RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The food writer Nigella Lawson has this advice for the home cook.
Ms. NIGELLA LAWSON (Cookbook Writer): Try something new, which only has one element that frightens you.
MONTAGNE: Of course Nigella Lawson is trying new things all the time. Her many cookbooks are evidence of that. She shared her recipes with us on this program many times. And this morning we're going to hear about what inspired some of those recipes and how one recipe can lead to others, like Nigella's mother's recipe for ham in cider.
Ms. LAWSON: As with so many recipes, even the word recipe is a bit too grand for it, because it's just the way she cooked ham. And she used to use cider, which I think you call hard cider - in another words, it's slightly alcoholic, although you could use any cider - and leeks were in there, carrots, parsley stalks. It's also a fantastic way of cooking ham. I mean that generates so many other recipes of mine. Certainly I use the broth that it leaves behind for a pea soup. And then I thought, well, you know, if it works with cider, why can't I use other drinks?
And although when I first did it, it raised a few eyebrows, I did cook a ham in Coca-Cola. And then I went really mad and I thought, okay, so let's take this a step further, I'm going to do ham in Cherry Coke.
MONTAGNE: What was that moment when you thought, hmm, Cherry Coke - now, that would make the difference?
Ms. LAWSON: Well, I think it was simply that I so adored, and my children so adored the ham and Coke that I must have seen it one day at the market. There is a very long tradition of cooking ham with fruit, ham with pineapple, a great '70s classic. And you cannot tell whether a recipe is going to work or not until you try cooking it. The worst that can happen is that you don't have the best supper of your life, and the best that can happen is that you feel thrilled and excited and gratified by the fact that it's worked.
MONTAGNE: You have said that time pressure often influences you when you're coming up with a recipe. With the kids and obviously with a busy life, your linguine with lemon would seem to be an example of that.
Ms. LAWSON: It's a very good example of that. And it also shows how recipes come about. Because you can often be inspired by a recipe that you don't actually copy but that you draw from. So for example, there was an (unintelligible) recipe for a lemon risotto. And I thought, well, if that sort of rich lemoniness - because with the cheese in it as well, and the lemon - if it works with rice, surely it's going to work with pasta.
And therefore you couldn't really prepare everything, have a pan of water already boiling, mix your sauce, which is really just egg yolks and a bit of heavy cream and some lemon zest and juice and some parmesan. And then when you want to cook, you're just ready to go. It's just sticking the pasta in the pot and then once its drained adding the sauce you've made. As I say, you don't cook the sauce. So it's very, very easy, both in energy and time.
MONTAGNE: Is that how it works - you just know one flavor and one texture and feel like, hmm, just move it over a little bit to something else?
Ms. LAWSON: It's a bit like that. But obviously what ends up in the book is probably not my first attempt. The first time I might make it too rich and the lemon may be not pervasive enough. In the next time I do it, I've overcompensated and it's too sharp. And what I always feel like saying (unintelligible) is that what's the perfect balance for me may not be the perfect balance for the person using the recipe.
In the end, this isn't about some great chemical formula, it's about taste. Now, baking is a different matter that, you know, as I often say is a mix between poetry and chemistry. But cooking is - you just have to feel your way as you go, like child-rearing.
MONTAGNE: Although it is like a little bit of a you-can-do-it-at-home chemistry recipe. You're playing around with it, but you have to have some sense of what works with what.
Ms. LAWSON: Well, you do have to have some sense, but you don't get that sense just because you're born with it. You have to try things out. And I think one of the things that stops people being confident is that they have this curious - I would say for the life of two sides. One side is not cooking, and the other is, oh, suddenly I'll have eight people for supper. You're going, as it were, from naught to 120 miles an hour, and you can't do that.
So I really do feel that the best way of finding out what works and what you like and what you don't like is by experimenting when you're cooking just for yourself. And then you feel more confident. You don't - you're not fearing someone else's judgment, and that gives you much more freedom, I think.
MONTAGNE: It might also help to start with a recipe that, you know, you've made over and over again, and you love it, but know exactly what's going on there.
Ms. LAWSON: Exactly, and you want to tweak a little. And I think that just as when scientists do experiments, they don't change everything all at once, or they can't tell which changes have been beneficial or which have been - influenced the outcome.
So if you regularly do a beef stew with rosemary, well, it may be worth thinking let's try it now with some lamb and some thyme. And then later on you can think, well, although I liked it with red wine, why don't I make this a bit lighter and use some rose wine?
MONTAGNE: Can't you tell us of one of these experiments or sort of progressions in thinking from one recipe to an experimental one that was a flop?
Ms. LAWSON: There's one thing that is irredeemable, and that's over-salting. I don't care what people say, once you've over-salted you've had it.
MONTAGNE: You can't put a raw potato in?
Ms. LAWSON: You can do all that, but it's not going to make it taste any better. It will just make you feel you put up a good fight.
MONTAGNE: Nigella Lawson is the author of a whole bunch of cookbooks, and most recently "Nigella Express." Well, thanks for joining us again.
Ms. LAWSON: It's always a pleasure.
MONTAGNE: And you can get some pleasure from Nigella's recipes for lemon and linguine and ham in cider. You'll find them at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Lawson urges home chefs to follow their instincts and get a sense of their own palate by experimenting with recipes. She took a chance and evolved her mother's ham and hard cider into ham and Cherry Coke.
Nigella Lawson's appeal, like that of many great chefs, is her willingness to take chances.
For example, Lawson's mother always cooked ham with hard cider.
"Even the word 'recipe' is a bit too grand for it, because it's just the way she cooked ham," Lawson tells NPR's Renee Montagne.
But Lawson decided to experiment, thinking if ham and cider is a good pairing, other drinks might work, too. She made a bold move toward Coca-Cola and ham.
"And then I went really mad ... and took this a step further and thought, I'm going to do ham in Cherry Coke," she says.
After all, Lawson reasoned, "There is a very long tradition of cooking ham with fruit — ham with pineapple, a great '70s classic — and you cannot tell whether a recipe's going to work or not until you try cooking it. The worst that can happen is that you don't have the best supper of your life. And the best that can happen is that you feel thrilled and excited and gratified by the fact that it's worked."
In addition to evolving recipes from family classics, a great mother of invention for Lawson is time. She saw a lemon and risotto recipe once that she realized would work just as well with pasta, and voila: linguine with lemon.
And even though she invented that recipe, Lawson says, "What ends up in the book is probably not my first attempt."
And Lawson wants readers to remember, "What's the perfect balance for me may not be the perfect balance for the person using the recipe. In the end ... it's about taste."
And practice, practice, practice is how you find your taste, Lawson says.
"The best way of finding out what works ... is by experimenting when you're cooking just for yourself. You're not fearing someone else's judgment."