"At My Table" is simply about cooking, eating and connections.
At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking
$35 (hard cover)
One of the things I love about Nigella Lawson cookbooks is their honesty. First, I love her uncomplicated recipes that always work, but second, I love her honesty.
She likes what she likes, with no apology. Even kitschy things. She isn’t concerned with what food is in or out of favor, as long as she likes the way it tastes.
And how can you not be intrigued by an author who quotes food writer M.F.K. Fisher, science/science fiction writer Mary Roach and existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in the introduction? Not in a preachy, I’m-so-much-more-educated-than-you way, but in a this-is-the-way-my-mind-flows way. I find it endearing and slightly inspirational, making me think about looking into their writings.
In her newest cookbook, “At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking” (if you don’t have them all, I’d recommend finding the rest), Lawson continues her telling of stories from the kitchen and around the table.
In Roach’s book, “Packing for Mars,” even in space, the astronauts wanted to sit around a table “and eat like humans.” Gathering around the table is essential to Lawson, no matter where that table might be.
In the introduction, Lawson explains that this book doesn’t really have a theme and not much structure. There are no chapters or categories. It’s simply about cooking and eating and the connections we make around the table.
Her portions, as she writes, are always generous. She is quite certain she has “never knowingly undercatered.” That means always preparing more than enough, or what Southern cookbook author, chef and teacher Nathalie Dupree calls, “a gracious plenty.”
Lawson finishes her introduction by saying, “I always err on the side of generosity, believing that, whether in the kitchen or out of it, this is a happier way to be.” That philosophy of generosity is woven into every story and recipe.
The introduction to Lawson’s recipe for a chicken breast with lime and cilantro made me laugh. I’m not one for chicken breasts because they’re often dry and tasteless. Lawson agrees. Chicken breasts are not a source of delight to her, but she brightens them with a lime and garlic marinade. The real bonus is the chicken skin, cooked until crispy while the breasts marinate.
The crisp skin is crumbled over iceberg lettuce (don’t get her going on salad snobs) that goes beside the breast alongside a “splodge” of mashed avocado. Doesn’t splodge exactly describe a thick spoonful of avocado that you have to shake off the spoon?
She explains how to cook the chicken skin and dress the salad in the recipe introduction, which I’ve included in the instructions. She lists her ingredients by name first, then amount, in red in the book. Unusually, make ahead and storage notes aren’t listed with the recipe but are in a section in back right before the index. Lawson notes that if there is no mention of freezing the dish, it means you shouldn’t do it.
For this recipe, the note says you can marinate the chicken for up to 6 hours. Leftovers can be kept refrigerated for up to 3 days. This dish would be easy to cut in half for one or to multiply for a crowd. Remember those astronauts quoted by Mary Roach and plan on lingering around the table.
Lime and Cilantro Chicken
2 chicken breast fillets (about 6 ounces each), preferably skin on
1 lime, finely grated zest and juice
1/4 cup regular olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons for frying
1/2 teaspoon sea salt flakes or kosher salt
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons cilantro finely chopped
Crushed red pepper flakes
Remove the skin from the chicken and set this aside for now.
Cover a cutting board with plastic wrap, though do not cut off the piece from the roll quite yet, and sit the chicken breasts on top, with space between them, then cover with more plastic wrap and tear off from the roll. Using a rolling pin, press down on the meatier parts of the fillets, rolling them out a little, until each chicken breast is, as much as possible, of even thickness, though it’s always going to be a little thinner at the tip. The idea is not to bash the chicken until it’s a limp rag.
Put the lime zest in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and set aside. Unwrap and transfer the chicken breasts to a resealable plastic bag, then add the lime juice along with the oil, salt and garlic. Seal the bag well, give it a bit of a squidge to help it coat the chicken, and leave to marinate, out of the fridge, for 15 minutes. While the chicken is marinating, you can be frying the chicken skins.
Fry the skins in a little oil for about 5 minutes on each side, pressing down on it regularly, until it’s dark gold, has rendered its fat and is crisping up. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels; it will become completely crisp as it cools.
When the time’s up on the marinade, heat the 2 teaspoons of oil in a heavy-based frying pan. Take the chicken out of the bag and shake off the marinade before frying over a medium-high heat for 2 minutes each side, then turn again and give an extra minute on each side, so that the chicken is bronzed on the outside and cooked through. Remove to a couple of waiting plates.
Mix the lime zest and chopped cilantro together and sprinkle on top. Serve, ideally, with the (lightly dressed) iceberg lettuce and (crumbled shards of) chicken crackling and a splodge of avocado mashed with salt and red pepper flakes.