Fifteen years since she doubled sales of goose fat after endorsing it in a roast potato recipe on TV – and two since she meecro-wah-vay-gate– Nigella Lawson has revealed her bid for this year’s Nigella effect. And, promisingly, it’s cost-of-living friendly.
The anointed product this time round is peanut butter, the key ingredient in her “dreamy creamy” peanut butter pasta, and part of a new series of budget-friendly recipes created by the queen of “food kitsch” with the delivery company Ocado.
The pasta dish – which, like all good art, has divided the nation – calls for De Cecco pasta, M&S smooth peanut butter, baby spinach and chilli flakes. Portioned up according to Lawson’s recipe, the cost should be just over £1 a serving. Other cheap recipes from the series call for a stir-fry zhooshed up with HP sauce and a couscous dish made with a tin of beans.
The real twist, though, is Lawson’s method, which proposes a more energy-efficient way to cook pasta by boiling the water, adding the pasta for just two minutes then turning off the gas, covering the pot with a tea towel and lid, and letting the pasta cook for a further eight minutes off the heat.
Recently recommended by the 74-year-old quantum theorist Giorgio Parisi, the method caused an outcry among Italians as a way to save money. Except that Lawson’s method was inspired by a technique outlined more than 30 years earlier, by her mentor, Anna del Conte, and written about in her 1991 book Entertaining all’Italiana.
The real questions remain: does this method work and is the pasta any good? Back in my amateur kitchen (all gas hobs, wooden spoons, and no inductions), I used the same pot Lawson uses in the Ocado demo video – the Our Place pot, a pastel-coloured bit of kit that promises to do it all, but which also costs the earth, coming in at an un-budget-friendly £140. Lawson, I’m told, prefers Le Creuset, but the pan works efficiently, is easy to clean and is far more lightweight.
The recipe is straightforward enough. Once the pasta has steamed itself, you drain the hot water over a colander of spinach, thus cooking the spinach without using an extra pot, while reserving some pasta water. Back in the still-hot pot you then mix the peanut butter and water into a paste. It takes time but eventually morphs into a glossy gloop. To this you add the pasta and spinach, chopped garlic, thyme and chilli flakes. A dash of lemon and paprika, and an energetic stir, and you’re good to go.
If many Italians supposedly took umbrage with the pasta steaming method, what do they make of the recipe on paper? “Speaking as an Italian, I think it’s time that pasta flavours and combinations are no longer gatekept and limited,” says Dara Klein, sous chef at Sager + Wilde Paradise Row, citing other globalised pasta dishes such as kimchi spaghetti in Korea or maccheroni made with yoghurt and ground meat in Turkey. Em Brightman, head chef at the Italian restaurant Murano London, says she preferred her peanut butter on toast, but that “if anyone can make it work, Nigella can”.
The dish is delicious and the recipe is logical – an Italian version of peanut sauce and noodles, in which the peanut butter provides a similar coating to the egg yolk in a carbonara. More importantly, if you’re content with al dente, the steaming method works, though after multiple al dente checks I let it sit for 10 minutes rather than eight.
Those least surprised by the recipe will be fans of Lawson’s most recent book, Cook, Eat, Repeat, which included a whole chapter dedicated to brown food. As Lawson says of her fondness for the ad-hoc: “I had to make the recipe work with whatever I had in the kitchen,” adding: “I am also not good at authority.”