Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours is Diana Henry’s tenth book and in it she revisits many of the themes that were first set out in an earlier book – Cook Simple, which she wrote as a harried new mother with little spare time to cook the elaborate meals she had favoured before her baby son was born. Despite the demands of motherhood, Diana wanted food that was still delicious to eat but easier to prepare. Her son Ted is now 18 but the no-nonsense approach that she developed when he was an infant is something that has underpinned her recipes ever since.
Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Diana Henry grew up in a family where home-cooked meals were standard. An exchange trip to France in her teens introduced her up to new flavours and her love affair with food began in earnest. On leaving school, she studied English Literature at Oxford before moving to London to pursue post-graduate studies in Journalism. In London, with its melting pot of cultures, she further extended her culinary horizons trying out Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern food for the first time.
Diana is a busy woman. In addition to her weekly food column in The Sunday Telegraph, she regularly contributes to other publications and when she can, she hosts radio programs. However, her cookbooks are central to the work that she does. Although her previous books have covered topics as diverse as gastropub food and winter-inspired recipes from North America and Northern Europe, they all have one thing in common; they are written with passion. Moreover, she has a real understanding of the requirements of home cooks and this comes through in all her writing. It is easy to see why her books have won numerous awards. Her last book ‘A Bird in the Hand’, a collection of creative chicken recipes, won the prestigious James Beard award in 2016.
The title of Diana’s latest book explains exactly what it is all about; flavoursome, fuss-free recipes. In many ways, food is a barometer of society’s changing tastes and fashions and the recipes in Simple reflect this. Many of them incorporate ingredients that seemed exotic a few years ago but are becoming increasingly commonplace in our kitchens. These ingredients are used in the recipes in a way that makes sense and without being contrived or pretentious.
Simple contains more than 150 recipes with chapters covering Salads and Toast as well as Pulses, Pasta & Grains. However meat-lovers need not worry because there are also chapters on Fish, Chops & Sausages, Roasts and Chicken. The book finishes with a brace of chapters entitled Fruit Puddings and Other Sweet Things. The opening chapter on Eggs includes some interesting new recipe ideas using this most humble of ingredients. I was particularly drawn to the Persian-Inspired Eggs with Chillies – a dish full of Eastern promise – which involved pan-frying the eggs with spinach, Medjool dates and spices. An equally intriguing dish of Eggs with Peppers and ‘Nduja (a spicy pork paste from Calabria) also managed to get my gastric juices flowing.
I couldn’t wait to get stuck in and try out some of the recipes. In truth, I can see myself trying most of them out at some point but for the purposes of this review decided to pick a representative cross-section beginning with the Carrot Houmous, Roast Tomatoes & Harissa Yogurt – an interesting alternative to a classic houmous.
The houmous was incredibly easy to make and used ingredients that I already had in my pantry. Carrots were peeled and chopped before being simmered in a pan of water until tender. They were then blended in a food processor together with canned chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice. Gently spiced with cumin, the houmous was absolutely delicious and I thought the suggested accompaniments of roasted tomatoes and harissa yogurt were just perfect with it.
The beautiful images in the book by photographer Laura Edwards further tempt the taste buds. I was irresistibly drawn to the look of the Pork Chops with Mustard & Capers so decided to try it out for myself. Most people think of capers as a garnish – something strewn like confetti on top of smoked salmon or as part of an antipasti platter but here they were an integral part of the dish imparting saline pops of flavour to the rich and creamy sauce that accompanied the pork chops. I’m struggling to find words to describe this dish because it was just heavenly; deeply savoury, quick-to-make and… oh… SO tasty! I have made it on numerous occasions since getting my hands on Simple. A recipe for Coffee-Brined Pork Chops with Hot Sweet Potatoes also sounds fascinating so I plan to make it soon.
Next, I made the Smoked Sausage with Spilt Pea Purée & Caraway Butter. It’s probably something to do with my memories of the caraway cake that my grandmother used to make, but I have always been a huge fan of anything flavoured with this fragrant, slightly bitter spice. Again, I had most of the ingredients to hand but had to buy the smoked Morteau sausage. This was poached whilst the yellow split peas simmered on the hob and everything was brought together with a sauce simply made from toasted caraway seeds and butter. This dish was, without a doubt, one of the most delicious things that I have eaten this year and I can see it becoming a new family favourite.
To finish my recipe road-test, I made the Roast Apricot & Orange Blossom Fool. Here halved apricots were roasted in a dish with a splash of wine and seeds scraped from a vanilla pod before being puréed and folded through some double cream and Greek yoghurt. Served in bowls and topped with roasted apricot halves this was a wonderfully elegant dessert. What I like so much about this recipe is the fact that it can be easily adapted to include other fruits that are in season.
Without exaggeration, I truly believe that Simple is a seminal cookery book. The recipes in it are contemporary but the ideas behind them are timeless. It is a book that sits comfortably with the realities of modern living and contains recipes that are straightforward but never compromise on taste. This is a book that truly stands out from the tens of thousands of cookery books that are published every year and I believe every kitchen should have a copy. Put it on your Christmas lists!
Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours by Diana Henry is published by Orion and is available to buy here.
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.