Nigella Lawson is every bit as warm and welcoming as one would expect her to be.
She was readying herself for the long-awaited tour that would bring her back to America, and to Pantages Theatre on Nov. 21, celebrating her most recent book, "Cook, Eat, Repeat." But to listen to her tell it, the tour is more about getting back to creating real human connections and taking in the expanse of our country and the open skies.
Most know Lawson as a guiding force in the kitchen, with television programs and cookbooks that dive into the pleasures of cooking for ourselves and others. Her career began in journalism working as a restaurant critic, book reviewer and eventually a columnist. In 1998, she published her first cookbook, "How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food." As she was writing the book, her first husband had been diagnosed with cancer and couldn't eat; Lawson's approach resonated with readers. Her next book, 2000's "How to Be a Domestic Goddess," solidified her as the person everyone wanted to invite into their kitchens.
Since then, she's been a frequent contributor and host on several TV series, as well as a writer who has always gently nudged trepidatious cooks onward in their culinary explorations.
In her latest book, she lingers in the essays, writing about the connections that tug or propel her through experiences and the food within those experiences. The idea for the book had come before the pandemic, but during lockdown Lawson was given a chance to delve into the words and re-examine what a cookbook can be to both the author and the reader.
For her Minneapolis appearance, rather than giving a typical interview on stage, she's invited another high-profile chef who, like Lawson, has been known to embrace a few well placed curse words: Ann Kim.
"Although we've never met, I feel we share a natural kinship in our overall cooking philosophy," said Kim, the James Beard Award winner and owner/chef of Pizzeria Lola, Young Joni, Hello Pizza and Sooki & Mimi. "It's less about technical mastery and more about cooking authentically from a place of love for those you love, imperfections and all. Knife skills be damned."
Before she packed her bags for America, we caught up with Lawson from her home in London to talk about her new book, how she fared during lockdown and why she loves Minnesota snow. Answers were edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was the genesis of your new book, "Cook, Eat, Repeat"?
A: In my whole family, it's about being around the table. Writing the book was so much a celebration of that. It was so fun to experience and do it through the lens of the time [during lockdown]. Everyone always presumes the title is [in reference] to the lockdown, because everyone felt that's all they were doing: Cook. Eat. Repeat.
The book was actually a pre-pandemic project.
Q: Rather than just being a collection of recipes, the book also reads like a collection of essays.
A: I think I wrote about this, but the recipes have to take root in the imagination. If you love food, there's something so pleasurable about extending all the joy in it.
Pleasure in cooking isn't only the eating. There is that, and then afterwards, thinking back like "Oh, that was so delicious," but also thinking, "Oh, I can use that bit of leftover chicken and just chop it up and maybe quickly do a pilaf with that." So you're always going on in the background.
And I love that a lot of people do that, as well.
It's my job to make people understand what a recipe is before they start. I want to give a very clear application of flavors: what something looks like in the pan at that stage. How it feels under your fingers if you're making a dough — so that you're not being made to plunge into an icy pool. You started walking in and getting accustomed to the water. So many of the intros read kind of like setting a mood or the way you'd set a table.
Q: Tell me about going from this very solitary writing and cooking and photographing to coming to a theater in Minneapolis.
A: I'm really excited about that.
I loved [writing this book] because it kept me feeling I was connecting with people. It reminded me of meals eaten with friends in the past. And, to be honest, the words were excellent company.
All the same, you can only fuel yourself on remembered contact for so long. So, the idea of being in a theater, having this wonderful collective experience talking about food together and answering the audience questions. The whole second part of the evening when we're answering questions can really come alive.
In contemporary life so many of us live our lives on screens. And somehow being among the messy bustle of people, I find really quite thrilling.
There's a genuineness about the evening because it evolves depending on the actual people there on that evening. Discussions can get very deep and emotional because food is perhaps one of the best languages for our emotional memories and experiences. It can be done bracingly practical or whimsical.
Q: I had read that the reason why you're so opposed to people filming these conversations is that sometimes, because you so publicly dealt with grief, very raw conversations can come from that.
A: There is something about words that are spoken in that moment, not meant to be consumed by people who aren't in that moment. I mean, I have nothing against it when people do want to film, but I do know that sometimes those very special evenings are because of that feeling of unvarnished contact and connection.
