Just because food writer Nigella Lawson loves to cook, doesn't mean she always has the time to cook.
"I'd love to spend hours in the kitchen," she tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, but like many of us, she finds herself rushed at mealtime. "And I don't want to eat less well just because I've got less time at my disposal," she says.
Lawson's latest cookbook, Nigella Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home, includes a chapter titled Hurry Up! I'm Hungry, and is filled with quick, homey recipes for quality meals.
Not only can Lawson easily think of meals she can have on the table in under a half-hour — she says many of these recipes are truly 15-minute undertakings.
Lawson's Scallops With Thai-Scented Pea Puree is one of those quick and easy recipes. The secret? Frozen peas, Lawson says — "the sort that you might put on your knee if you were to hurt it playing football."
The recipe is one of humble origins: "At fish-and-chip shops in England we have something called mushy peas," Lawson explains, "which I'm afraid is far too low-brow for NPR, but there you go. It's like a pea puree, but not a pea puree that you would get in a swanky restaurant — it's still got kind of nubbly bits and rough bits to the texture."
To give the puree flavor, Lawson cooks the peas, and then puts them in a blender with sour cream and Thai green curry paste. "I always have it at hand," she explains, "because it lasts for ages."
After preparing the puree, Lawson cooks the scallops in a thin coat of oil and butter. The trick, she says, is to let them become golden in the pan without stir-frying them — scallops are sweet, and will develop a thin caramelized crust if left to their own devices. A friend of all chefs pressed for time, scallops only take about two minutes per side to cook properly.
"Very tenderly turn them after two minutes," Lawson instructs. "Once I finish cooking the scallops, I plate them up, and then I squeeze lime juice into the pan. The scallopy juices and the butter together with the lime juice form a really rather fantastically light tangy sauce."
Lawson's speedy approach to scallops also eliminates a trip to the supermarket — frozen peas and Thai curry paste are ingredients that Lawson usually has around the house anyway, and someone else making the recipe could substitute the curry paste with favorite flavors of their own.
"The important thing to remember I think is that cooking is about balance," Lawson advises. "The scallops are sweet and peas are sweet, so you need to provide some counterpoint to that."
'When I Feel Too Frail To Peel A Clove Of Garlic'
Lawson's recipe for Tarragon Chicken also makes use of ingredients that she tends to have around the kitchen.
"This is my quick version of a traditional French recipe which takes hours," Lawson admits. "And all I do is put a little garlic flavored oil — which I always, always keep in the house for those times when I feel too frail to peel a clove of garlic. And there are such times."
Before cooking the chicken breast, Lawson sautes some spring onions or scallions with a bit of dried tarragon for about a minute — "just to flavor the oil really more than anything else," she says. She then briefly cooks the chicken in the sauce for about 5 minutes on each side, leaving the breast slightly scorched. Dab on some dry white vermouth and bit of salt, and then put a lid on the pan for 10 minutes, allowing the chicken breast to simmer gently in its sauce while remaining tender.
The moment the chicken breast is ready, take it out of the pan, and bring the "chickeny, vermouthy, tarragony juices" left behind to a boil.
"Add a teeny bit of heavy cream, and then a bit of fresh tarragon, and pour that over the chicken," says Lawson. "And it is so soothing ... Normally, comforting food tends to be heavy, [but this chicken] is sort of a contradiction in all ways — it's light but it's slightly rich, and it is delicate and yet comforting."
Just Open Some Cans
In addition to frozen peas and shortcuts on classic French recipes, Lawson doesn't shy away from your standard canned goods. Her Chorizo And Chickpea Soup makes use of canned cherry tomatoes.
"It's entirely a store cupboard standby for me," she says.
It all comes down to the right sausage — in this case, chorizo, a deep orange sausage that is heavily flavored with paprika. Lawson cuts it into coins, then cuts the coins in half. "I want people to just be able to spoon it into their mouths," she explains.
Lawson throws the chopped sausage into a pan without oil in it, then douses it lightly with sherry, which sizzles and then bubbles away. She tosses in chickpeas and some canned cherry tomatoes. Dried apricots add some extra zing.
"I like that slightly tart fruity flavor with the rich heat of the sausages," Lawson says. "I just slip them in. I frankly, I just hold them above the pan and use a pair of kitchen scissors."
Because the sausage and canned tomatoes have already been cooked, the stew takes a grand total of 5 minutes to heat up.
"Then it's done," says Lawson. "Really, what have I done? Opened some cans and stirred a pan. It's not difficult. And there's something about the fantastic salty, chili smell of the sausage — that sort of riot of orange and red and gold in the pan that is just uplifting."