On day in 1992, the phone rang at Books for Cooks, the famous specialist bookshop in Notting Hill, London. She was answered by Clarissa Dickson Wright, then still a few years after finding fame as one of the fat ladies. The caller, who did not identify himself, wanted to know if he had copies of the new Real fast food by Nigel Slater. “And Clarissa just got me excited on the phone, told me it was a wonderful book,” Nigel says now. “That’s when I knew everything was going to be okay.”
It’s a delightful, familiar slice of Nigel’s understatement (don’t expect the formality of the reporter’s last names here; he’s both friend and colleague). Real fast food was not a main title for the Penguin books. It was published on such a tight budget that it has no photographs. And yet, it quickly became such a success that salespeople had to go to bookstores to restock bookstores from the copies they were carrying in the safe.
Almost three decades later, it remains in print, and with good reason. Some cookbooks provide insight into a specific culture. Others delve into a set of techniques and methods. And then there is Real fast food, who presented to the world a particular voice and sensibility; to an endlessly encouraging approach not to the brutal mechanics of cooking, but to the joys of eating well and living well. It’s full of good taste. Nigel’s good taste. Real fast food was always going to be included in this series. We just had to wait for the author to take a week off from his regular column. “It’s such a generous book,” says fellow food writer Nigella Lawson, “because it gives the reader an understanding of cooking. It explains which bits matter and which bits don’t. You could cook it for a lifetime.
In the early 90s, Nigel was working as a food stylist for commercial shoots. On the sidelines, he wrote what he describes as “expanded image caption recipes” for the newly launched magazine. Marie Claire. “They were more than that,” says Louise Haines, who became its editor at Penguin Books and who, three decades later, remains its editor. “I found myself cutting out all these recipes for my own use and suddenly thought it meant something. There were a lot of brilliant ideas. She wrote to him suggesting a book.” And I replied ,” said Nigel, “saying thank you, but I don’t think I could write a book.”
Haines persevered. They met for lunch and came up with a plan. “She wanted a book that would allow her to put food on the table from what was in her cupboards without a big store,” Nigel recalls. And so he set to work. We can now take for granted Nigel’s ability to write as if speaking to us and only to us. This voice was fully formed from the start. “As he sent me chapters, it was a pleasure to find that he was writing like an angel,” Haines says.
In the introduction, he advertises that it contains “no complicated procedures, no dithering with affected arrangements on oversized plates, and no stale garnishes”. It offers around 350 “recipes” that can be completed quickly, ideally in 30 minutes. I put that word in quotes because many of them are less detailed methods than ideas of what you could do by putting nice things in each other’s company.
It is organized by groups of ingredients – eggs, fish or pasta; meat, cheese or fruit – with suggestions under each. Some seem concerned. There is red mullet with fennel and Pernod. There’s the deliciously titled “green beans, poached eggs and fancy leaves” and the fabulously named rumbledethumps, a Scottish version of the colcannon. Corn Real fast food is also one of the finest collections of puffed sandwich suggestions ever published. If it can be eaten between two pieces of bread or slipped into a bap, Nigel is all for it.
Have a cold roast pork sandwich with pickled nuts and crackers. Or a fish stick sandwich. Or one filled with spicy tuna (lots of cayenne, paprika and garlic). His bacon sandwich “only comes into its own when you’re slightly drunk.” Instructions for a butty chip include the need for cheap white bread and that “the sandwich should be dripping with butter”. By the time you get to the banana sandwich – add bacon, mayonnaise and mango chutney – it reads less like a cookbook and more like a self-help manual urging you to live your best. life and suffer the consequences.
Spring restaurant’s chef Skye Gyngell is a huge fan. “He’s probably the food writer I admire the most,” she says. “He has this incredible gift for breathing life and intimacy into food.”
I’ve loved cooking through all the titles featured in this column so far, but it’s been a special joy to reach Real fast food; to have Nigel by my side and to know both that nothing would take me very long and that, because everything is so loose and free, I couldn’t mess anything up. I tossed pork chops in crushed black pepper, fried them in butter, and deglazed the pan with brandy, red wine, and chicken broth as directed. It was 30 minutes for impactful beauty. I mixed yogurt with spices to make a mock tandoori marinade for the chicken thighs and roasted them until they got intense and crusty. Thanks to his recipe for funghi ripieni, I discovered that life was not too short to stuff a mushroom, if this stuffing includes fried onions, garlic, salted anchovies and breadcrumbs. I filled a salad bowl with (frozen) raspberries, covered them with a layer of mascarpone and caster sugar and stuffed them under a very hot grill. This will be my new “am I not smart and wear it lightly” dinner dessert.
“I would hate to think of anyone slavishly following them,” Nigel says of his recipes, right from the start. And: “I must admit that I rarely measure anything.” Again, there are standards. He loves a white linen napkin and a simple white plate with a rim to keep the sauce on. And don’t even think about arranging a vase of flowers for the table with too much art. “Well, that’s exactly who I am, isn’t it?” he says. It is indeed. Real fast food led to a lot of things: a bunch of other books, TV shows, an international audience and, a year after publication, the offering of a column in this journal. But above all, it led to a lot of joy in cooking and eating.
Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater is published by Penguin. Buy it for £9.99 at guardianbookshop.com
Chef Carl Clarke’s accessorized fried chicken outfit, Chick ‘n’ Sours, has moved on to meal kits. They have a range of options. The general costs £50 and includes hot wings, kung pao wings, chicken fillets and their deliciously named seasoning mix, seaweed crack. There’s their famous watermelon salad with cilantro, mint and chill, their ginger and miso green cabbage salad and the bang bang cucumbers. You can also add their tangy cocktails. Orders are by the end of Sunday for nationwide delivery the following Friday, visit chicknsours.co.uk.
And a touch of normalcy, with news of restaurant openings. Mexican restaurant group El Pastor is taking over the site of what was Hix on Brewer Street in London’s Soho. The basement space, with its zinc bar, will be used for live events. Meanwhile, in Kent, the people behind the much-admired Fordwich Arms near Canterbury will open their second location. The nearby Bridge Arms is set to open on April 12, when outdoor hospitality is expected to begin.
An app called Cook my Grub, which hosts a marketplace for home-cooked meals, has launched a fundraiser so it can expand beyond its base in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Currently, they have 50 home cooks on their books, mostly of South Asian descent, who receive hygiene and allergy training as part of the membership fee. The plan is to hire another 250 home cooks and expand to 10 more UK cities over the next year. For more information, visit cookmygrub.com.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1