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The Kitchen Diaries

(article, Christina Eng)

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Maybe it’s what he tends to cook. Keeping it simple, Nigel Slater likes to prepare comfort foods such as roast chicken and mashed potatoes, salad greens and pastas — satisfying dishes I could easily make in my own home. 

Maybe it’s where he lives and shops. A longtime London resident, Slater buys oysters from a fishmonger on Marylebone High Street, for instance, and hummus from a Middle Eastern grocery just off Edgeware Road — streets I am slightly familiar with, having wandered through the capital city eons ago. He gets cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy and pheasant from Borough Market, places I have yet to visit but have heard so much about over the years.


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Whatever the reason, I find The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater infinitely fascinating. A collection of notes, taste memories, and recipes, the volume recalls countless meals the British cookbook author and popular newspaper columnist shares with friends and family over the course of 12 months. It details ingredients he gets fresh from the market nearly every day, herbs and veggies he gathers from a small but thriving backyard garden, and items he likes most to eat.

As he does in Toast, his 2005 award-winning memoir, Slater serves up an evocative and truthful read in The Kitchen Diaries. He pulls us into his culinary world by creating the appropriate mood; the melancholy of a chilly winter afternoon, for example, or the sweet, quiet joy of a glorious summer evening.  

From January 30:

bq.The air is again clear and cold, and there are paper-white narcissi in a bowl on the table, filling the kitchen with their gentle, vanilla smell. Winter at its purest. This is the sort of day on which I like to bake — a cake, a pie, a tart perhaps . . . I decide on a lime custard tart . . . The lime zest cuts through the cool air. The warm smell of baking pastry wafts into the rest of the house. Heaven . . .

Slater works seasonally, taking advantage of things available to him at a particular moment. When strawberries, “sweet, deeply flavored and red right through,” appear at his local farmers’ market, he uses them to make a strawberry mascarpone tart, and strawberry sorbet a few days later. When small fava beans grow abundantly in his back yard, “ripening as you look at them,” he boils them gently in their pods with chopped fresh dill, and incorporates a second batch into a pasta dish a few days later. 

[%image promo-image float=right width=400 caption="Slater eats fresh favas straight from his back yard." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/AtWaG"]

These and other items get documented in color photographs as well, taken before Slater and his guests sit at the table. The images look lovely, artful, and appetizing; they’re stylized, of course, but not artificially or excessively. What we see is essentially what they eat, a testament again to the book’s authenticity.

There are occasions, however, when Slater — like many of us — does not want to cook at all. There are evenings, understandably, when he does not have the energy or the motivation. Then, he resorts to refrigerated leftovers, to true British fast foods like toast and beans, or to take-out sushi, the way you and I might sometimes pour ourselves a bowl of cereal and call it a night.

From June 23:

bq.Five people turn up for a meeting that ends up dragging on later than anyone expected. They keep looking longingly at the oven, hoping I will suddenly produce a meal out of nothing. In truth, I’m tired and I cannot wait for them to go, and so offer them the only thing I have around — sardines on toast . . .


From February 11:

bq.Dinner is a couple of cans of Heinz baked beans, tarted up with finely chopped chili peppers, several shakes of Tabasco and mushroom ketchup, and a tablespoon of black molasses. It will do.

Whether grilling lamb chops, for instance, on a slow August evening for a party of four, or bringing together odds and ends for an impromptu supper for one, Slater writes poetically of eating. “Right food, right place, right time,” he declares from the start. “It is my belief — and the point of this book — that this is the best recipe of all.”

By jotting down all that he cooks — or doesn’t cook, as the case might be — from one week to the next, from one month to the next, he offers a look behind the scenes at his changing repertoire. In The Kitchen Diaries, he provides insight and inspiration.

p(bio). [ "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California.

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