Q: In your book you mention that a section meant to be dedicated to holiday tips and tricks had to be completely rethought because of the pandemic. Are there any entertaining rituals that you're looking forward to re-embracing?
A: Well, I mean, I don't know what you call them. What do you call what I call fairy lights?
Q: Bistro lights? Twinkle lights?
A: OK, twinkling lights. It's getting all the tea lights and the little candles and getting that all ready, and above all this feeling. Come and share a meal. I have a dish that I think would be perfect for Thanksgiving, which is the colcannon with brown butter.
Cabbage and scallions and then a lot of brown butter. That is holiday. It's a treat, but it's cozy at the same time, which is what the holidays should be.
Q: Perfect. Well, that's hopefully what Minneapolis will be when you're here, all dressed up for our most famous season.
A: I'll bring my little booties so I can walk around. It was very snowy last time I was there, and so beautiful. I love that.
I missed the big American skies. I love the amount of horizon there. I want to eat things that I haven't eaten for a while. Things I've never eaten. I can't wait.
It will be good to have fun new adventures.
If you go
What: An Evening With Nigella Lawson, with conversation moderated by chef Ann Kim.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 21.
Where: Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $39.50-$75; hennepintheatretrust.org
Chicken in a Pot with Lemon and Orzo
Serves 4 to 6.
From "Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories by Nigella Lawson" (Ecco, 2021).
• 1 (about 3 1/2 lb.) chicken
• 3 large cloves garlic
• 2 medium carrots (about 10 oz.)
• 2 medium leeks (about 14 oz.), white parts only
• 1 tbsp. olive oil
• 2 lemons
• 2 tsp. dried tarragon (or dried thyme)
• 2 tsp. flaky sea salt or kosher salt
• 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, optional
• 6 c. cold water
• 1 1/2 c. orzo pasta
• 1/3 c. finely chopped Italian parsley, plus more to serve
• Freshly grated Parmesan, to serve
Untruss the chicken, if it comes trussed, and remove all the string. If time allows, let it stand for 40 minutes or so to let the chill come off it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Peel the garlic cloves, and peel and cut the carrots into three lengths across, and then into sticks. Wash the leeks to remove any mud, if needed, and cut into approx. 1-inch rounds.
Heat the oil in a large heavy-based Dutch oven with a tightly fitting lid. (I use an enameled 12-inch cast-iron oval Dutch oven; the chicken fits neatly with a small space to fit the vegetables.) Place the chicken in the hot oil breast-side down to color the skin; I do this over high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the skin is richly golden. Then turn the chicken the right way up.
Take the pan off the heat and, aiming for the space around the chicken, finely grate in the zest from the 2 lemons, then grate or mince in the garlic, add the dried tarragon (or thyme) and give a quick stir into the oil as best you can.
Scatter the vegetables around the chicken, followed by the salt and red pepper flakes (if using), and squeeze in the juice from the zested lemons.
Pour in the cold water, covering all but the very top of the breast, and put back on high heat. Bring the pot to a boil; once it's bubbling, cover and carefully transfer to the oven to cook for 1 1/4 hours, though check to make sure the chicken is all but cooked through and the carrots soft.
Take the pot out of the oven, and add the orzo all around the chicken, pushing it under the liquid, giving something as approximating a stir as you can manage in the restricted space. Put the lid back on, and return the pot to the oven for another 15 minutes, or until orzo is soft and swollen.
Let the Dutch oven stand, uncovered, out of the oven for 15 minutes before serving. The orzo will continue to soak up the broth as it stands.
While you're waiting, chop the parsley. Stir in 1/4 cup, and then sprinkle over a little more. You could shred the chicken now, but it looks so wonderful in its pot I like to bring it to the table whole.
Place a dish by the Dutch oven, and then pull the chicken gently apart with a couple of forks, removing any bones and skin that come loose to the dish. I find it easiest to do this while the chicken's still in the pot but, if you prefer, you can try and remove it to a cutting board; go carefully as it's likely to fall to pieces a bit as you do so. Stir the chicken and orzo again and ladle into bowls, sprinkling with parsley as you go. Serve with grated Parmesan; I prefer it without, but there is a strong pro-Parmesan contingent in my house.