Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Nigella Lawson Dinner & Book Launch in Toronto

Given the opportunity to get up close and personal with Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson for a three-course dinner and launch of her new Italian cookbook Nigellissima: Easy Italian-Inspired Recipes, how could I resist? Sponsored by The Globe & Mail, Random House of Canada and The Spice Trader at Toronto's Arcadian Court, the evening was a sell-out event.

Seating was on a first-come, first-served basis, which meant that there was already 
a long queue an hour before the doors opened at 6:00pm

Nigellissima is the ninth and latest offering from the celebrated food writer, and takes inspiration from when she lived and worked in Florence for a year as a chambermaid at a family-run pensione to immerse herself in Italian culture, language and cuisine for a year, before starting a degree in mediæval and modern languages back in the UK. It was at this pensione in Florence that Nigella forged a relationship with the grandmother of the young owners — Nonna — and consequently spent more and more time in her kitchen. Nonna, happy of the company, would let Nigella watch as she cooked. "She taught me by example, and drew me in. I never wanted to be anywhere else."

Nigella's newest cookbook Nigellissima: Easy Italian-Inspired Recipes

The recipes in Nigellissima aren't from Nonna's kitchen, nor are they authentic Italian, but rather, they're how Nigella cooks Italian dishes at home. The cookbook is "a love letter to the pleasures of cooking and eating, the way the Italians do. With a nod to the traditional but in Nigella's signature style — food that is fresh, delicious and unpretentious."

The meal was a set three-course menu selected by Nigella from recipes in her new cookbook

The three-couse menu for An Evening with Nigella, was selected by Nigella Lawson from recipes in her new cookbook. Chef Michael Robertson, of Oliver & Bonacini, who run the catering arm of the newly renovated art deco Arcadian Room, was in charge of bringing her recipes to life, and in O&B fashion, he did a great job. Just before dinner was about to be served, Nigella Lawson joined the table just beside ours, seated beside Beppi Crosariol, The Globe and Mail's wine columnist, who would be interviewing her on-stage later in the evening. 

Comfortable seating and a bouquet of fresh flowers await the on-stage interview 
with Nigella and Beppi Crosariol, The Globe and Mail's wine columnist

Seated right next to our table was Nigella and Beppi!

Concilio Pinot Grigio was paired with Nigella's Roast Chicken

The menu started with Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil 'My Way' served with homemade Parmesan Shortbreads. The cherry tomatoes were halved and roasted to intensify their flavour. Served with some perfectly ripe Buffalo Mozzarella, a brilliant green fresh basil and olive oil purée and little Parmesan Shortbreads, the salad was light, bright and full of flavour. Even my husband, who doesn't eat raw tomato, finished this delicious caprese salad.

Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil 'My Way' served with Parmesan Shortbreads

The entrée was Nigella's Chicken with Tarragon Salsa Verde which was served with Roast Potatoes, and Broccolini with Parmesan and Lemon. Tarragon, as Nigella explains, is not often used in Italian cuisine, except perhaps in Tuscany, where it's quite dramatically called Dragoncello, and sometimes erba di Sienna, the herb of Sienna. It's chief appearance in that area is in salsa al dragoncello, where the herb is pounded with bread crumbs and garlic and then emulsified with olive oil to produce a fragrant sauce customarily served with plain boiled meats. Nigella made this recipe using organic corn-fed chicken breasts.

Chicken with Tarragon Salsa Verde, Roast Potatoes, and Broccolini 
with Parmesan & Lemon

The Olive Oil Chocolate Cake is outstanding. Although Nigella first came up with this recipe for a guest who couldn't eat wheat or dairy, it's so meltingly good, this dessert would be delicious whether ones diet is constrained or not. Made with almond meal, cocoa powder, vanilla, olive oil, eggs, baking soda and superfine sugar, this gorgeous little pud is perfect on it's own, but even more decadent with a scoop of coffee ice cream and a few berries for colour.

Nigella's Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

After dinner, Nigella took to the stage, looking rather gorgeous I must say. She has the most perfect porcelain skin, dark smouldering eyes and lulling voice all packed into a very tiny top-heavy frame. I was surprised just how small she actually was, nevertheless she managed to fill the room with the sheer weight of her engaging personality, keen intellect and wicked self-deprecating sense of humour — a delicious and intoxicating combination. Renowned for her relaxed and flirtatious manner, it becomes obvious that's just the way she is. Naturally charismatic and wholly captivating. 

