This week, members of our Cookbook Club submitted questions they wanted to ask Diana Henry, the author of this month's featured book, Simple. She answered queries on everything from how to encourage kids to be adventurous eaters to why you won't see a baking cookbook from her anytime soon. Read on to see her answers (and much more) and to check out photos of what members have been cooking this week.
If you haven't joined the Cookbook Club yet, not to worry, you haven't missed out on your shot to ask Diana Henry a question—she'll be joining us on our Hotline, Friday, April 28th from 12 to 1 PM EST to answer all of your burning questions.
Didn't know we have cookbook clubs? Head here for the full run-down!
Chris Werme: Did you consider different ways of organizing the book? For instance, did you consider putting all the chicken recipes together instead of dividing them between Roasts and Chicken? Are these sorts of decisions difficult to make, or do they just seem to fall into place?
Diana Henry: I think a lot about how to structure the books. I don’t, personally, like cookbooks that are just divided into starters, main courses, and desserts. I thought it was important to have a chapter on Roasts as I roast a lot—it’s a very easy technique (and there are chicken recipes in the Roasts chapter) then the Chicken chapter contains all the chicken recipes that aren’t whole roasted birds.
Structuring a book can be very difficult. But I never want them to be pedestrian. I am working on a book at the minute that is proving very difficult indeed to structure.
Beverly Holloway: Just curious: Is there a reason why there are no beef recipes in Simple? Is it difficult to purchase beef in London?
Diana Henry: It’s not at all difficult to purchase beef—and we have great grass-fed beef here—but I don’t cook it that often and, if I’m keeping things simple, it’s steak or roast beef and I don’t believe you should do more to those than season them and cook them. You don’t need a recipe for that. Cheaper cuts of beef—and I do love them—require braising. That takes a bit more effort and I didn’t think those dishes had a place in a book like Simple.
Basically, I’ve always put recipes for the dishes I actually cook into my books—so what is in Simple is a reflection of how I cook. Over the past six or seven years, I have tended to eat less red meat and more vegetables. It wasn’t a decision, it’s just the way my eating has changed. I think a lot of people are doing something similar. I adore chicken and I love vegetables.
Melody Brotherton: Cooking from Simple this month has been my introduction to your work. If you could choose three recipes for me to make that best represent who you are and the food you love, what would you have me to cook?
Diana Henry: What a great question! I think I am known, mostly, for dishes that are big on flavor without being complicated. I would make the Mumbai Toastie (p 57), the Cumin-Roast Eggplants, Chickpeas, Walnuts & Dates (p 74), and the Spelt (you can use faro or wheat berries instead) with Blackberries, Beets, Walnuts & Buttermilk (p 112).
Do I have to stop there? No? Okay, also the Seared Tuna with Preserved Lemon, Olives & Avocado (p 139) and maybe the Turkish Spiced Chicken with Parsley Salad (p 214)—or the Korean Chicken (p 224), it's fantastic for parties in the garden. Then make the Bitter Flourless Chocolate Cake with Coffee Cream (p 318) or the Raspberry Yoghurt Cake (p 327). Then hopefully you’ll make everything else too. ;)
Catherine Sharp-Aouchiche: My biggest cooking-related struggle is finding dishes that appeal to my kids (7 and 9). I assume you have passed through this stage also...do your kids like your recipes as much as we do? Which are their favorite recipes from Simple? And lastly, any tips on encouraging adventurous eaters?
Diana Henry: Sister, I hear you!! My eldest is 18 years old, my youngest has just turned 12 and I have had years of cooking a proper meal for most of the family and pasta with tuna and sweetcorn (or something similar) for the little one! My children weren’t good eaters as babies or toddlers, to be honest—always fussy—and it has been a struggle. BUT—this is the good news—they get much better as they get older. My eldest doesn’t like everything but he will try everything and is also becoming a very good cook himself (and loves restaurants). My advice? Offer them everything, don’t make a massive fuss if they don’t like it, cook in front of them. It’s worked for me. If you cook from scratch and they see that—and, mostly, eat it—they know the importance of good food. They just absorb it (and they absorb how to cook as well).
