“None of the recipes are cranky or punishing,” claims food writer and blogger Diana Henry in her new book A Change of Appetite. I like the title. And I like that idea: healthful cooking that doesn’t make me feel deprived and like pressing my face, tears streaming, against the glass window of my local bakery.
We don’t discuss how personal tastes change and evolve over the course of a lifetime enough -- and that’s what Diana Henry’s recipes aim to address. Henry makes not only a compelling case for wholesome eating, but records a personal revolution: a movement toward eating -- and cooking with -- more vegetables and more grains. In that sense, the book is like a beautifully curated art exhibit.
In paging through A Change of Appetite, I’m reminded of how my own tastes have changed during my childhood with avid gourmet parents and my 20 years of restaurant cooking. I loved digging into bowls of steamed mussels as a kid. Now, having cooked enough mollusks to pave a shell driveway from New York City to Beijing, I can’t look at them. I never tasted an avocado growing up (my father disliked them), but fell hopelessly in love with my first bite at the age of 16. How we come to love particular ingredients is often grounded in taste memory.
How we decide to construct our diet and cooking, though, can be more of a conscious choice. Henry tackles this with grace: As she touches on the good properties of broth and the great debate about carbohydrates, she uses her recipes to substantiate her point of view. And she does it without preaching. Instead, she allows for the beauty and good flavor of her food do the talking. There's a universal appeal to a lot of Henry's recipes and, like Deborah Madison’s vegetarian cookbooks, it makes me want to jump on her bandwagon. Something as simple as explaining how herbs adorn salads in the Middle East and add vitamins, beauty, and flavor all at the same time is what I want from a cookbook. It’s a visually stunning and appetizing way to educate the reader.
It’s in reading her recipes -- and searching for where to start -- that Henry lost me a bit. I love the book as a whole and as a point of view, but I use many cookbooks as inspiration to head directly into the kitchen and get cooking. Did I want to cook from this one?
I found the radical cultural shift from dish to dish disruptive. I perused a Peruvian chicken soup recipe, imagining that first bite of gently simmered chicken spiked with bits of chiles, scallions, and fresh lime juice. Not 10 pages later, I’m making rice paper rolls with nuoc cham in my mind; 15 pages after that, I’m whipping up teriyaki salmon with pickled vegetables. Beautiful? Yes. Confusing? Yes. I feel almost forced to forget the previous recipe as I turn the pages. I understand how a world tour of recipes helps Henry make multiple points about how to eat well and feel good, but I’m not sure what I would look to this book for -- or where I'd begin.
I took it off my shelf anyway: I made her black bread adapted from Dan Lepard’s baking book, Short and Sweet. The texture was as addictive as the notes of coffee, molasses, and caraway seeds. I also made the entire page of vinaigrettes Henry calls “Dressing It Up.” The rose raspberry dressing was a touch strong on the rose; the “Asian Hot-Sour-Salty-Sweet” was addictive but a touch sweet. Still, I loved Henry’s voice throughout the book, telling me that “red mullet is a fish that lifts my spirits” and encouraging readers to “offer napkins because you eat this dish with your hands.”
In Smashing Plates, Maria Elia recounts the story of her journey as a chef through the Greek ingredients that peppered her childhood. Like many who cook professionally, she wandered away from and then gravitated back to her heritage with a newfound, later-in-life passion. Let me begin by being honest: An authority on Greek food I am not. I have Greek food once in a while strolling around Astoria, or when I crave the unique salt of feta and olives. I wonder if I need another Greek cookbook as I crack this one open -- I’ve enjoyed many a meal on Steinway Street in Queens, but I don’t often cook it at home.
Elia first arms us with her arsenal of Greek staples, and I worry fleetingly if I’m about to thumb through the same old repertoire of Greek recipes: a pastitsio, a moussaka, a baklava, maybe her grandmother’s invariably “super garlicky” skordalia.
Nope. Elia begins with a series of small plates, and I find myself bookmarking page after page. I either want to try single component after single component (a raisin vinaigrette, say, or a feta curd) or make and devour entire recipes. String bean and tomato baklava? Goat’s milk ricotta? (Why haven’t I ever thought to try that?) Slow roasted leg of lamb? Warm sesame buns? Sign me up. I raced to the kitchen to cook.
And that’s just it: While I would never state a preference for one book or another before cooking and sampling recipes, I was inspired by this book from the start. It was hard to read through in its entirety without hitting the stove to do some cooking. Isn’t that what we want a cookbook to do?
I made the Zucchini-Coated Calamari, coated with shredded zucchini, cheese, herbs, and bread crumbs. Squid, cheese, and zucchini? I picked this recipe because I didn’t think the ingredients would work together. I was wrong. It was a hit -- a pared-down, unusual combination I would never have thought to try had I not been urged on by Elia’s infectious passion for simplicity. And the tzatziki sauce that accompanied it packed the necessary creamy, garlicky punch. For dessert, I made her poached quince with a cool mix of spices -- bay leaf, star anise, and cloves -- and ate them with Greek yogurt. I loved the savory flavor the bay leaf lent, which brought out a floral note in the quince. I found myself wondering where else bay leaves could go, and what other recipes I might make with quince.
In that sense, Elia’s recipes felt a little like diving boards into pools I have yet to swim in -- the dishes had me wondering where else I could take them. And they were all cohesive: I’d randomly selected recipes, but they still worked together. There are threads of great thought in A Change of Appetite, but it ultimately lacks the kind of continuity Smashing Plates has. When I flip through the latter, I imagine making a table filled with small plates from the book; they all tell the same story, and they’re all slurpy good. Yes, slurpy. I don’t want to smash plates. I want to make these recipes and lick the plates clean.