Arts & Culture
5:23 pm
Mon May 20, 2013

Nigella Lawson's Italian Romance: New Cookbook Flirts with Traditional Recipes

Nigella Lawson may be a household name, bestselling author and TV show host, but she describes herself quite simply as "a food enthusiast."

Nigella Lawson's newest book explores the home cook's approach to Italian food.
Nigella Lawson's newest book explores the home cook's approach to Italian food.
Credit TLC

While you will see Nigella Lawson prepping food on several successful television shows on the Food, E!, and Style networks, she will tell you quite emphatically that she is not a chef.

Rather, she is a cook. And that word choice is crucial in describing Lawson’s approach to food.

Lawson's newest cookbook, Nigellissima: Easy Italian-inspired Recipes, is the latest in her efforts to convince home cooks that all they need to create delicious meals is a little knowledge and a love of cooking – and eating.

“Italian cooking - its heart, its soul, everything - resides in the home kitchen and the home cook," she says. "And I’m not a chef, so for me Italian food is very much my kind of food and I think that is why Italian cooking is so popular throughout the whole world.”

Nigellissima is as the title says: inspired by traditional Italian recipes, but updated with Lawson’s distinctive twists.

La dolce vita

Lawson says her love affair with Italy began as a teenager. She may have been inspired by watching Italian movies while growing up in England, seeing the beautiful, voluptuous women who were not blonde and skinny. But she really fell in love with the Italian language as she studied to be a linguist in school. Food just cemented her affection.

While studying at Oxford, she spent a semester abroad in Italy. She worked as a chambermaid in Florence, and while it didn't earn her much money, it did teach her how to shop smart and cook smart. Through those strategies, she learned about “the values of simplicity and what ingredients she could afford.”

“That’s where I really learned about Italian cooking,” Lawson says.

It helped, too, that the household's Nonna, or grandmother, befriended her. Although chambermaids were not allowed down in the kitchen, Nonna snuck her down there to show her how to cook and to learn Italian, teaching her how to “speak like a green grocer” with a Florentine dialect.

International appeal

Best-selling cookbook author and TV personality Nigella Lawson does the washing up in WUWM's kitchen.
Best-selling cookbook author and TV personality Nigella Lawson does the washing up in WUWM's kitchen.
Credit Mitch Teich

It seems as if Lawson's love for all things Italian is returned. Lawson says she is especially honored that an Italian publisher has translated and published her book in Italy. She is grateful for Italians who want to buy this book of Italian-inspired recipes that was created and compiled by an outsider.

“I was worried about when I went to Italy that they would all beat me on the head by their skillets because I wrote recipes that weren’t purely Italian," she says.

Lawson says writing from an outsider's perspective actually worked to her advantage. Italians are steeped in their traditions, which can be wonderful - but also restricting. Lawson hopes her recipes offer a little freedom from tradition.

"The Italians have that more relaxed attitude with cooking. But it isn’t just that they are relaxed, but they are incredibly formal in that their traditions are their traditions and they are fiercely regional."

Italians also tend to have fewer traditional baking recipes. That's because historically speaking, Italians only put ovens in their kitchens recently, compared to the rest of Europe because of their late start in industrialization. Lawson hopes she can add to the Italian baking tradition.

Lawson emphasizes that her recipes are based on Italian recipes, not Italian-American iterations of those foods. Italian-American cooking has its own tradition, Lawson says. Through immigration in the 19th century, Italians brought their recipes and generations evolved those recipes into what many Americans enjoy today. Still, Italian-Americans will recognize the Italian roots in these recipes.

French v. Italian Cooking

Lawson selected recipes for the new book using two criteria: she hadn’t published the recipe before and she had made it at least three times for her own family and they enjoyed it. Like the Italian emphasis on family and kitchens, her family was a big decider on what was to be included.

In experimenting with these recipes, Lawson found a distinct difference between the Italian style of cooking and other approaches. For example, French cooking emphasizes the precise details and the prestigious chefs in the restaurants. Italian cooking is more about the simple flavors and cooking it at home.

Nigella Lawson is the author of eight internationally best selling cookbooks, and was in Milwaukee last month for a book signing event.

(edited by Stephanie Lecci)