have the Italian chic with the black and grey, but also the Italian warmth they manage to combine with it in terms of the food. It's always a joke. I use my dresses as tablecloths when we're shooting at home. It's all personal.

OMC: Do you refine and write all the recipes yourself?

NL: Yes, I do everything. I cook the recipes. There's no food stylist. And I test everything three times. I send anything baking out to an extra person as well, as I have a gas-fired oven and I like to try it out on an electric oven as well to be fair. I write everything. And I really adore that.

I was someone who hated school projects, but the making of the book for me, is a real joy.

OMC: Speaking of books, you've mentioned you have a collection of 5,000 cookbooks.

NL: Yes, just about. Around 5,000.

OMC: What are some of your favorites?

NL: There's an Australian book which I feel should be available here. I looked it up and it's only available second-hand for a ludicrous amount of money. "The Cook's Companion" by Stephanie Alexander. The difficulty is, it isn't illustrated; I don't think booksellers like to sell cooking books without pictures anymore. But, if you like food and you like reading, you can get the idea of the recipe. I love that.

I like Mario Batali's book – "Simple Italian Food: Recipes From My Two Villages." It's exactly … Italian food and American food and how they're fused. And that is authentic. So, I love that.

I like Ottolenghi's books. Have you seen his new book "Jerusalem"?

OMC: No, I haven't had a chance to look through it yet. But, I've heard great things.

It's beautiful, and very interesting about culture because he's talking about the food from Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Christians...

I like books with funny titles. I've got the Liberace cookbook, which I'm very very fond of. I've got a book called "Can You Feel the Heat," which is from the World Wrestling Federation. And I like going on to America and getting those spiral bound cookbooks, parish cookbooks. I like seeing what people really cook, not just what chefs cook in restaurants.

OMC: You've mentioned that you occasionally develop "culinary crushes"? Do you have any going on at the moment?

NL: Well, it's very hard to resist either Tony Bordain or Ludo Lefebvre. But, in terms of most of my culinary crushes, I'm afraid today they are not on people but on food.

So, Marsala always. Marsala is permanent. Pomegranate seeds. Chopped pistachios. Dill is a very very under-used herb. The world has separated those who hate and who love that and need that flavor. I'm a licorice lover, whereas for some people that's their idea of a taste of hell.

Are you pro-licorice? Or anti?

OMC: I am pro-licorice.

NL: Well, you must indeed make the licorice pudding from "Nigellissima." It'll take you about two seconds.

OMC: OK, I will. That sounds good.

NL: I have to stop myself from putting coffee in everything. I love coffee. Although I like chocolate … a bar of chocolate. But, when I'm in a restaurant, the desserts that always grab me have either coffee or lemon in them. I think I like bitterness, and when you balance it with sweetness. That's what food is all about.

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