This week in our Cookbook Club, members submitted questions they wanted to ask Diana Henry, author of this month's featured book, Simple. She answered queries on everything from her favorite cookbooks (not easy to do when her collection tops 4,000) to the differences between British and American palates. Read on to find out about those topics (and much more) and check out photos of what members have been cooking this week. Plus, if you join the Cookbook Club today, she might answer your question next week!
Didn't know we have cookbook clubs? Click below for the details!
Dina Rizzuto-Francis: I have over 1000 cookbooks in my collection. You have been my favorite author for years! I am so happy you are this month's selection! I would like to know your favorite time of year and recipes for that season?
Diana Henry: I have about 4,000 books in my collection—it’s an obsession! Actually, I started buying them when I was pretty young (12 years old). You can gather up a lot if you start that early.
My favorite time of year to cook is autumn. I love that sense of returning to the kitchen after the summer. The summer is a bit all over the place—traveling, the kids not at school—there is less of a routine than usual, and in the UK, the weather fluctuates. Sometimes it can be hot, sometimes just warm, like spring, other times (like last year) it can simply rain for days on end. But the autumn is definite. The weather is what you expect it to be. Early autumn can have those lovely blue skies and cool air. September is great because it feels like a new beginning (the start of the school year) and there is a real overlap in summer and autumn ingredients: corn, plums, blackberries, tomatoes and figs are all around, but they are joined by roots, nuts, wild mushrooms and, in the UK, damsons. I love that. It is such a time of plenty.
A bit later in the season afternoons start to get misty at about 4 pm and you feel you need a jumper. That’s when you start thinking about pumpkins and mussels. It seems right to be cooking pots of beans and lentils again too. And I start to bake on Sunday afternoons (something I don’t do during the summer). You sort of turn inwards—back towards the home and the kitchen—and that’s a good feeling.
The autumn dishes I love are nearly all based on pumpkin and squash—I love their sweetness: pasta with roast pumpkin, chunks of ricotta and shavings of smoked cheese; pumpkin and mussel soup (this is from Normandy–it’s gorgeous); pumpkin and fennel lasagne. I like autumn fruits too. Apple and blackberry crumble (what you call a ‘crisp’ in the US) really reminds me of home in Ireland—we had it at the beginning of every autumn, after going blackberry picking—and I love making desserts with pears. They are one of the best ingredients for desserts and you can make very simple things with them–pears baked with Marsala, upside-down pear and cranberry cake, pear tarte tatin. I love pears poached in red wine with bay leaves and cinnamon—an old-fashioned dish that has been around for a long time (and for good reason).
Bridget Laird: If you could only eat one more meal but it could be anything you wanted, what would it be?
Diana Henry: Fresh pasta with white Alba truffles, roast chicken (stuffed with black olives, pancetta, garlic and waxy potatoes) with fennel gratin, French cheeses (a whole trolley – especially cheeses from Provence and the Savoie), autumn fruits baked in red wine and crème de cassis, served with crème fraîche
Dina Rizzuto-Francis: What are your hobbies outside of cooking?
Diana Henry: Outside of cooking, I love literature—I’m a massive reader, particularly of Irish and American literature. I studied English literature at university, and when I was a television producer, one of my happiest times was when I worked on a book program.
I am a total drama junkie too—The Sopranos, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, and all the Scandi stuff such as The Killing and The Bridge—I have devoured them. Netflix can’t actually offer me enough! I also go to the cinema a lot.
Anna Čorak: What are your top 10 favorite cookbooks?
Diana Henry: My top cookbooks of all time are these:
Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (also her dessert book)
Molly O’Neill's A Well-Seasoned Appetite
David Tanis' A Platter of Figs
Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Café Cookbook
Claudia Roden's A Book of Middle Eastern Food
Anne Willan's French Regional Cooking
Nigella Lawson's How to Eat
Susanna Orr: What are the top 5 or 10 most influential books in her collection?
Diana Henry: The books that have most influenced me are The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book and Vegetable Book, and Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food. Alice Waters' book was just very different—when it came out, it showed what simple food could be like. We’ve forgotten how revolutionary that seemed. She has had an enormous impact. Jane Grigson’s books and Claudia’s books showed me what food writing could be—a mixture of memoir, travel, literature, history, anthropology. They didn’t just offer wonderful recipes but recipes within a personal and cultural context. Before I discovered them I was a really keen cook, but they showed me something else. It was a total thrill to find them. They are great writers—not just great food writers.
Hayley Evans: What are your current favorite top 3 cookbooks/cookbook authors?
