Two and a half years ago, in a small car somewhere between northern Sweden and northern(ish) Norway, Diana Henry told me and Fiona Beckett that her publisher wouldn’t let her do a menu-based cookbook.
“That’s ridiculous, are they mad?”
“You’d write a great one of those. I’d love that. I can’t remember the last one — Nigella’s ‘How to Eat’, maybe?”
“Really? Surely menu ideas are what people want the…. quick, pull over, I want to take a picture of that view”
That sort of thing.
Either Diana’s publisher hadn’t yet caved to her proposal. Or she was testing the water. It doesn’t really matter. Because that menu book has just been published. And boy is it good.
How to eat a peach is a collection of menus and stories that span the eating urges and cooking moods of a calendar year (albeit gathered, inspired and jotted down over many more than just one).
There are elegant Italian dinners for a summer’s evening (cocktails, crostini, a neat take on a classic melon starter, roast sea bass and fennel, plus the way a peach should be eaten (dunked in chilled Moscato)); autumnal lunches (cheddar, onion and spinach tart, cider and apple jellies with rosemary and cider brandy syllabub); and convivial winter feasting (smoked eel with beet remoulade and Guinness bread, partridges with red cabbage, and a Seville orange tart).
Much comes from travel, memorable experiences, and the ingredients and flavours of foreign cuisines. The way to eat a peach, for example, derives from her first trip to Italy. There are journeys to New York, Piedmont, Bordeaux, Istanbul, Spain and beyond, too, and I suspect that interested-eclectic-global-magpie-style food will immediately strike a chord with many readers. The rest will quickly be engaged by the introduction each menu gets. There’s much context here (“because food is, for me, so much about place”), and it really brings the food to life.
Those extended introductions mean this would work simply as a book of nice things to read. But of course it’s ultimately a cookbook to be thumbed and splattered. While the menus are lovely, balanced, smart (never toooo much work in one meal) and should be followed, dive deeper and you’ll see individual dishes that scream out to be cooked on their own merit. For me, the vegetable fideua with saffron and allioli, a sea bass, radish and nasturtium salad …
… actually, saying that and thumbing through the book again, I keep getting caught up in the menus as a whole.
‘Take me back to Istanbul’ features a table-full of roast aubergines and goat’s cheese, griddled squid with chilli, dill and tahini dressing, lamb kofta, genius sweet pickled cherries, all followed by (more genius) Turkish coffee ice cream. ‘A thousand chillies’ is a Mexian-ish meal kicked off by mackerel ceviche, harshened by raw onion, softened by avocado, then punctuated with coriander, pomegranate and chilli; then there’s tinga poblana, a rich and smoky stew underlined by chipotle chillies, cumin and oregano, served with roast pumpkin and black beans and green rice; and a simple and simply divine finish of mango in lime and ginger syrup. GOOD, right?
As has become her calling card, the recipes are inventive and interesting, but genuinely practical and manageable for pretty much every home cook; a realistic mix of easy assembly, a touch of effort and all round good curation. Desserts, for example, are always do-ahead and often minimal faff (lots of ice creams, tarts, cakes and jellies) though they all have a twist (the jellies are quite adult, the fruit boozy, the ice cream spiced, herbed and / or jewelled and so on). It’s relatively low effort and time sensitive, with enough of a sparkle to make others insist on getting the recipe as they’re (finally) walking out the door.
To date I’ve cooked arroz negro with romesco sauce, assembled fresh melon with goat curd and a vinegared red wine, honey and lavender dressing, and patted together crab cakes that get served with a piquant cucumber pickle. All easy to follow. All flavour first. And all I’d do again, provided I’ve worked through the others that’ve caught my eye.
Downsides? Personally none, though I wonder how people will feel about all dishes being portioned for six people or more — it really is geared up for having people over. Which might make dipping into it on a weeknight less realistic, unless you’re happy to double up on portions (as I am).
There’s something of the Simon Hopkinson to this – specifically ‘Week in, Week out’, which is one of my favourite and, crucially, most used cookbooks. It feels worldly, dependable, one of the first things to reach for when you’ve got people coming over, and also something to read in the bath (just me?). There’s inspiration and temptation on nearly every page. But not simply in a “that’s nice” as you browse and never use, or “ooh, celeriac rosti, that reminds me I might cook something with celeriac” way. More, that you’ll actually cook the things you see. ‘How to eat a peach’ is very, very bookmarkable, and very very cookable.
Format and design
Classic crown quarto shape with a pleasingly peachy fuzzy cover. Beautifully shot and set out, with breathing room, white space and a rhythm that’ll please those who like to read their cookbooks in one go.
Recipes that tempt
Most of them. Some mentioned above.
Who is it for?
Home cooks looking for new ideas — particularly those who enjoy having small groups of friends over and serving them great food, but not necessarily having to spend all day getting that ready.