Is it even possible to have a single favourite cookbook? A specialised cookbook about chocolate is in a whole different category to a culinary encyclopedia or a baking book or an Italian cookbook… and I have favourites in all these categories.
Still, if we were to go by cookbooks which have consistently got a lot of use in my kitchen, Diana Henry’s Cook Simple would have to be near the top of the list (incidentally, if you are in the USA, it’s also published as Pure Simple Cooking, and you cannot imagine how disappointed I was to realise that it was the same book, and not a second book in the series).
Diana Henry is my sort of cook. She likes to play with Mediterranean ingredients and interesting and unusual flavours (there is a lavender and orange cake in one of here earlier books that is the perfect cake for bringing summer to a grey winter’s day), and she enjoys elaborate and unusual recipes that take hours to prepare, but are utterly worth it.
Only then she had a baby and realised that getting more than ten consecutive minutes in the kitchen was a luxury that she no longer had. So she wrote this book, which is an entire collection of recipes that go along the lines of ‘marinate a bunch of stuff, leave it for a while, cook it briefly’. Or ‘combine a whole lot of ingredients and roast them’. Or ‘mix your wet and dry ingredients together, pour into a tin and bake’. Even the recipes which have multiple steps are all the sort of steps which you can take a significant break between and not ruin the recipe.
I can’t express how much I love this book. It really did change the way I cook, at least as far as weeknight dinners are concerned. It is also possibly the easiest cookbook I own, and it really kept me sane when I had a broken leg and couldn’t stand up to cook (I made my husband bring me the book and the ingredients, which I could prepare at the table for him to roast or cook as needed). The recipes all work (mostly by letting the oven do the work for you – you do need an oven to get the most out of this book, though it doesn’t have to have any special features such as temperatures that match what they say on the dial – these recipes are also very forgiving), and they all taste much better than you would expect from the minimal preparation time involved. Most of the preparation, incidentally, is things like chopping vegetables – this is not a cookbook that relies on pre-made ingredients, though there is a whole section on things to do with a tub of good-quality icecream.
Yes, but what are the recipes like, I hear you cry? Well, it has a fair number of roasts and bakes – there’s a lovely recipe for chicken baked under yoghurt, and an entire section on stuffings – you could get through about four months without repeating your Sunday roast chicken recipe, after which you could move on to the roast lamb. She has some excellent things to do with sausages (which she also bakes); I love her vine growers’ sausages cooked with red grapes, her gascon sausages and beans (which I think of as Cheat’s Cassoulet), and her penne with sausages and broccoli.
This is far from a vegetarian cookbook, but there is definitely no lack of vegetarian options. Aside from some lovely pastas and salads, she really shines in her vegetable accompaniments, many of which would make excellent mains. Her indian spiced roast vegetables are a symphony in shades of orange (seriously, pumpkin, sweet potato and carrot with brown onions and spices look absolutely glorious together), and her recipe for zucchini simply sautéed in olive oil, layered with mint, basil and fresh ricotta, and drizzled with lemon juice is something I could eat all summer. Actually, she has an absolute gift for roast vegetable dishes. She is also not afraid of legumes, and I’ll be providing my adaptation of her lentils and peppers dish in the next post.
She also has a good section on desserts and cakes, which draw heavily on fruit desserts – my favourite kind. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve made her rose-drenched lime and yoghurt cake – it’s beautiful and easy and tastes phenomenal, and also keeps happily for several days.
In short, I love this book. If you had never cooked much and wanted a good, basic, reliable cookbook that would teach you to use a good range of ingredients well, this the book I’d recommend. I can’t reiterate enough how easy it is to use. And if you are a meat-and-three-veg person looking to spread your wings a little, I’d recommend it even more highly. Diana Henry’s ingredients are the sort you can find at the supermarket and the sort you’ve cooked with all your life, but the combinations and the results are colourful and flavourful and interesting, and best of all, the recipes all work. (OK, I haven’t cooked everything in this book, but a quick flip through found at least thirty that I have cooked, and there isn’t one that I don’t remember fondly)
But it’s also a fabulous cookbook for any cook looking to expand their repertoire or meals that don’t take long to make and taste fabulous. After all, the less time you spend on dinner, the more time you have for making dessert…
Yeah, it’s a really good cookbook.