The Kitchen Diaries II is the latest collection of musings by British food writer, Nigel Slater. Compiling recipes, notes and observations made throughout the years, what I enjoy most about this book is its seasonality, practicality, and insight into what a naturally talented cook gets up to in the privacy of his own home. It shares beautiful stories that change how you appreciate food, and puts so precisely into words many of the sentiments you hadn't yet realised you have. Rather than teaching you difficult skills or new techniques you unwittingly learn the fundamentals by abandoning yourself to the simple pleasures and, if you're paying attention, it's the personal reflections and off-hand comments that can help turn what you knew as a basic concept into something truly exceptional.
In the preamble to his recipe for braised neck of lamb with apricots and cinnamon, Nigel describes the enjoyment he gets from cooking with the parts of an animal that clearly show form and function, and this is something with which I couldn't agree more. Having an appreciation for how the different muscles break down and the properties of all the various components can make all the difference when it comes to the success (and or failure) of a dish.
To create a dish with such complexity on the palate from just a handful of ingredients is, for me, what it's all about. It's the ability to know how best to highlight quality, and if you can source yourself some devilishly good lamb neck then really, your work here is pretty much done. A few hours slow cooking of this richly flavoured cut gives you some meltingly soft meat in a gravy so luxurious and nourishing you really don't need to use anything but water in its preparation. The earthy spices help give the dish depth while the dried apricots lend both sweetness and a clean sharpness that help provide balance, and also cut the richness of the fat. What really lifts this dish is the shavings of lemon zest to finish, and it goes beautifully served atop a bed of cinnamon-scented mograbia and with a side of organic greens.
To finish, a pleasingly simple dessert of poached apples with ginger and anise. Sweet but refreshing, it was in fine contrast to the richness of the main and had that ginger-scented warmth that really helped to warm the cockles.
All in all, the perfect supper for a cold August night.