When British food writer Diana Henry was in her teens, she started to keep of a notebook of menus. She didn’t cook all the menus she collected, but “liked the exercise of putting dishes together, considering what would work well and yet not leave the cook frazzled," said Henry. Her teenage fascination culminates in her eleventh cookbook, How to Eat a Peach: Menus, Stories and Places, which offers menus for each season, and will be published in May by Mitchell Beazley.
Henry, food columnist for the U.K's Sunday Telegraph, continues to find her footing with American audiences with her latest effort. Mitchell Beazley sent her on her first American tour for 2015's A Bird in the Hand, which also took home a James Beard award. As her star continues to rise Stateside, Mitchell Beazley regularly reissues Henry’s backlist—the publisher recently re-released Plenty (2010) and will publish a new edition of Pure Simple Cooking (2009) in September. “It’s wonderful that each new book Diana publishes outsells the last as her audience expands,” said Mitchell Beazley editor Denise Bates, noting that Henry’s 10 combined titles have sold a total of 670,000 copies worldwide. “Her recipes, her enormous passion for food, and her honesty are what makes her and her books so relatable, whichever side of the pond you’re on.”
PW chatted with Henry about reaching readers in the States, the rules of menu-making, and what titles she’s looking to add to her vast cookbook collection.
What, to you, makes a good menu? What are the keys to crafting the perfect meal, start to finish?
Nearly all rules can be bent or broken but I have my guidelines. First, a meal shouldn’t be too rich, so don’t use a lot of cream or butter across a meal, though you can always have cream in the pudding. Likewise with anything based on egg yolks. I would never, for example, have aioli in a menu that finished with an ice cream.
Don’t make a starter that is too heavy. I offer soups at lunch, lunch can be built on soup, but I never have it as an appetizer unless it’s a light cold soup.
Don’t have more than once course that needs last minute attention. You need to talk to your guests, not be frazzled.
Don’t repeat ingredients. Generally if I have fish in the starter I won’t have another fish dish. Though this is a rule that I sometimes break myself.
Whatever you are serving offer good butter and good bread. It is the small things that make a difference.
Don’t add masses of choices of sides dishes or puddings. It is just more elegant, as well as less exhausting, to keep things simple.
I love a menu which weaves around a bit. An unusual salad, like raw fish with radishes, flowers, leaves and a dressing made of preserved lemons and honey, before something very plain like a roast chicken. I would then perhaps follow that with an apricot and almond tart, something that takes a bit of work in the preparation. I like the mixture of the homely with the more unusual.
Do you have a favorite menu—from a restaurant, a dinner party, or one you’ve put together yourself?
It’s hard to choose one from the book but friends, both home cooks and chefs, have really fallen in love with the menu in the book that celebrates spring, and San Francisco. This menu starts with spinach and ricotta gnudi, then there is roast lamb, flavored with lots of herbs and lemon, served with radishes and sarassou (a French preparation, a mixture of creme fraiche and fromage blanc with herbs and garlic), fresh fava beans with wilted lettuce and mint. The dessert is pink grapefruit and basil ice-cream. I love the way the perfume of the basil works with the sweet-bitter flavor of grapefruit. This ice cream is also a beautiful colour.
Your cookbook collection of 4,000 cookbooks is well-documented! What makes a good cookbook? And any favorite titles in the past year? Or ones coming out soon that you’re looking forward to?
This next year I am really looking forward to the first book by Nik Sharma from San Francisco (Season, Chronicle, Oct.). I know him from social media, so we have chatted there, and I’ve seen the proofs of this book. He has a very special photographic style. It’s as if brightness glows out of dark backgrounds, and his food has great clarity. He is a wizard with flavors. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this. Also, Joyce Goldstein has written a book on preserves (Jam Session, Ten Speed, June) that I’m really looking forward to. She is another person who is brilliant at combining flavors.
The best cookbooks reflect the author in every aspect, the writing, the recipes, the design and the photography. I think a book should come together as a “whole” and be a complete statement of an author’s individual style.
You’re embarking on your third American tour for How to Eat a Peach. What do you make of the American cookbook readership?
I have always been very keen to reach American readers, not because of sales, just because I really like the States a lot and I love my American readers for their warmth and frankness. I wish I could actually meet more of them in person but they’re so good at chatting on social media I feel like I do communicate with them quite a lot.
America, California and NYC in particular, has had a big influence on the way I cook. California for the kind of local and seasonal cooking that came to the fore there in the 1980s, via Alice Waters and the late Judy Rodgers, and New York for its sheer energy and inventiveness. My substantial collection of cookbooks has more titles about and from America than any other part of the world. I bought The Silver Palate when I was 18. That was my first American book.
American food writers have really welcomed me, on both a personal and professional level, and I’ve been thrilled by that. I’ve made good friends. It’s been great to become part of the community of food writers in the U.S. and to meet up with them on the trips I make there.
I am Irish. I feel right at home in the States. Unlike in England, there I am not usually the noisiest person in the room!