As to whether they like my food as much as others do, they are my children! They are really tough on me and moments of praise are few and far between! But I get over it. From Simple the really successful dish with the youngest is the Parmesan Roast Chicken with Cauliflower.
Andrea James: Do you do side-by-side tests of adding/leaving out an ingredient or tweaking the technique when you’re developing recipes? Like, say J. Kenji López-Alt (even if perhaps not so obsessively)? If you do, how do you keep track of all your tests? And who eats all the food?
Diana Henry: I do try different things. I basically stand at the cooker with a notebook so I record what I’m doing—I can then change particular details (quantities or a technique) on the next testing. My family gets to eat the food and they are tough critics. (My 18-year-old has a really good palate—he will sometimes say, "Something is missing, something in the middle of that dish," and he can be right. He is not a cook—he’s actually studying medicine—but he’s a very good taster.)
I have to carry tested recipes to neighbors. You can see me in my road carrying foil-covered dishes up and down to various people. Sometimes friends even come and collect lots of dishes and take them away in their car to have their own dinner party. If I’ve been testing and tasting a lot I don’t want to eat the food anymore—I’ve had enough. So my friends take the dishes away and I have a boiled egg and grapefruit!
Nancy Wallack: Which British recipes are hardest to make in the US or Canada? If possible, what accommodation can we make so we have success with these recipes? Or are there some we shouldn't even try because they would fail or taste so different?
Diana Henry: When I look at the US edition of my books I will sometimes substitute entire recipes if I don’t think they can be cooked there (and will test and write a different recipe). For example, you mostly don’t find damsons there. They’re a small very tart plum-like fruit available here early in the autumn (they can’t be eaten raw, only cooked). People here love them and look forward to them but it’s too hard for you to get them (the internet suggests they grow wild in some areas there but are very rare) and substituting plums doesn’t quite do the trick. I look at substitutions for all individual ingredients. There isn’t a recipe that shouldn’t be attempted by a cook in the US—otherwise, I wouldn’t have allowed it to go into the book.
Natalie Tahereh: I've read an article about your introduction to food through your family and you mention that your grandmothers loved to bake. Is this something that you love to do as well and is there a possibility of a baking cookbook in the future from you?
Diana Henry: I love baking, though I never do very complicated things. I just grew up making scones, cakes, tarts, and pancakes. When someone in Northern Ireland is referred to as a great cook what people usually mean is that they’re a great baker—it’s very important there. Cakes were the first things I learned to cook and I still love a Sunday spent baking. I think it’s really therapeutic. I would actually love to do a baking book but it wouldn’t get commissioned here—everyone who goes on the Great British Bake Off tries to get books commissioned so it’s a pretty crowded market! Also, I am not an expert, just a very experienced baker. I have a lot of American baking books—I think you have a great culture of baked goods there too. I particularly love In the Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley (I think she’s Canadian)—that’s a terrific book.
Lyndsey Fleenor: I was wondering out of her own cookbooks that she's published over the years which one is her favorite book and why, and which one does she cook from the most?
Diana Henry: My favorite one is my first one, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons. It does sound as if it was written by someone young (I was about 34 when I started to write it) and it’s strange to hear your voice from an earlier part of your life. It’s an honest, evocative book, though, and very personal. I love it for that.
The books I have written that I most often cook out of are A Change of Appetite (it has such healthy dishes and such big, vibrant flavors) and Plenty (confusingly it has the same title as Ottolenghi’s book—here the same book is called Food from Plenty). It is being re-issued in May in the US. It is a great solid book about using all sorts of cheap cuts of meat, about "sensible" thrifty cooking (there’s a lot of ideas for leftovers) and there are great vegetable and grain dishes, too. I wrote it at the beginning of the economic crash. Everybody was writing pieces about what to do with a tin of baked beans and now to cook cheaply—I felt that there were so many dishes we could cook—if we just thought a bit—such a range of ingredients that weren’t expensive. The recession meant a shift in attitude to cooking (and a good shift—we waste far too much), not a move from "expensive food" to "cheap food." Plenty is the collection that contains the greatest amount of dishes I’ve been cooking my whole life.