With a modern take on the menu cookbook, Diana Henry offers up her 11th publication, “How to Eat a Peach: Menus, Stories and Places.”
Henry ventures someplace new, creating a cookbook that branches from her usual style, but is perhaps her most intimate. Henry’s love of cookbooks stemmed from her joy in designing the perfect menu for the occasion.
“Composing a menu is still my favorite bit of cooking,” she writes. “I don’t invite people over and then wonder what I’ll cook. I come up with a menu and then consider who would like to eat it.”
Cookbooks like Alice Water’s “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook” inspired her, but until now she had yet to offer up her own version. Considering her love of the menu and her prolific cookery writings, it seems surprising she would not have written one until now. But to create something this varied takes time and life experiences, cooking know-how and ingredient knowledge, and “How to Eat a Peach” certainly has the appeal of a passion project.
Inspired by a meal in Italy when Henry was served the simplest of desserts — a sliced ripe peach dropped into chilled glasses of Moscato — “How to Eat a Peach” is made up of 25 menus with three to five recipes in each. Henry breathes a modern air into the menu-style cookbook by making this part travel book. Not a traditional sort of travel either, but rather each menu is a culmination of travel, restaurants and experiences with fondly written stories from her life.
Experiential is exactly how I’d describe “How to Eat a Peach,” whose cover even has a gentle fuzz like a peach skin. Each menu transports not always to a specific locale, but a sort of place of time, the joy of a beautiful moment with food. “You must imagine yourself in a mirrored Torinese cafe — under crystal chandeliers,” Henry says of drinking biccerin, the specialty of Turin in Peidmont, a warm chocolate drink.
And this is how the travel of “How to Eat a Peach” is: It’s you who travels, with Henry’s menus, stories and meals as your guide. She’s tenderly chosen each dish, set menu rules (“If I start with fish, it won’t appear again”), broken these rules (fish does appear twice), and built a cookbook that may feel frustrating as a book for cooking instruction, but illuminating as an education in keeping a sort of scrapbook of food experiences.
I have a favorite menu from my trip to Willows Inn on Lummi Island, coasters from the many breweries my husband takes me to, pre-Instagram photos of beach picnics where I capture more food images than people, and several mismatched decorative boxes I use to hold my memories, most of them centered around food.
“How to Eat a Peach” answers all I love about eating and cookbooks by being probably the least “useful” cookbook I own, while also working its way into my list of favorites. Like Henry, my love of collecting cookbooks is to amass shelves of potential menus for potential gatherings with friends, family or a quiet moment for myself.
Reviewing Henry’s book could not have fallen at a worse time. The flu working its way through our family with us subsisting on liquid diets and Saltines seemed like a poor time to introduce new and exotic foods like sea bass crudo with radishes and nasturtiums or tinga poblana, so I started with Marcella Hazan’s roast chicken with lemon from the “Summer Begins With an Apricot Tart” menu.
Easy to execute, the roasted lemons offered something special for the simple chicken. I didn’t spend many moments feeling as transported as I’d have liked (given the situation), but the chicken was good and perfect for our tender stomachs.
On the mend, we hit Father’s Day Weekend with zero plans, a holiday I’d usually have spent several days building a menu for. I opted to make Henry’s roasted tomatoes with fennel and chickpeas with preserved lemons and honey (from the “Too Hot to Cook” menu) to partner with a simple steak. This to be followed with a dessert of Turkish coffee ice cream from the “Take Me Back to Istanbul” menu.
Here we felt the tenderness of Henry’s recipes. While the chicken seemed more a thoughtful take on a classic, the salad was transportive. The recipe involves separately roasted components, each dressed with their own flavors then combined and topped with a third layer of flavor in a dressing. The steak was the perfect tool for mopping up the residual sauce, and our Father’s Day meal felt saved by this one effort.
The Turkish coffee ice cream is the easiest dessert ever. Whipped cream and sweetened condensed milk whipped to a dense creamy state, combined with ground cardamom and instant espresso then dumped into a container and frozen. No churning. Little effort. Lovely gelato-like results with flavors of Turkish coffee.
