I think it’s safe to say that Nigella Lawson is the prettiest lady I’ve ever seen. This week, my mother-in-law took me to the Chicago stop of Nigella’s book tour for her ninth (ninth??) cookbook, the Italian-inspired Nigellissima.
Honestly, I spent the first 20 minutes sitting there in a misty-eyed daze while she narrated bits of her life with that melodious British accent, from dinner parties gone wonderfully awry to stories about her rebellious great aunt (I wonder what rebellious means when applied to old British ladies) to favorite dishes that began as accidents, like custard streaked with baked rhubarb and cooked in a bain-marie. She offered lovely little observations like, “Some people get angry that I wear my hair down on my television show, but that’s how I cook when I’m in my home, and that’s how my mother cooked. I ate her hair all throughout my childhood and turned out just fine.”
Less than an hour later, after scribbling her signature in our cookbooks, posing for a few photos and answering some questions, she hurried out of there with her orange tote slung over her shoulder, onto the next stop in her book tour and the next group of admirers. It made me wonder what she would remember about her visit to Chicago, if anything–while the rest of us would talk about it for days and pore over her pretty book, proudly thinking we knew her just a little bit better than everybody else. We had personalized messages in our copies, after all:
For Maggie Love Nigella
But back to the book. It’s gorgeous and full of unpretentious, yet luxurious recipes–all interwoven with Nigella’s rich narratives. A former journalist, she does all her own writing, which makes her books as much about the stories as the food. I thought the title fit the contents of the book and much of what Nigella said during her brief appearance. “I never deny myself the chance to indulge,” she said. Although she’s trimmed down a lot these days, it really seems as though she embraces living to the fullissimest.
The very first recipe in the book is this heavenly, curly-cue pasta dish with a Sicilian pesto-like sauce of blitzed cherry tomatoes, capers, almonds, basil and golden raisins. I decided I had to make it immediately.
The dish comes together in the time it takes to cook the pasta, but the real showmanship comes from that sauce, which blends a unique combination of ingredients spanning the whole Mediterranean. Do I feel slightly ashamed of paying $6.99 for the fancy fusilli? Yes. But it really made the dish special.
Fusilli with Sicilian pesto
a la Nigella Lawson
1 box (just over 1 lb.) fusilli lunghi
8 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes
5-6 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons raisins (golden or regular)
2 tablespoons drained capers
1/3 cup skinned almonds
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 cup good-quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup basil, for garnish
Method: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it generously before adding the pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente.
While the pasta cooks, make the sauce by putting all the remaining ingredients, except the basil, into a food processor and blitzing until you have a sauce that looks like this:
Check the seasoning, and add salt and pepper as needed.
Drain the pasta, and reserve about 1/2 cup of the starchy cooking liquid. Add about half that to the food processor, pulsing as you go.
Spoon about half the sauce into a large bowl. Dump the pasta on top and add the remaining sauce on top. Toss until all the noodles are coated in sauce, adding a bit more cooking liquid as needed. To serve, heap into bowls or on large plates and toss several basil leaves over the top. Drizzle with olive oil.
Serves 3-4. This dish is delicious served warm, cold or at room temperature.