How to make brilliant food when you’re busy

Diana Henry

Diana Henry - Credit: Archant

There’s no shortage of cook books to buy foodie friends and relatives. And there are some beautiful ones produced in Suffolk. Catherine Larner talked to food writer Diana Henry about her latest tome, Simple

Diana Henry book

Diana Henry book - Credit: Archant

Exquisite images of dishes boasting extraordinary flavours fill the pages of books by award-winning food writer Diana Henry. But, in truth, her criterion for including recipes is whether she would cook the meals for her own family.

“I ask myself, would I really cook this on a Wednesday night? Would I really do this for a Sunday lunch? If the answer is no, well no one else is going to either, frankly.”

Diana remembers how, despite having a passion for food and cooking since childhood in Northern Ireland, the demands of family life meant that when she became a mother she often relied on takeaway pizza.

Diana Henry

Diana Henry - Credit: Archant

“I had just had my first child (he’s now 18). He used to cry constantly and I was always carrying him around on my hip. It was one-hand-cooking and I only had the energy to bung things in the oven,” she says. But having spent weekends working through cookbooks by Claudia Roden and Julia Childs, and taking a year away from work as a BBC TV producer to pursue a diploma at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, Diana was ultimately able to create a book of recipes that were ideal for busy people. Called Cook Simple it continues to have tremendous appeal.

“For people who are not massive cooks,” she says, “it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Somebody once said to me that they can burn water, but they can cook from that book. As a food writer, to be able to write recipes for people who aren’t confident at cooking is brilliant. I want to be empowering, above all. I want people to think, I’ll give that a go.”

Diana Henry

Diana Henry - Credit: Archant

Diana has remained a popular and trusted food writer with a weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine among many other publications, and writing nine more stunning cookbooks, all beautifully produced, clearly and warmly written, and with evocative and imaginative titles, such as Crazy Water Pickled Lemons and Roast Figs Sugar Snow. How the food looks on the page is very important to her.

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“If I was standing in a bookshop and flicking through the pages, are there enough recipes that look easy or delicious?” Her latest book revisits the earlier concept of ‘low-effort food’, but is no longer dominated by the oven-based dishes of Cook Simple.

Diana Henry. Pic: Chris Terry.

Diana Henry. Pic: Chris Terry. - Credit: Chris Terry

“Those are still my favourites when I’m feeling a bit lazy in the week,” she says. “But there are other things as well – fish or meat cooked on a griddle and served with a relish, or in a frying pan with a simple sauce. There are a few things – dahls and other pulse dishes – which can simmer away on the hob while I do something else. Nothing over-complicated.”

This new book, called Simple, also reflects the change in our eating habits, she says, with recipes using grains, vegetables and more unusual ingredients.

“The British are like magpies,” she says. “We are very happy to use influences from abroad but we also have a lot of good stuff on our doorstep. I don’t think it matters if you are cooking with pomegranate molasses that come from Turkey or Iran, but I think you should also be cooking with British ingredients and British flavours.”

A frequent visitor to Suffolk, Diana delights in all the county has to offer. She launched Simple at an event at Browsers Bookshop in Woodbridge in September, and has visited the coast for many years. She has enjoyed meals at the Crown in Southwold, takes home bacon, salami and chorizo from the Aldeburgh Food Festival, has worked with Sutton Hoo Chickens, and is in ecstasy at the memory of unpasteurized milk from Fen Farm Dairy.

“The funny thing about Suffolk is that it is quiet about all that it has, in a very nice way. Other areas are shouting. I think Suffolk is very modest.”

And while we delight in all the new exciting flavours and recipes we want to try, Diana also stresses the importance of comfort and familiarity, meals with associations of home, dishes that we eat time and again, that make us feel rooted. Diana’s 11-year-old son, for example, would be happy with tuna pasta and sweetcorn at every meal. Her eldest son, though, has just ‘discovered’ food.

“The other day I did something with dates and mackerel and a spicy broth. He said, ‘you know what this is missing? Preserved lemons!’ And he was right!”

Simple by Diana Henry is published by Mitchell Beazley, £25

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