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Diana Henry on the joy of simple cooking: ‘I’m quite lazy, you see’

Chris Terry

Diana Henry may have trained as a chef, but she has always been most excited about cooking in her own London kitchen, where she creates hundreds of recipes a year. In her nine cookbooks, Henry has proven herself a prolific master at developing recipes for home cooks. She has a James Beard award and countless fans for her Sunday Telegraph columns to prove it. “I couldn’t have done very complex dishes like Alain Ducasse,” she says. “But I like a very home-level mucking about with flavors.” For her book “Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors,” Henry has created 150 new recipes that reflect her approach to cooking: flavors from her world travels combined with techniques and preparations created with home cooks in mind.

Q. How has your approach to cooking evolved over the years?


A. I did a book after my child was born called “Cook Simple.” I more or less had to cook one-handed. People think simple food is food that’s on the table really quickly. I think that’s kind of a mistake. You might be doing stuff at the countertop for 20 minutes to get them on the table. But I didn’t really care if things went into the oven for an hour and a half. The book that I’ve just done is a bit of a move on from that original one. There is slightly more technique. But largely, it’s about food that will kind of look after itself.

Q. What do you love about simple cooking?

A. I’m quite lazy, you see. I really love food and I really like big flavors. I get lazier as I get older. I used to be able to prepare for people and start at like 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning. I don’t want to do that anymore. Now the things I want, apart from Italian, which is very simple, are big, bright flavors. We want those flavors that attack the front of the mouth — fish sauce, chile, that kind of thing.


Q. What flavors are you excited about using now?

A. I haven’t really cooked much with miso until about a year and a half ago. In the book, there’s a roast pumpkin and mushroom dish that’s got a miso dressing, and the pumpkin has miso spread on it when it roasts. That means you end up with something that’s kind of sweet and umami at the same time. I think a lot about sweet against savory. I like the Asian thing of hot, sour, salty, sweet. I think about temperatures as well.

Q. How can cooks keep things simple without falling into a rut?

A. Quite often when I go give talks, I’m confronted by women and sometimes men who are in a state because they’re not doing stuff that they feel is inventive enough. There’s nothing boring about stuff that’s simple. The whole chef thing on television, I think instead of making us feel we can cook, it makes us feel we can’t because what they’re doing is complicated and we think that is what cooking is about. Home cooking has always been about doing stuff that really doesn’t take very complicated techniques. I don’t think we should be apologetic about cooking simple things. If I think about the things I kind of fell in love with, which was French and Italian food, nothing is very complicated. A piece of salmon that you just roast in the oven and then make a little easy sauce with crème fraiche, maybe a little bit of mayonnaise, capers, chopped gherkins, shallots, and some French herbs, that is lovely. And that is not just a dish where you kind of think, oh, that’s nice on a Wednesday night. That’s fine for a Saturday night. I think we beat ourselves up a bit much.


Q. You’ve extended simple cooking to how you entertain.

A. I would get to the point where I would say, “Oh my God, I haven’t made my own bread. How terrible.” Get a grip. Having people in to dinner is not about me cooking. It’s about seeing them as well. Also what I do more than I used to is have friends around on a Thursday or a Friday, so I don’t spend all day cooking because I don’t have all day to do it. That makes me feel like an Italian. There’s nothing worse than going to people’s houses and there are three side dishes and then a trolly of desserts. It’s awful. It’s not classy.

Q. You’ve written so many recipes at this point. Do they all turn out the way you want?

A. You do things that fall flat. I did a dish recently that was roast pumpkin that was ever so slightly spicy with burrata, and I did a hazelnut pesto for that. So I served all this, and then my son goes, “No texture. It’s all too soft.” I said, “What am I going to do about that? Am I going to add breadcrumbs?” He said, “No.” They’re really harsh critics.


Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com