Cookbook review: Simple, Diana Henry

Flourless chocolate cake

Much has been said about Diana Henry as a food writer who reads, whose voracious appetite for literature (epicurean or otherwise) has influenced the development of her own evocative voice. Yet, for me, it is equally important that she is a food writer who cooks - not in a restaurant kitchen, but in a home kitchen. 

In Simple, as in her other books, Henry’s experience of cooking at home is evident in her honest way of looking at food. She acknowledges that most of us never buy the utensils listed in the ‘cooking equipment’ section; she understands that many of us require meals that are quick to prepare; she reflects the change in our eating habits, with fish, vegetables, grains and pulses receiving as much consideration as meat dishes.

Cook Simple (2004) was a guide for less confident or time-poor cooks, perhaps those balancing a baby in one hand and a baking tray in the other, who required low-effort cooking. Whilst Simple retains this practical outlook, Henry offers a wider range of techniques and flavours to transform simple ingredients into something special. From refreshing salads to hearty, comforting meals and make-aways, this is not only food that you can cook, but food that you really, really want to cook. 

Initial impressions: structure and style

The structure of Simple supports readers to build layers of flavour: each chapter is based on a key building block for a meal, which is then assembled in a variety of different ways. There are chapters on eggs, salads, pulses, pasta and grains, fish, chicken, and so on. There is even, much to my delight, a chapter dedicated to toast. 

This structure is flexible, so you can use chapters (or blocks) both independently and together. For instance, the aubergine, chickpea, walnut and date recipe from the Pulses block is a wonderful side for a dish from the Roasts chapter, but works equally well on its own as a light lunch. Henry encourages the reader not only to combine, but to adapt, recipes - perhaps adding a grain to make a dish more substantial, or substituting one green for another depending on the season.

Each chapter features Henry’s reflections on the food group at its focus, written in her evocative style. We are transported to a quiet trattoria in suburban Rome to experience the joy of pasta; we trudge to the university spud van when, as a 2am essay crisis hits, only a jacket potato will do; and we kick off our shoes and turn up the music as we tuck into a hot dog. Together, we take in the simplest of pleasures: toast with butter or making a quick meal from a can of beans, a tin of anchovies. 

Each vivid memory precedes practical advice on how to cook the ingredient in question. We are told how to prepare pasta to retain its flavour and bite, rather than overcooking or cloaking it in a sauce, and to cook eggs with care to create a luxurious, silky texture. At each turn, Henry’s eloquent descriptions persuade us, and her instructions guide us, to bring the best out of every ingredient. 

Aubergine, chickpea, walnut & date
Root, shiitake and noodle salad

Frequently found flavours: ingredients that appear often

Throughout Simple, international ingredients are used to elevate more familiar flavours. Henry’s longstanding affection for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines is especially evident. Pomegranate brings out the natural sweetness of roasted carrots and appears again later, this time with olives and chickpeas, to brighten a warm cauliflower salad.  Aubergine, preserved lemons, feta, tahini, dates, sumac and many other Middle Eastern items also appear regularly.

Other common ingredients stem from Henry’s research into colder climates for Roast Figs, Sugar Snow - spelt, caraway, blackberries. Dill is particularly prevalent. It appears often in the fish chapter, but its faintly aniseed flavour is also used elsewhere to balance creamy feta or to add clean, fresh notes to harissa roast carrots. Then there is spice and sweetness from Asia. Miso stands up to the robust, earthy flavours of root vegetables and mackerel, and a chilli, ginger and lime dressing heats up cool greens for a sprightly summer salad. 

And it’s not always international ingredients that transform suppers into something special. Crab, for instance, adds an element of luxury to more everyday ingredients, from toast to pasta to cod. Vermouth, too, is ubiquitous, lending character and complexity to roast lamb, baked tomatoes or a prawn pilaf. In these recipes, Henry shows that everything from the local catch in your fishmongers to the bottle of booze gathering dust at the back of your cupboard can be used to create variety in your cooking. 

New favourites: recipes I now cook regularly

As is the sign of any good cookbook, there are now a number of recipes from Simple that are on regular rotation in our house, as well as others that are reserved for more special occassions. 

Pappardelle with cavolo nero, chilli, garlic and hazelnuts has become a go-to speedy supper, for it is simple and frugal, yet very tasty. The root, shiitake and noodle salad is the solution when we have been craving something fresh and vibrant, yet seasonal, during the winter months. By the opposite token, the orzo with lemon and parmesan has offered rich, oozy comfort on cold nights curled up on the sofa. 

We’ve made the salmon en papillote and the prawn pilaf, both from the fish section, for several weekday dinners. For an alternative to a Sunday roast, I recommend both the parmesan roast chicken with cauliflower and the Moroccan-spiced chicken with aubergine and dates. Follow up with the bitter flourless chocolate cake, crowned by whiskey-laced coffee cream, and you’re in food heaven. 

Pappardelle with cavolo nero (2)
Pappardelle with cavil nero

Next on the menu: dishes I’m planning to make

Henry’s food inspires joy, both in the cooking and the eating, and there are many untried recipes that make me excited for the future moments I will spend in the kitchen. I am particularly looking forward to the arrival of spring produce, when the rhubarb and raspberry crumble cake is first on my list, closely followed by the asparagus with goat’s cheese and the griddled courgette with burrata and fregola.  

For a devotee of breakfast foods, I’ve surprisingly not yet made in-roads to the chapters on eggs and toast. On weekend mornings from here-on in, I hope to be found with a slice (or two) of sourdough piled high with Persian-inspired eggs, dates and chilli or with boozy mushrooms sautéed in cream and vermouth. Both dishes speak to me of something simple, yet utterly sumptuous. 

These are clever recipes. With no-fuss cooking methods, interesting flavour combinations and real respect for each ingredient, Diana Henry empowers us to create food at its finest.