'I love the alchemy that takes place behind the oven door' - Diana Henry
Diana Henry is in her kitchen when I phone to talk about her new book. I've visited her here before and I can see the room in my mind's eye, a large space to the back of the house in North London she shares with her two sons: Gillies, a medical student, and Ted, still in school.
This is where Diana works, testing recipes and writing newspaper columns. The shelves are laden with cookbooks, ordered by author and topic, arranged according to cuisine. There's a comfy sofa in one corner, and a large dining table surrounded by chairs.
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At a time when publishers' lists are coming down with cookbooks from chain restaurants and celebrity chefs, a new book from Diana is something home cooks can get excited about. She's the undisputed cookbook queen; you know that she cooks day in, day out, and is not in thrall to some dated notion of 'entertaining' and all the faux glamour that that implies. Hers is real food for real people.
As Diana writes in the introduction to From the Oven to the Table, explaining the premise behind a collection of recipes that are already amongst the most used in my own kitchen since receiving an advance copy over the summer, "closing the oven door and swinging a tea towel over my shoulder is one of the most satisfying movements I make in the kitchen. I love the alchemy that takes place behind that door. It's astonishing how heat, on its own - without you directing it or supervising it very much - can turn simple ingredients into a meal".
Diana is a skilled cook, capable of turning her hand to the most complicated recipes, employing the most demanding of techniques. She is happy to devote hours to complex recipes - just not every day, and particularly not from Monday to Thursday when she simply doesn't have the time. From the Oven to the Table was born out of a practical need to get tasty meals on the table without too much fuss, a compendium of recipes developed over the years from a starting point of the late Antonio Carluccio's recipe for chicken thighs cooked with little potatoes, red-onion wedges, garlic, rosemary and olive oil.
"When I discovered it - it's in his book An Invitation to Italian Cooking - I silently mouthed the word 'genius' and knew I had stumbled across something life-changing," she writes.
"You don't brown anything, you just put the ingredients in a roasting tin, season them, put them in the oven and wait for 45 minutes. Then you eat. It's still the meal I have cooked more than any other over the last 20 years."
Over the years, Diana has built up a repertoire of dishes with this common theme, some with a layer of stock poured underneath the meat.
"As the dish cooks, the top becomes golden and a sauce develops below," she explains. "I worked out how to apply this approach to rice instead of potatoes, the stock reducing and being absorbed as the grains cook to tenderness. I roast foods that are more usually done in a pan on the hob - sausages, broccoli and salmon fillets - just because I think it's easier. It is literally 'hands off ' cooking.
"If the kind of cooking you want to do is bung it in the oven," says Diana, "then what you really need are ideas. Many of the recipes in the book are variations on a theme - I'm still inventing new recipes based on what's in the book. The other night I did veal meatballs with orzo - you don't brown anything in a pan - they were delicious. While I was writing the book, everything I cooked was going in to the oven and I found that I hadn't sautéed anything in a while. I did something the other night that started with browning chicken in a pan and it had a completely different texture, it was almost old-fashioned.
"There's a lovely caramelisation that happens in the oven, and even crappy tomatoes and woolly apricots - the kind you think 'nothing will ever come of this' - become sweet and honeyed. Honestly, there is nothing I would rather eat than a bowl of those apricots with crème fraîche."
But while all is good in the kitchen, Diana, who is originally from the North, is in despair when it comes to the current political situation.
"I can't believe we are living through this, you get worn down," she says. "The whole thing is a disaster. The British people have been terribly lied to and some of the people telling the lies are going to get very rich on the back of those lies. I don't know how they sleep at night, I feel we are on the edge of catastrophe.
"And I am appalled by the newspaper coverage here of Ireland's position. It's like being back in the 1970s, I can feel the hostility. These are the worst Anglo-Irish relations in decades... and we could end up with the Troubles starting again.
"When you think of the decades, of the hours, put in by Irish and British politicians to bring peace to Northern Ireland - a peace that I can feel every time I visit - I am disgusted that they are willing to let that go, to play fast and loose with politics there.
"Basically, Ireland is moving forward and the UK is moving backwards. People used to say the Irish were stuck in the past - and that partly explained the Troubles - but not anymore. When you look at that great groundswell of campaigning that went on in Ireland prior to the referendum on abortion, you can only see Ireland as open-minded, young, and able to change things by talking to people and convincing them to change their minds. As many as possible are applying for Irish passports; I'd move myself if it wasn't for Ted still having four years left of secondary school."
