Real Fast Food

By Nigel Slater

Published by The Overlook Press

Nigel Slater has long since been revered in the UK as a culinary genius, and after getting to know him through his book Real Fast Food now I understand what all the fuss is about. His talent lies in keeping things simple, allowing food to speak for itself and proving that you can have dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less without having to resort to using prepared food items.

In this book you will not find recipes that are overly complicated and take hours to prepare. There are no listed ingredients that require you to spend time scouring specialty food stores only to have your wallet emptied as you leave with the obscure items. What you will find are ideas for simple, good tasting food.

Nigel Slater is one of Britain’s premier food writers, a journalist, TV personality, and author. A self-taught chef who worked his way through restaurant kitchens, Nigel became the Food Editor for The Observer in 1993 and hasn’t looked back since. He has become widely known for producing recipes that are season conscious, flavourful, straightforward, and unpretentious.

Real Fast Food can only be described as a piece of culinary literature. In fact, I ended up reading this book from cover to cover just as I would do with a novel. Nigel is a true wordsmith, filling his pages with educational tidbits not to mention extraordinary wit. Have you ever heard asparagus described as “rude”? Or eggplants as “heavy drinkers”?

I loved the helpful hints scattered throughout the book. For example; did you know the best way to cook a baked potato is by inserting a metal skewer through the middle? Apparently this enables the potato to cook quickly while preventing the possibility of a spud explosion in your oven.

This book is definitely a keeper. It is quiet and unassuming, full of simple ideas from which you can gather inspiration. And while there are no photographs, the visual simplicity of the book is perfectly attuned with Nigel’s whole approach to cooking: simple, never fussy, pure. His recipes and ideas allow the ingredients to be showcased, putting food centre stage.

Even though I won’t be putting it up on my VIP Kitchen Shelf, I know I will return soon to this book for more culinary inspirations. When it comes to putting food on the table for my family, this is a great weeknight roadmap.

Beef Stroganov

RATING: 4 out of 5

THE TEST: Invented in Russia in the 19th century, Beef Stroganov quickly achieved global renown and ended up as North America’s standard for comfort food in the 1960’s. I’m not going to lie; up until this point my only experience with this dish resulted from the contents of those instant package deals eaten many lifetimes ago. But despite the fact that both Mr. Spock and I have found childhood memories of gobbling down this beef and noodle concoction, we had never tried making it ourselves.

Although many variations of this dish exist, the most common recipes involve strips of beef cooked in a sauce of sour cream, mustard, and mushrooms served over noodles. This is the case with Nigel Slater’s version.

THE RESULTS: I cannot emphasize enough how quickly and easily this dish came together, making it the perfect busy weeknight meal. You could easily stop at the grocery store on the way home, grab all ingredients, rush through the door and have this on the table in less than 30 minutes.

I must confess that I ended up doubling the amount of beef. God – I’m such a carnivore. And the taste? Delicious! The dish achieved perfect balance, with the creamy sour cream and tangy Dijon working together in harmony with the salty, crispy strips of beef and mellow noodles. Served in big bowls on a cold night this meal oozed comfort. And even though Mr. Spock has a complicated relationship with mushrooms, he admitted wholeheartedly that their place in beef stroganov is undisputed.

(Be sure to serve with wide egg noodle pasta, even if it’s just for the sake of nostalgia).

Black Bean Tacos with Tomato-Chili Salsa

RATING: 3 out of 5

THE TEST: I chose to make this dish on a Meatless Monday after staring into the fridge in the late afternoon wondering what on earth I could whip up for my family. Then I remembered this recipe, quickly scanned the list of ingredients, ran out to the grocery store to pick-up a few missing items, deposited the kids in the toy box (and I literally mean in the toy box as it’s huge) and threw myself into preparing the meal. A mere 30 minutes later (I kid you not!) dinner was done and simmering on the stove, while I had my feet up with a generous glass of wine in my hand.

THE RESULTS: We were all pretty impressed with how this dish jazzed up what had been looking like being a rather uninspiring Meatless Monday! The tacos turned out well and we all enjoyed the meal. I would have liked the consistency to be thicker, as the black bean mixture ended up very runny. Not sure what went wrong, as in the recipe it says to simmer rapidly till thick so obviously it was not meant to be as liquid as it turned out. (As a side note, we ended up straining the leftover black bean mixture and making the most delicious breakfast burritos the next morning!)

The salsa (almost embarrassingly simple) was an incredible accompaniment for the filling. When combined with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and Monterrey Jack cheese, it allowed all flavours to be present and accounted for in the tacos. Delicious.

Tuna Sandwich

RATING: 4.5 out of 5

THE TEST: I was instantly drawn to this recipe because it is not your usual mayo slathered celery filled tuna sandwich. Nigel bases his version on a traditional Pan Bagna, where the bread is first drizzled with olive oil before being stuffed with a Salade Niçoise mixture. Intrigued by his approach to a sandwich that the New York Times calls “quintessential”, I purchased a loaf of Turkish Flatbread and prepared to have my opinion of this lunchtime staple revolutionized.

To be fair, I should confess that we ran out of red wine vinegar which I ended up substituting with reduced balsamic. Also, the idea of placing 12 (yes 12!) anchovy fillets amongst the sandwich goodies was too much for me to handle. Go ahead – call me out on my lack of an open mind, my unprofessionalism, my disrespect for all things that are culinarily holy. It was just last year that Mr. Spock and I brought home our first tin of anchovy fillets and began experimenting with these critters in our cooking. And to be fair, they are responsible for having elevated our Caesar salad dressing into the realm of utter deliciousness. But while we are not ones to shy away from these salt-water forage fish, the idea of 12 anchovy fillets in my sandwich just didn’t fly. I apologize. Let’s move on.

THE RESULTS: Not only did this sandwich taste great – it was inspiring. It made me want to jump back in the kitchen and start experimenting with other flavour combinations. This recipe opened my mind to tuna sandwiches and made me realize that with a bit of creativity good things can happen out of reinventing the mundane. The kids devoured it, Mr. Spock was the most excited over this recipe out of any I’ve tested so far, and even though there was a certain level of saltiness missing without the anchovies…I was willing to live with that.