"We're Jewish, which explains our love of food"

Although Beppi Crosariol did his best to guide the conversation on stage, it was Nigella's anecdotes and effusive story-telling that kept the momentum going. Working originally as a journalist, she freely admits that her first love is the written word. Lawson started work as a book reviewer and restaurant critic, later becoming the deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times. When her first husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she was quickly faced with being single Mom with young children and so decided to work from home. With no classical training, Nigella says that she's just a home cook, but says that's where she found her true 'writing voice' becoming a food writer. She shuns any sobriquet such as 'foodie' or 'celebrity chef', but laughs at being called the "Queen of food porn".

Dressed elegantly in black with bright red ankle-boots, Nigella resists any overtures by publishers to airbrush her tummy out. She says, "I'm greedy. I love food and I love to eat". 

Lawson is the daughter of Nigel Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Vanessa Salmon, whose family owned the J. Lyons & Co. empire, best known for their chain of English tea shops where busy shoppers could get a cup of tea and a snack or cheap and filling meal. The company was also a substantial food manufacturer producing bread, cakes, pies, tea, coffee and ice cream, so Nigella was immersed in food culture from an early age. 

"Everything in moderation - even moderation!"

When asked about launching Nigellissima in Italy earlier this year, she says the Italian press were very gracious. "Traditions are very meaningful to Italians, but as long as you're completely open and transparent about the recipes being inspired by her love of regional Italian dishes, they were very supportive. She says that writing the cookbook was rather like 'culinary glasnost.' 

"I'm an omnivore — I eat everything"

Nigella was asked what her favourite kitchen gadgets were: a standing mixer, immersion blender and mezzaluna. She also likes a small chopping board, because she's "lazy and doesn't want to clean up too much afterwards". What we might find in her refrigerator that might surprise us? Plastic wrapped sliced bacon and chocolate milk for the children. She also has a stash of good chocolate in the house, which she says her daughter will take a square or two and then put the rest back in the cupboard. In contrast, many of her daughter's young friends are always on a diet and see chocolate and sweets as the enemy. Nigella is quick to point out that "the culture of denial for dietary reasons is a dangerous path. Everything in moderation, even moderation." 

"Two ingredients I can't do without - Maldon salt and Colman's mustard. 
I even travel with them."

Any food that she dislikes? "I can't abide green peppers. I don't know know if there's any reason to eat them unless you're Hungarian." When asked about ingredients she can't do without — "Maldon salt and Colman's mustard. I even travel with them! Lemons too. Salt and lemons - two all important ingredients". Best meal she's ever eaten? "A restaurant in Saturnia, a spa town in Tuscany which has sulphur springs. The smell is absolutely atrocious. The restaurant isn't very pretty either, but they serve the most gorgeous suckling pig, which I adore. I'm happy it eating greedily any day, despite the smell!"

Nigella signing our book and captivated by my husband! 

After over an hour on stage, Nigella cocooned herself outside the Arcadian dining room with a big sharpie pen and began signing everyone's personal copy of Nigellissima. Looking completely relaxed and engaging with each person standing in line, Nigella's voluble nature and unquenchable zeal was inspiring. Suffering from the flu, I was far less eloquent and stood aside as she bantered flirtatiously with my husband. Fellow Brits, they sounded like 'two peas in a pod', or rather, due piselli in un baccello!

The end of a great evening!

Nigella's Chocolate Olive Oil Cake
Serves 8 to 12

1/2 cup boiling water
6 tbsp good quality unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup almond-meal flour or 3/4 plus 1 tbsp cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup superfine sugar
3 large eggs
2/3 cups olive oil, plus more for greasing

Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly coat a 9-inch springform pan with olive oil and line the bottom with parchment paper. Measure and sift the cocoa powder into a bowl or pitcher and whisk in the boiling water until you have a smooth chocolatey, still runny paste. Whisk in the vanilla, then set aside to cool a little. 

In another small bowl, combine the almond meal or flour with baking soda and a pinch of salt.

Combine sugar with eggs and olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Beat on high for about 3 minutes 
until the mixture is fluffy, pale yellow thickened cream. Turn the speed down a little and pour in the cocoa mixture, beating as you go, and when all is scraped in, you can slowly tip in the almond meal (or all-purpose flour) mixture. 

Scrape down and stir a little with a spatula, then pour this dark liquid batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the sides are set and the very centre and top still looks slightly damp. A cake tester should come out clean but with a few chocolate crumbs clinging to it. 

Let it cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, still in its pan, and then esae the sides of the cake with a small metal spatula and spring it out of the pan. Leave to cool completely or eat while still warm with ice cream, as a dessert.

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