A couple of days after we speak, I email Diana to check something and tell her that I've just tried another recipe from the book - the green beans featured here - alongside some beautiful fresh plaice, roasted in the oven for the last 10 minutes. It's another success.
"You see," she emails back. "Roasting is the best thing! Intense flavours, dishes that are easy to make. That's also nice finished with toasted rye-caraway bread crumbs and a creamy dill dressing (with some fried cubes of bacon thrown in). Same dish, but the dressing puts it in Eastern Europe instead of the Middle East."
Cassis & bay-baked pears with blackberries
Pears are the most adaptable, well-behaved, rewarding fruits for autumn and winter puddings. Their flesh really sucks up other flavours, becoming imbued with red wine, Marsala, cinnamon, star anise or whatever else you choose. This is a 'very-beginning-of-autumn' dessert, to be made while blackberries are still around. Bay is underrated in sweet dishes; its peppery, slightly menthol flavour is subtle, but it provides a savoury hum. This is best made the day before serving, then the pears have time to take on the rich colour of the wine and cassis.
6 just-ripe pears
100ml (3½fl oz) cassis
300ml (½ pint) red wine
60g (2¼oz) caster sugar
3 bay leaves
150g (5½oz) blackberries
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (375°F)/ gas mark 5.
2. Halve the pears - you don't need to peel or core them - and put them, cut sides up, into a gratin dish in which the fruit can sit quite snugly in a single layer. Pour the cassis and red wine over the pears, sprinkle with the sugar and tuck the bay leaves under the fruit.
3. Bake - spooning the juices over the pears from time to time - until the fruits are tender right through to the centre (how long this takes depends on the ripeness of the fruit; start checking after 20 minutes, but it could take as long as 35 minutes).
3. It's a good idea to turn the pears over a couple of times while they're cooking. By the time the fruit is cooked, the juice around it won't be thick, but should be syrupy and sweet enough to serve as it is. If you don't think it is, then remove the pears and bay leaves and reduce the juices by boiling them for a little while, leave to cool, then pour them back into the dish with the pears.
4. Add the berries about 30 minutes before you want to serve, spooning the juices over them, otherwise they get very soft sitting in the red-wine syrup.
Cumin-roast green beans & tomatoes with tahinii & coriander
If you've never roasted green beans, you've been missing out. They stay a little crisp, wrinkle ever so slightly and have a more intense flavour than beans cooked in (or over) water. You need to pay attention to timings, though. The beans can turn from perfect to overdone quite suddenly.
Serves 6 as a starter
For the vegetables
500g (1lb 2oz) cherry tomatoes on the vine, mixed colours if possible
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
500g (1lb 2oz) green beans, topped but not tailed
1½ tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp roughly chopped coriander leaves
For the tahini dressing 75g (2¾oz) tahini
Juice of ½ lemon
5 tbsp water, plus more if needed
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1½ tsp runny honey
1. Preheat the oven to 190°C fan (400°F), gas mark 6.
2. Put the tomatoes into a roasting tin or on a baking sheet that has a lip all the way around. There needs to be room to add the beans later.
3. Toss the tomatoes with 1 tablespoon of the oil and season them well. Roast in the oven for 10 minutes. Toss the green beans in a bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and the cumin seeds. Scatter the beans on top and around the tomatoes. Return to the oven for a final 10 minutes.
4. At the end of the roasting time, the tomatoes should be completely soft and the beans slightly scorched.
5. To make the dressing, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and season well. The tahini will 'seize' and thicken when you add the lemon juice, but don't worry, it will break down again when you add the water and beat hard with a wooden spoon. Tahini varies in thickness, so you might need more water than I've suggested here to achieve a dressing as thick as single cream.
6. Spoon the dressing on a plate, place the vegetables on top and scatter with the sesame seeds and coriander. You can serve this at room temperature, though I prefer it slightly warm.
From the Oven to the Table: Simple Dishes That Look After Themselves by Diana Henry is published by Mitchell Beazley, £25.00, octopusbooks.co.uk Image Credit: Laura Edwards