When London-based food columnist and prolific cookbook author Diana Henry discovered her desire to eat lighter, more vegetable-centric dishes, a year of good eating and a new cookbook called A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious (Mitchell Beazley, June) followed. PW spoke with Henry about her transformation and how she created this nourishing, flavorful, and elegant collection of recipes.
Was there a light-bulb moment that led to your “craving” for healthy eating?
There were several things that took place in about a six-month period. My father got cancer, and a lot of my friends were at the age when they began to consider the health of their husbands. I found myself asking questions and looking for recipes for them, especially those high in protein. Also, I have very high blood pressure, and my doctor was annoyed with me. As the eldest daughter, divorced and with two kids, I realized that I was next in the driver’s seat. I’m a workaholic and love my job, but I was quite rebellious in what I choose to eat, so I had to look at myself and explore what healthy eating really means. In the last five to seven years, [people] have been eating differently. Unconsciously, we quite naturally drifted toward lighter eating and discovered that it makes you feel energetic, healthy and good about yourself. And my taste has changed over the years as well.
This recipe collection is, as your book title states, “Where Healthy Meets Delicious.” How does this approach to eating translate into the kitchen of the home cook?
Think about what you already eat that you love to cook that is healthy. I don’t like the notion of starting with the word health and then deciding what you can eat. Rather, work backwards and then you will just naturally start to focus. This is what I call “accidentally healthy” eating. For me, I concentrated on food from the Middle East, Japan, and Vietnam. I thought this might be a bit of a struggle, especially with the kids, but my partner loved this food and began to request it when I was testing it at home for my column.
What is it about the approach to food in these cultures, or other global cuisines, that coincides with your own?
They are vegetable- and fruit-based, though nothing is forbidden. I plundered where there was an emphasis on lean protein and vegetables. The Japanese eat a lot of white rice, so I tended not to look at those kinds of dishes. I also love the nuttiness of whole grains—freekeh, quinoa, long grain brown rice, kamut. I’d find it very hard to live without grains, and my children love them. It’s healthy, savory stuff that allows me to eat a balanced diet.
The recipes in this book are organized by seasons. In what way is seasonal eating connected to healthier eating?
Food tastes better when it is in season, and I grew up like that. We did not eat exotic ingredients. You had what was local, what was there. I love the changing of the seasons, and it is what makes eating and cooking enjoyable. My children are not bothered when proper strawberry season comes around because they see them all the time, but as a child, I loved the arrival of summer strawberries, and we ate them ravenously when they were only there for the summer.
Many of your recipes are designed to be vegetarian-friendly, calorie conscious, and nutritious. Would you say that this new book is also a diet book?
No, and I was worried about that. I did not want people to see it that way. Dieting interferes with your metabolism and can actually make you fat. Your body doesn’t want you to overeat and then under-eat. You do not have to eat carrot sticks after the age of 40 to maintain weight and health! For example, the recipe for nectarine, tomato, and basil salad with buffalo mozzarella is getting a popular response and is an attractive dish that combines healthy and delicious. When I was putting this book together, I really thought about what the dishes would look like when you are eating them. The way the Japanese look at food is that they see the bounty and beauty on the plate before they start eating. The pleasure starts when you look at it. The healthy follows.
What underappreciated ingredients do you highlight in your cookbook?
I got quite into mooli, an eastern white radish, or daikon. I had not cooked with that before, and I liked the crunch. Also, I had never done anything with miso. Ingredients with strong flavor, like chile, ginger, or lime came to the forefront. Many of the recipes include ordinary, inexpensive carrots, which you can do a lot with. So I got a kick out of looking at things we eat everyday and seeing the unexpected.
Due out this fall is a revised edition of your book Roast Figs Sugar Snow: Food to Warm the Soul (2011), which showcased a collection of winter recipes. What will this new edition include?
I have changed quite a few recipes, especially those that would appeal to the American palate. I like reaching out to Americans because American cooking really influenced my development as a writer, and I would like to continue to reach the American audience. I was very influenced by the works of Claudia Roden and also Alice Waters. America remains my favorite country to go to for a fantastic eating holiday, particularly in New York, California, and Maine. In Great Britain, farmers markets have become more of a fashionable, commercialized thing, but in America, they are truly farm-to-table and based on sincere caring. I like honest, simplified American tastes, so these revisited recipes reflect that.
How have readers of your eight cookbooks and Telegraph column responded to your new approach to eating and cooking?
Change of Appetite might be my most successful book so far, along with Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, which was also healthy because of the Mediterranean focus. I wouldn’t have anticipated that books that have to do with healthy food would be the most successful. But I wanted to show that it’s the food you eat every day that helps you stay healthy, and I think broadly that is the right approach, as my readership has shown.
What’s next for you? What new projects are you working on?
I’m always working on the next book, and I’ll be in the states in April with the global chicken recipes cookbook, Bird in the Hand. The one after that I’ve been working on for a decade. For me, books percolate a long time and are different in type. Quick cooking is another strand I enjoy writing about. It’s the kind of cookbook that helps people answer the question, “What am I gong to do for supper?” every night of the week.
A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious by Diana Henry. Mitchell Beazley (Octopus, dist.), June. ISBN 978-1-84533-892-3