Realistic television ... Nigella Lawson advises busy cooks to save time with pre-made ingredients.
THERE ARE NO rules in Nigella's kitchen. ''I'm not a chef or home economist. I'm a home cook - I cook from instinct,'' Lawson says. But as an award-winning British food writer, broadcaster and author of nine best-selling cookbooks, and as a global phenomenon and household name, she is not short of kitchen wisdom.
Her personal mantra as a working mother is to keep things simple, relaxed and not to be ashamed of taking short cuts.
Here, the original domestic goddess distills 30 years of wielding her wooden spoon into 20 easy ways to become a better cook.
Tool of her trade ... a mezzaluna makes quick work of chopping. Photo: Getty Images
1. Realise how simple cooking is
Although it's inspiring to see great chefs at work on TV, it can be intimidating. In reality, cooking is just about applying a bit of heat and some flavours to basic ingredients.
2. Be your own guinea pig
Wise investment ... a Le Creuset stockpot is expensive but long-lasting.
People feel, without any experience in the kitchen, they suddenly want to cook for dinner parties. It's like not having your driving licence and then saying, ''I think I'm going to do formula one this weekend.'' Start out by cooking for yourself. Then you're not worried about what might go wrong, you're more relaxed and things are less likely to go astray. And that rule, ''You have to please yourself to please others'', is very true in the kitchen.
3. Don't be tense about technique
I don't have any techniques, I've never learnt them, and you don't need them. If you needed techniques and expertise to cook, human beings would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop many millenniums ago. My main aim is not to waste anything, rather than being concerned about using great techniques. So if I've used a grater to grate some garlic into a dish, I'll then use that grater to stir what I'm cooking to make sure I get every last bit of garlic out. I'm sure I would be expelled from a professional kitchen for behaving like that.
Must-have ingredient ... unwaxed lemons for citrus zest.
4. Aim small
I don't mean that in a restrictive way, I just think you've got to understand what heat does to food, what flavours you like, and what combinations work. So much of this is subjective. People get anxious about whether they're doing something right, when really they should be thinking, ''Does it taste good?''
5. Less is more
Overambition is a common mistake. Write down everything you're planning to make, and then go through your list and remove half. People tend to cook too much and then they get upset when guests don't eat it all. It's better to do a wonderful, plentiful platter of one thing rather than six different dishes that have to be cooked over different days.
6. Kitchen tools can be your friend …
I find it hard to operate in the kitchen without a mezzaluna. I'm not very good with a knife, and I'm also clumsy. With a mezzaluna, both hands are on the handles, so I'm not going to cut myself.
I do think a really good enamelled cast-iron stewpot, like a Le Creuset, is great. They are expensive, but they last forever. I've got one my parents were given as a wedding present in 1956. It's worth searching on eBay - as long as it's not damaged, age will not interfere with how it cooks. In my firm opinion, the flavour of things cooked in these pots is better.
I use a freestanding mixer more than any other electrical appliance. And if I had to choose, I'd much rather have that than a food processor.
Stick blenders are brilliant. They're not expensive, and they make so many tasks easier. A processor often works for big amounts, but with a stick blender, using a small goblet, you can make a delicious sauce that's just for two.
7. … but gadgets can take over your life
I have a terrible weakness for any sort of gadget, particularly if it belongs in the kitchen. I'm forever buying them, and then I have to jettison them.
8. Choose the right pan
I hate things that aren't right for the job that's being done. If I'm melting butter, I can't see the point of using the milk pan - it's more likely to burn. In the domestic kitchen, you often need to cook with such small amounts that having a small pan is more useful. People always think they need a big pan. It's like people say they need dining rooms. I haven't met anyone who has a dining room that doesn't have boxes in it. No one needs a dining room. In the same way, people buy huge equipment and then maybe once a year - Christmas - they need a huge pan, whereas nearly every day they'll use a small one.
