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Book Review: Tender, by Nigel Slater

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Tender - Nigel SlaterWe may be a nation of individualists, every man and woman a maverick in his or her own heart, but you'd never know it to read our recipes, so rigidly do we adhere to a generic, codified blandness in laying our how-tos.

By contrast, those stiff-upper-lip Brits kick over the traces when they start to mix and fry. Nigella Lawson, Sybil Kapoor, Tamsin Day-Lewis, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Dan Lepard, even éminences grises like Elizabeth David and Patience Gray: not for these writers the strict nothing-but-the-facts-ma'am method of American cookbooks. Across the pond, lively verbs and their adverbial companions shimmy freely in recipe methods. Even adjectives get their due. My favorite? Moreish, because whatever it is, you must have one more bite. Where Americans are folksy, British writers are droll.

Granted, I tend to read those written by authors with literary or journalistic backgrounds, who sift and measure their prose with as much diligence as they do their self-rising flour and diced courgettes. (Ah, those courgettes! Those aubergines! That black treacle! All almost the same as zucchini, eggplant, and molasses, but linguistically shifted just enough to nudge the reader into a right-hand driver's seat.)

And one of the best is Nigel Slater, whose latest work Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch was just released in an American edition by Berkeley's Ten Speed Press. This beautifully designed, chocolate-brown clothbound volume (complete with silvery place-keeping ribbon) is a celebration of the production of the slim but plant-packed garden of Slater's London townhouse. As dedicated an organic gardener as he may be, Slater makes no pretensions to urban self-sufficiency in his smallish backyard. As he writes,

"I have sown somewhat more than I have reaped. But as somewhere to watch things grow, a place to tend and nurture, to sit and eat, to drink and think, to taste and smell, and most importantly to understand the unity of growing, cooking, and eating, it is a monumental success. At least it is to me."

Slater, a longtime columnist for The Observer and the author of 10 cookbooks, is known in this country (if he's known at all) for his two most personal books, The Kitchen Diaries, a week-by-week seasonal calendar of what he was cooking and eating at home, and the childhood memoir Toast--The Story of a Boy's Hunger. His writing style is vivid and individual without being exactly personal. Reading this book is like wandering though an idiosyncratically decorated house: this lamp, this shell, this book reveals taste and history more succinctly than any long-winded curriculum vitae.


Slater can wax rhapsodic as Alice Waters about the dewy-fresh beauties of homegrown veg. But like his countryman Fergus Henderson, author of the excellent (and drily humorous) The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, Slater has a well-honed wit and an unshakeable set of opinions about just about everything in and out of the kitchen, and he's not shy about telling us what he really thinks.

On spinach:

"When spinach is truly fresh, it squeaks as you rummage around in the pile, like the sound of wet Wellingtons on a rubber floor."

On carrots:

"Not for me the pile of buttered carrots on the plate. Too sweet, too orange, (too bloody cheerful more like it)."

On cauliflower:

"Sometimes I think it wouldn't bother me if I never saw one again."

On the box hedges surrounding his vegetable plots:

"Hedges, however neatly they frame your peas, beans, and swaying sunflowers, are also snail hotels, providing a home for hundreds of gastropods who come out at night, drink from your beer traps, then go on a drunken rampage."

Insults may be a cheap form of wit, but Slater also takes the time to point out the virtues of even his less-favorite things.

Despite the too-many snails who "have partied on [his] carefully nurtured seedlings," he's still a sucker for aesthetics. "I sometimes think the hedges would have gone long ago if it wasn't for the achingly beautiful sight of them covered in snow," he writes, and an accompanying photograph of their tidy snow-piled geometry proves his point.

Winter can also make even cauliflower worth eating. Just after slagging off this unloved brassica, he admits,"Yet I occasionally long for a simple white bowl of cauliflower cheese on a frosty day, especially when it has been made with love, and the sauce has been improved with bay and clove and the cheese is of the robust sort that makes veins on the roof of your mouth stand out." (And thank you, Nigel, for providing a new yardstick for judging cheese. "Ah, this Montgomery cheddar. Piquant, yes, but the veins on the roof of my mouth are unmoved.")

The book is part gardener's handbook, with growing tips and lists of his favorite, often heirloom, varieties to grow. There are useful lists of seasonings, accompaniments, and companions for each vegetable (cauliflower loves cream, caraway, juniper, anchovies, and gin), tips on harvesting, choosing, and storing, and lastly, delicious recipes for lovely-sounding things, like A Soup the Color of Marigolds (made from carrots and yellow tomatoes); An Extremely Moist Chocolate-Beet Cake with Creme Fraiche and Poppy Seeds; and Spinach, Melted Cheese, and Lightly Burned Toast. This is a vegetable cookbook, but not a vegetarian one; while many of the recipes are purely plant-based, there are plenty of dishes made to feature or accompany a whole steamed fish or a hunk of grilled lamb. The recipes are bold-flavored and straightforward, with a Middle Eastern touch there, a hit of Thai or Indian here, and some unmistakablly British comfort food (like that aforementioned cauliflower in cheese sauce, an English school-lunch dish if every there was one). It's a lot of how we eat now: lots of plants, geared towards the seasons, not too fussy, globally inspired. Moreish, I'd say.

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