My favorite food writers—for prose—will always be Claudia Roden, Jane Grigson, and Molly O’Neill. They have been favorites for years. If you mean who am I noticing right now, I am very keen on the work of Olia Hercules, Gill Meller, Caroline Eden, and Meera Sodha (all British). I think Nigella Lawson writes the best—the most exquisitely elegant prose—of anyone writing about food now. Her voice has such poise. I have all of Naomi Duguid’s books and I think she is a brilliant anthropologist and collector of recipes. I cook out of her stuff a lot. Alice Hart, another British writer, does great vegetarian recipes—such a range of ingredients and flavors. Probably my very favorite book of last year was Taste and Technique by Naomi Pomeroy. I thought it would smash it in the Piglet! Another American cookbook I love is A Boat, A Whale and A Walrus by Renee Erickson—that book is a triumph in that design and content and tone really come together into one whole. That is rare.
Laura McDonald: Which fellow cookbook author is your biggest influence?
Diana Henry: That’s really difficult—I feel my influences are more from people who’ve been writing for a long time (or, as in the case of Jane Grigson, who aren’t alive anymore) than from people writing now. I suppose if you want to know whose writing I most admire who is currently writing it would be Nigella Lawson’s. We are very close in age, though, so I suppose we are both influenced by people who have gone before us, if you see what I mean.
Catherine Sharp-Aouchiche: Do you feel there are significant differences between the UK and American palate, and what influence, if any, does that have on your writing process? Could you describe your writing process?
Diana Henry: I think about my whole audience when I write, not just a UK or an American audience. I was always very drawn to American cookbooks and American food writing—the whole Californian culinary revolution had a big influence on me, even though that seems odd for an Irish woman living in London. So I feel just as close to people who buy my books in the States as to readers in the UK. I think you need to be true to yourself when you write recipes, and shouldn’t really be restricted by what you think people will want—I think my job is to offer inspiration and new things (but not new for the sake of it).
I feel that British people are probably—on the whole—keener to try new ingredients, funnily enough, but that is because we’ve always loved and stolen from other cultures. We love Indian food; in fact, we take very eagerly to food of all the cultures who have made a home here. I think we particularly love hot and spicy stuff. I have observed that Americans tend to like sweetness more but so do I, so that is not a problem.
Writing. I have talked and written a lot about this. My journalism—I write features for newspapers and magazines as well as recipe-led pieces—is quite different to my books. My books are where I am most truly myself. The best thing I can say is that the process is about getting yourself in a place where you want to talk—quite intimately—with someone. I do a lot of my writing late at night and in the early hours of the morning. It’s still and quiet. I always imagine—without trying at all hard —that I am in a kitchen talking to someone. I think I am standing right beside them. You also have to do this thing which is like going down into your deepest self to find what you really want to say. All I can say is that it’s a bit like swimming underwater—sometimes I literally look down—to find the right way to convey something. I think as much about words as flavors. It sounds a bit New Age–ish but it’s hard to describe how it happens. I am very happy in that place, though. I would like to write fiction because I like being in that place so much.
Christine Leong: What's her recipe development process?
Diana Henry: People ask this quite often. When The New York Times came to interview me last year—Melissa Clark was with me for days—that is the what they were really keen to find out. I think about flavors all the time. I’ve always done that. Cooking is about technique, yes, and texture, but what intrigues me most is what ingredients cooks decide to put together. Traveling is the thing that really opens my eyes to this and not just because I’m eating in good restaurants; different countries have different palates and you can find combinations of flavors you’d never dreamt of. When I first ate Georgian food in Russia—before the end of communism, Georgian restaurants were the only really good ones there—I immediately pounced on the idea of mixing dill, walnuts, cayenne, and pomegranates together. We tend to think of dill mainly as a Scandinavian herb, one that goes with salmon and sour cream, not one that goes with fruit and heat.
I had a week in Copenhagen recently and came home with pages of notes I’d scribbled on what I’d eaten (in both fancy and more down-to-earth restaurants). At Amass—one of the best restaurants in the city—I asked where the little bursts of citrus I detected in one dish came from. The waiter took me into the kitchen and showed me. The chefs had been throwing away lots of squeezed out lemons but didn’t like the waste so they came up with the idea of chargrilling the skins, then pureeing them with a sugar syrup (made of water and brown sugar) and Danish beer. The result—bitter, sweet and citrusy—had become one of their favorite condiments. At Manfreds & Vin— another ‘New Nordic’ place—they served leeks with elderflower and bergamot. This didn’t entirely work, but I got to thinking about leeks with elderflower, lemon, and goat cheese, that would work. (I just made the dish tonight, and paired it with spelt.) At Restaurant Schonnemann—a Danish institution specializing in smørrebrød—they served strong cheese with caraway seeds, chopped onion, radishes, port jelly, and rye bread. There were ideas everywhere—and dishes that don’t work give you as many ideas as things that do.
