One day in 1992 the phone rang at Books for Cooks, the famed specialist bookshop in London’s Notting Hill. It was answered by Clarissa Dickson Wright, then still a few years off finding fame as one of the Fat Ladies. The caller, who didn’t identify himself, wanted to know whether they had copies of the newly published Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater. “And Clarissa just enthused down the phone at me, told me it was a marvellous book,” Nigel says now. “That’s when I knew it was all going to be all right.”
It’s a delicious, if familiar slice of understatement from Nigel (don’t expect the journalist’s formality of surnames here; he’s both friend and colleague). Real Fast Food was not a lead title for Penguin books. It was published on such a tight budget it has no photographs. And yet it swiftly became such a massive success that sales reps had to drive around restocking bookshops from copies they carried in the boot.
Almost three decades on, it remains in print and with good reason. Some cookbooks give an insight into a specific culture. Others drill down on a set of techniques and methods. And then there’s Real Fast Food, which introduced the world to a particular voice and sensibility; to an endlessly encouraging approach not to the blunt mechanics of cooking, but to the joys of eating and living well. It ripples with good taste. Nigel’s good taste. Real Fast Food was always going to be included in this series. We just had to wait for the author to take a week off from his regular column. “It’s such a generous book,” says fellow food writer Nigella Lawson, “because it allows the reader to understand what cooking is all about. He explains which bits matter and which bits don’t. You could cook from it for a lifetime.”
By the early 90s Nigel was working as a food stylist for advertising shoots. As a sideline he was writing what he describes as “extended picture caption recipes” for the newly launched magazine Marie Claire. “They were more than that,” says Louise Haines, who became his editor at Penguin Books and who, three decades later, remains his editor. “I found myself cutting out all these recipes for my own use and I suddenly thought this means something. There were lots of brilliant ideas.” She wrote to him suggesting a book. “And I wrote back,” Nigel says, “saying thank you, but I don’t think I could write a book.”
Haines persevered. They met for lunch and thrashed out a plan. “She wanted a book that would enable her to get food on the table from what was in her cupboards without a big shop,” Nigel recalls. And so he set to work. We may now take for granted Nigel’s ability to write as if he is talking to us and only to us. That voice was fully formed from the off. “As he sent me chapters it was a delight to discover that he wrote like an angel,” Haines says.
In the introduction he announces it contains “no complicated procedures, no dithering around with affected arrangements on oversized plates and no effete garnishes”. It has 350 or so “recipes” that can be completed quickly, ideally within 30 minutes. I put that word in inverted commas because many of them are less detailed methods than ideas for what you could do by putting nice things in each other’s company.
It is arranged by groups of ingredients – eggs, fish or pasta; meat, cheese or fruit – with suggestions under each one. Some seem involved. There’s red mullet with fennel and Pernod. There’s the delightfully titled “green beans, poached eggs and fancy leaves” and the fabulously named rumbledethumps, a Scottish take on colcannon. But Real Fast Food is also one of the finest collections of gussied-up sandwich suggestions ever published. If it can be eaten between two pieces of bread or shoved inside a bap, Nigel is all for it.
Have a cold roast pork sandwich with pickled walnuts and crackling. Or a fishfinger sandwich. Or one filled with spiced tuna (lots of cayenne, paprika and garlic). His bacon sandwich “only really comes into its own when you are slightly drunk”. The instructions for a chip butty include the need for cheap white bread and that “the sandwich should drip with butter”. By the time you get to the banana sandwich – add bacon, mayo and mango chutney – it reads less like a cookbook, and more like a self-help manual directing you to live your best life and sod the consequences.
The chef Skye Gyngell of the restaurant Spring is a huge fan. “He is probably the cookery writer I most admire,” she says. “He has this incredible gift for breathing life and intimacy into food.”
I have loved cooking my way through all the titles featured in this column so far, but it was a particular joy to reach Real Fast Food; to have Nigel at my side and know both that nothing would take me very long and that, because it’s all so loose and free, I couldn’t screw anything up. I dredged pork chops through crushed black pepper, fried them in butter and deglazed the pan with brandy, red wine and chicken stock as directed. It was 30 minutes to punchy loveliness. I blitzed yoghurt with spices to make a faux tandoori marinade for chicken thighs and roasted the hell out of them until they became intense and crusted. Courtesy of his recipe for funghi ripieni I discovered life was not too short to stuff a mushroom, if that stuffing involves fried onions, garlic, salted anchovies and breadcrumbs. I filled a bowl with raspberries (from frozen) covered them with a duvet of mascarpone and caster sugar and shoved it under a hot grill. It will be my new “aren’t I clever and don’t I wear it lightly” dinner party dessert.
“I should hate to think of anyone following them slavishly,” Nigel says of his recipes, early on. And: “I have to admit to rarely measuring anything.” Then again, he has standards. He’s a big fan of a white linen napkin and a simple white plate with a rim to keep the sauce in. And don’t even think of arranging a vase of flowers for the table too artfully. “Well, that’s just what I’m like, isn’t it?” he says. It is indeed. Real Fast Food led to many things: a bunch of other books, TV shows, an international following, and, a year after publication, the offer of a column in this newspaper. But most of all it has led to a lot of joyous cooking and eating.
Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater is published by Penguin. Buy it for £9.99 at guardianbookshop.com
Chef Carl Clarke’s accessorised fried chicken outfit Chick ’n’ Sours has moved into meal kits. They have a range of options. The general costs £50 and includes hot wings, kung pao wings, chicken tenders and their delightfully named seasoning mix, seaweed crack. There’s their famed watermelon salad with coriander, mint and chill, their ginger and miso green slaw and the bang bang cucumbers. You can also add their sour cocktails. Orders are by the end of Sunday for nationwide delivery the next Friday, visit chicknsours.co.uk.
And a sniff of normality, with news of restaurant openings. The El Pastor Mexican restaurant group are taking over the site of what was Hix on Brewer Street in London’s Soho. The basement space, with its zinc bar, will be used for live events. Meanwhile in Kent, the people behind the much-admired Fordwich Arms near Canterbury will open their second site. The nearby Bridge Arms should open on 12 April, when outdoor hospitality is meant to kick in.
An app called Cook my grub, which hosts a marketplace for home-cooked food, has launched a fundraiser so it can expand beyond its base in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Currently they have 50 home cooks on their books, mostly from South Asian backgrounds, who are given hygiene and allergy training as part of the joining fee. The plan is to sign up a further 250 home cooks and expand into 10 more towns across the UK over the next year. For more information visit cookmygrub.com.