On the whole, the recipes of “How to Eat a Peach” are simple to make, may require sourcing a few specialty ingredients, but feel approachable, creative and well-loved. Choosing what to cook from the book, I never felt like I needed to adhere to the described menu. Rather, I felt empowered to create my own menu, add dishes from outside the cookbook, taking Henry’s sense of time and place to do so.
Roast tomatoes, fennel & chickpeas with preserved lemons & honey
This recipe seems like a lot of ingredients and a lot of work, but it really comes together with little effort. The greatest effort will be making sure you have your pantry stocked with harissa and preserved lemons. You can find both of these at specialty grocery stores, or make your own lemons — just Google this DIY darling of the cooking world, several recipes will pop up.
For the tomatoes
10 large plum tomatoes
3 tablespoons regular olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1½ tablespoons harissa
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
For the fennel
2 large fennel bulbs
Juice of ½ lemon
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely crushed in a mortar
generous pinch of crushed red pepper
2½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
For the dressing
2 small preserved lemons, plus 2 teaspoons juice from the jar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1½ tablespoons liquid honey
¹⁄³ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and lay in a single layer in a roasting pan or ovenproof dish. Mix the regular olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and harissa and pour this over the tomatoes, tossing to coat well, then turn the tomatoes cut-side up. Sprinkle with the sugar and season.
Quarter the fennel bulbs, cut off the stalks, and remove any coarse outer leaves. Pull off any tender fronds (reserve these) and cut each piece of fennel into 1-inch thick wedges, keeping them intact at the base. Toss in a bowl with the lemon juice (it stops them from discoloring). Add the garlic, fennel seeds, chili, and extra-virgin olive oil, then season and turn everything over with your hands. Spread out the fennel in a second roasting pan and cover tightly with foil.
Put both pans in the oven. Roast the fennel for 25 to 30 minutes, until tender (the undersides should be pale gold), then remove the foil and roast for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until soft, golden, and slightly charred. Roast the tomatoes for 35 to 40 minutes, or until caramelized in patches and slightly shrunken. Stir the chickpeas into the fennel and taste for seasoning. Let both cool to room temperature.
Now make the dressing. Discard the flesh from the preserved lemons and cut the rind into dice. Whisk the wine vinegar with the preserved lemon juice, honey, and extra-virgin olive oil, season, and add the lemon rind and cilantro. Taste for seasoning and sweet-sour balance.
Arrange the fennel, chickpeas and tomatoes on a platter, adding all the juices from the roasting pans; there might be quite a lot from the tomatoes. Scatter any fennel fronds you reserved over the top. Spoon on the dressing, or serve it on the side. Serves 6.
Turkish coffee ice cream
“This is not a Turkish recipe, but an ice cream inspired by the flavors of the thick coffee you’re served in Istanbul,” Henry writes. “It’s the simplest ice cream I make: Mix and freeze.” And it is.
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
Ground seeds from 10 green cardamom pods
1¼ cups heavy cream
¾ cup sweetened condensed milk
Mix the coffee, 2 tablespoons of boiling water, and the ground cardamom together. Let cool.
Beat the cream and condensed milk together using an electric hand mixer until the mixture is quite thick, then stir in the spiced coffee.
Scrape into a container, cover with plastic wrap or a lid, and freeze. The ice cream doesn’t need to be churned. It does becomes very firm, however, so you need to take it out of the freezer about 20 minutes before you want to serve it. Makes about 1 pint.
— Recipes reprinted from “How to Eat a Peach” by Diana Henry with permission from Mitchell Beazley, a division of Octopus Publishing.
“How to Eat a Peach: Menus, Stories and Places”
By Diana Henry
Mitchell Beazley. 224 pages. $34.99.
Who should buy this? Home cooks wanting to polish up their menu game using modern ingredients. Those, who like me, enjoy reading about how to eat as much as enjoy eating.