Sometimes ideas come by simply thinking hard about an ingredient: Make me sit for 30 minutes with a piece of paper and the instruction to think about tomatoes, and I’ll come up with dishes I’m excited about—in fact, I really enjoy this. I end up with something that looks like what my children call a ‘mind map’—the word ‘tomatoes’ in a circle in the middle, and lots of arrows and ideas coming out of that. You think first about the obvious pairings, and then you think about what wouldn’t work, and see where that takes you. Luckily, even as I’m cooking a dish, I’m busy thinking of variations on it, then that leads you onto another dish. It kind of snowballs.
Once I have an idea, I write it up roughly, then I test it, standing at the cooker with measuring spoons and scales, jotting everything down. My children are the first people to taste new dishes, and they’re harsh critics. Ideas come often come by observing and being exposed to another culture. You can apply the simplest ideas to your cooking at home by keeping your eyes open when you’re on holiday. If you’re a keen cook, take a notebook.
Mallory L. N. Johnson: I notice that many of your recipes draw on Middle Eastern influences, and I'm wondering if you could comment on why those flavors have a particular affinity for you. The simplicity? The spice? Acidity? Maybe a particularly good food memory from your travels or dinners in London?
Diana Henry: I don’t know what it is about Middle Eastern food but I fell in love with it immediately. A lot of the ingredients—figs, flower waters, pomegranates, saffron—were the kinds of foods I used to daydream about when I was growing up in Ireland. Nothing there was exotic—though the raw produce was very good—so I thought a lot about food from other places. I came to England to go to university but there was nothing very exotic in Oxford either at that time (though I’d never even eaten Indian food until I arrived there). When I moved to London to do post-grad, I discovered Claudia Roden’s work and fell not just for the food but for the stories and the cultural references (and the details of her life too). I could get any food I wanted in London—I used to spend my weekends going all over the place, hunting for the right kind of pepper, or dried barberries, or a particular brand of rose water—and the food of the Middle East seemed the most exciting. I loved the earthiness of cumin (still one of my favorite spices) and the way sweet and savory are combined (in the food of Morocco and Iran). The flavors are big, the techniques are simple, their rice cooking is masterly. It seems like honest food, full of warmth. And it looks great too—very decorative, intriguing. One of the reasons I like food so much is that it enables one to eat another culture—that is quite something.
These days I cook just as much food from southeast Asia, though—I love that hot, sour, salty, sweet thing. I will never get tired of Italian, and French is the cuisine I first fell in love with (when I went on an exchange trip there when I was fifteen).
Cindi Rocks: Is there an ingredient or instruction that you would change in any recipe in Simple?
Diana Henry: Every time I get a noteor a complaint (via Amazon, or an email to my website) about unusual ingredients in Simple, I want to tear my hair out! When this happens I momentarily wonder if I should have done something different, used an ingredient that is easier to find—but I wouldn’t change any of the ingredients, though I sometimes regret not giving enough substitutions. (I do where I can, though.) I sympathize with people who find it hard to get everything—especially as I grew up in the countryside in Ireland where it was hard to get unusual ingredients—but now so much is available (there’s not much you can’t get online). I never use an ingredient just for the sake of it—I think about flavors a lot and I think a good store cupboard is the secret to making simple food that is also interesting food. The techniques in my latest book are simple, and the flavor combinations have taken a bit of thought. But it’s an interesting question, this one. I wonder what prompted you to ask it.
Nanda Garber: Do you have any suggestions for those of us in the USA regarding the amounts listed in your ingredients? Like the number of chicken pieces instead of weights, number of fruits instead of weights, etc?
Diana Henry: Usually I suggest the number of chicken pieces, as I then know how many each person will be served. I tend to think of them in that way instead of by weight (except if it’s a whole chicken, of course). When it comes to fruit it depends on the recipe. If it’s a pudding and I want each person to have one pear then I will suggest the number of pears. It isn’t much help to have a weight if you end up with four pears—because they’re heavy—to serve six people. Do people find this aspect of my books difficult in the US? I do want to make them as user-friendly as possible (without completely changing my style).
Hayley Evans and Meryl Becker Waters: What's your favorite recipe in Simple?
Diana Henry: That’s really hard as I cook all of them a lot—I do use my own cookbooks! The one I cook most often is probably the Parmesan Roast Chicken with Cauliflower and Thyme. It’s a sheet pan dish and brilliant for family in the middle of the week. Now that it’s coming into good weather, though, I am really looking forward to making the salad of cherries and cucumber with rose petals. Summer!
Kelly Warner: Not a question, but can you please tell Diana she has changed my life with this book—I've never found a book so simple with that wow factor. Just love this book!
Diana Henry: Thank you so much! I don’t really know what to say to that except that it makes my job worthwhile.