9. Be extravagant when it matters
A good copper roasting tin is an incredible cooking vessel. It doesn't stick, the flavours are wonderful, the way it conducts heat is fantastic. They don't cost as much as a car, but they're not far off. It so happens that's where I like to spend my money. If you asked me if I'd rather buy a designer dress or a copper roasting tin, I'd have the roasting tin.
10. Must-have ingredients
Crushed chilli flakes; unwaxed lemons - I'm a great believer in using lemon zest; pancetta cubes give incredible flavour (although regular bacon chopped up will do); and I like using something the purists look down on - garlic-infused oil. With garlic oil in the pan, some lemon zest and chilli flakes, you've got the basis for anything.
11. Buy it or make it?
I buy my garlic-infused oil; I'm shameless. When I tell people, I see them twitching. I love making home-made stock, but I certainly don't do it all the time. If you've got children and a job, when are you going to be making your own stock? These things aren't always possible in life. If I were making a chicken broth to eat I'd always make it myself, but if I just want a bit of chicken flavouring, I'm happy to use a (preferably organic) stock cube or an extract.
12. Embrace the new
I go through crushes on certain ingredients. I've recently developed a fixation with Chinese rice wine, which I use in all sorts of ways. I love to get as much use out of an ingredient as possible. In my books, if I use a liqueur I'll often use it in many recipes. I never want to send people to the shops unless they're going to get their money's worth.
13. Find the short cut
When I read professional recipes I always think, ''Mmm, what steps can be left out?'' Impatience and greed are not always great qualities in life, but they really help in the kitchen. I'm always trying to make things simpler.
14. Water works wonders
Always remove a bit of the pasta cooking water before you drain it, to add to the sauce for the pasta dish. The starch in the water helps emulsify the sauce so it clings to the pasta strands or shapes better.
15. Salt of the earth
I love what [Italian-born food writer] Anna del Conte says: ''The water you cook pasta in should be as salty as the Mediterranean.'' It's true and lyrical at the same time.
16. Temperature counts
When baking, always have your ingredients at room temperature. That makes a huge difference. Even if your eggs are cold you can just put them in a bowl of warm water for 10 minutes and they'll come to room temperature (which means they'll blend more easily into the ingredients and create more volume when beaten). So it's not exceedingly difficult to arrange.
17. Manna from heaven
Baking bread is very therapeutic - I go through phases with it. A great tip is to keep any water you've cooked potatoes or pasta in and mix it into the warm water at the start of the process. The starch makes a much lighter loaf.
18. Stick to it
I buy reusable baking parchment and cut out circles that fit in the bottom of my cake tins. They live in the pans, and I just wipe them up and use them again. I use them for roasting tins, too (although I tend to throw this parchment away) - it means the tins are cleaner, and it makes washing up easier.
19. No-cook dinners
I've got quite a few really great no-cook pasta sauces. For example, a sauce using tomatoes, garlic and blanched almonds. Just by combining fresh ingredients and adding it to the pasta, you get such intensity of flavour. And of course made in a fraction of the time pasta takes to cook. And although I love cooking, never forget the joys of a beautiful piece of cheese and a loaf of bread. The pleasure to be had from simple food can be found everywhere.
20. One-pan perfection
Every book I've ever done, including Nigellissima, has a tray bake (lots of ingredients thrown onto one tray and cooked in the oven), and if I'm having people for supper, 85 per cent of the time that's what I'll cook. The flavours meld so beautifully and there's less washing up. It's much easier than a stir-fry, which requires a lot of fine chopping and has to be eaten straight away. We each have our different personalities. For me, a tray bake is the answer to so many of life's culinary problems.
Lawson claims it was her time in Italy as a teenager that transformed her from a self-conscious and shy adolescent into the person she is today, as well as giving her a love for the food and culture. So filming her latest television series, Nigellissima, felt like coming home.
Nigellissima is now available on DVD ($29.95).