Real Fast Food
by Nigel Slater
1996. 319 pages, 350 recipes.
-Pasta with Bleu Cheese
-Pasta with Butter and Herbs
-Cabbage with Orange and Sesame
If I were to put a sound track to NIgel Slater's Real Fast Food it would be the soft rat-tat-tat of a knife cutting an onion or a carrot on a worn wooden cutting board, the raspy humming of an old fridge, the sound of music (Bach? Billie Holiday?), and someone absentmindedly singing along a few bars now and then. What I don't hear is the 6 p.m. din of bickering kids, snappish grown-ups, and the beeping of microwaves. This isn't meant to be the kind of fast-food cookbook where expediency is the primary goal; Slater characterizes that sort of cooking as "at its worse,... the '101 Ways with Condensed Mushroom Soup' school of cooking..." Not that Slater has anything against mushrooms- as long as they're fresh ones (or dried porcini). "Mushrooms are perfect for the cook in a hurry. They cook quickly...and have a satisfying meatiness about them." I found his Mushrooms on Crostini was a good case in point. But I had mine over pasta rather than toast. (I'm sure he wouldn't be offended by my permutation; since he writes, "I should hate to think of anyone following the recipes slavishly.")
This may be fast food, but it's not rushed food. It's unpretentious "everyday food" that can be fixed quickly, then savored slowly. (Most dishes can be ready in roughly half an hour.) For example, he offers a plain omelet, then follows with an inspired list of "Good things to Put in an Omelet" like sorrel leaves softened in butter or goat cheese with a few sprigs of chopped fresh thyme. He transports the Ham Sandwich from mediocrity to sublimity by making it with good ham and good bread, then offers possible fillips such as sautéed radicchio or tapenade. His Pasta with Hot Butter and Herbs is as elegant as a haiku.
Not much here would impress the Food Elitists of the world. In fact, Slater is Everyman (albeit with a finely tuned palate). Rhapsodizing about mashed potatoes he acknowledges that in the food world you don't get "...any brownie points for admitting you are happier eating a plate of mashed potatoes than some boy-or girl-wonder's latest gastronomic creation." Slater, almost unknown here, is a one of the leading lights in cooking in the UK. (Since I've been subscribing to the British food magazine, Food Illustrated, I've discovered all these wonderful British food writers.)
This book is particularly useful when it's dinner time and the cupboard is just about bare. I think Slater relishes the challenge of creating something from nothing. "Many a mini feast has been made from the pathetic leftovers lurking in the refrigerator." Lots of the book's dishes are made with the kind of ingredients likely to be "lurking" in your kitchen; his Pan-Fried Apple and Cheese Salad is an unusual and delicious way to combine these humble ingredients. A less successful combination was the Artichoke with Peas. My one problem with the book is that some of the recipes seem too everyday to warrant a place in a cookbook. Certainly some of the dishes are "dressy" enough for a dinner party such as the Chicken with Oranges and Olives, which Slater describes as one of his favorites in the book, and it's now one of mine too.
Most cookbook recipes serve four or more. Slater bucks the "serves four" tradition: most of his recipes are for two, many for one. I'm sure that "serves two" cookbooks are the wave of the future since the millennial household, according to census studies, is more likely to contain one or two humans and their cat than the Brady Bunch and their dog.
With Real Fast Food I feel I can slow down and enjoy simple meal without making a big deal about it.