“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity” – Charles Mingus
Calling a cookbook Simple is pretty brave – like a rock band releasing an album called Heavy. In cookbooks, “simple” never seems to mean quite the same thing from one book to the other, or what it might have meant in the past. At the very least, it’s complicated.
Diana Henry’s new book made me think about food – properly think. It’s weird to say that a book called Simple is actually quite challenging, but this one is, and I mean that in a good way.
If you’re of a certain age – a ro-ro timetable if ever there was one – you don’t have to go too far back to remember a genuinely simple British food world – at least in most places. While I expect nowadays to go to the nearest Sainsbury’s and find my pomegranate molasses, my lemongrass, my Za-atar, it hasn’t always been this way. In the village where I grew up, the arrival of Findus frozen ‘French Bread’ pizzas preceded the real thing- both in terms of French bread and pizzas.
Even though the food universe has expanded massively since the turn of the century – supermarkets are nothing like they used to be, even ten years ago – we now seem on a curve of expecting more and yet more. It’s no longer as straightforward to pin down “simple” when the exotic is everyday and any cookery magazine might be filled with stuff I need to get online to feel I’m making it properly.
Mince and Tatties is to some extent my view of simple, but now, the availability of ingredients makes simple the dishes that seemed impossible twenty years ago. We used to make curries with stir in sauces or pastes – now we buy the ingredients. We have spice mills. It’s an evolution. In the past, making a curry from scratch was a real project – now, it’s “simple”. Except of course, it isn’t really.
Even today, it’s no Borough Market around here. In my town’s biggest shop you might not get fresh coriander some days. Sumac? Forget it. So if I was to start listing the ingredients in Simple that I can’t get two seconds from my kitchen I could quite easily get disgruntled. No matter how expanded the “foodie” matrix, I’m still not going to find some of these bits and bobs easily. But I won’t get disgruntled, because this preamble is my way of saying that grumbling about ingredients would be missing the enjoyment of Simple, and maybe even the point. I started out that way inclined, but by the end of a few weeks with the book, I had changed my view.
Years ago – more sentimentality, I’m afraid – there were music books that held the promise of teaching you to play your favourite music on guitar with minimal effort. Or piano, bass, whatever. Books that were called things like The Rolling Stones Made Easy. Of course, these books sliced great songs into sleepwalking slabs of chords, and while it might have sounded a wee bit like the Stones you were strumming there, it really wasn’t.
You can do the same with food. Here’s an easy recipe, maybe even a simple one, for a pasta dish:
Heat up a jar of pasta sauce, red.
Boil a packet of pasta according to instructions on packet, written on reverse or sides.
Drain pasta, put pasta in plates, and ladle over some of the red sauce.
Now that’s easy. Simple. And I don’t mind saying that I remember a time when some pasta and a jar of Dolmio or whatever was pretty sophisticated stuff. These were the days when garlic only came in a tube …
From time to time though, I still want to cook pasta with sauce from a jar. Some jars are even very nice. Now that I’ve learned you don’t cook pasta until it turns to wet fungi & to ignore the instructions, it’s slightly less important. The bit that seemed simple was the complicated bit all along. But it’s really not this idea of ‘simple’ that is at the heart of Diana Henry’s book, nor is she saying there’s anything wrong with easy days either – or indeed parading ‘the new simple’. Thank goodness.
Simple seems to me about creating dishes for which the building blocks are straightforward, and the combination of ingredients restrained and achievable – even if some are harder to find than others – but from which the net results belie the calm and careful structure of the recipes. For basic home cooks like me, this is a goldmine.
The simplicity of the combinations is utimately the remarkable thing – the “big flavours” of the book’s subtitle. Of course Henry’s Coffee-brined Pork Chops with Hot Sweet Potatoes is more effort than opening a tin of Bacon Grill, but everything is relative. As Nigella says – I think it was Nigella anyway – we often mistake difficult dishes for dishes that really just need patience and care. It’s still ‘simple’, but needing patience and care. And maybe creativity. The opening Aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations could perhaps be described as simple, but it’s not Chopsticks.
A good example from Simple is the Lamb in Pomegranate Molasses. This bit of lamb has to dwell in the molasses for twelve hours. Yes, twelve hours. So it’s not the kind of thing you make on a whim after a couple of pints on the way home from work. But it is simple “of and in itself”. It is simple to make. The end result inside was frank and delicious – I don’t think I’ve ever eaten such tender lamb – but it also requires care. Even with half a day to get it right I think I screwed up the marinade. I may have burned it …
Complex doesn’t even mean the same thing anymore either. When I was a kid, shopping for even ‘simple’ dishes took hours, because it meant going hand in hand with my mother to the baker, to the butcher, the grocer – there wasn’t a candlestick maker left by then, but you get the gist. It took hours. Every second person stopped for conversation. The Mince and Tatties for tea was simple right enough, but reaching the summit of its simplicity was a community procession. There were shops where the best constituent parts were best bought, butchers that did better mince. I could drive into town now, buy some Harissa, and still be back here the village in the time it took me and my mum to walk half that street in 1977. I’d have to now – most of the butchers are gone. All that is complex.
When I was making Diana Henry’s Baked Potatoes – even she riffs on whether their simplicity might be too simple – I recalled the first arrival of a baked potato shop in my hometown – The Only Baked Tattie Shop in the Village, that’s what it was like. Truthfully, I had never tasted a proper baked potato before. I think I was about ten. Henry’s recipe is splendid – achieved by a bread-like flicking of water. Up to now I had followed much the same recipe, but with a coating of oil and that’s fine too. I was reminded – as I always am when I eat a baked potato – of that first ever taste of a fluffy baked potato, the melting butter, the salt, a potato that is not like potato in any other form … the sort of food divinity that is the best example of simple. I wondered if Henry had sneaked this one in – as a bit of a marker, a bit of a metaphor. Whether this recognition was what she was driving at all along?
Speaking of my mother (you said metaphor – Ed.) when I was little she used to make a chocolate cornflake cake with an orange mousse filling & little tinned mandarins scattered over the top. I liked the fruit, and of course I liked the chocolate base, but most of all I loved the foamy orangey delight in the middle. When I was making Henry’s Roast Apricot & Orange Blossom Fool from Simple, I was immediately reminded of it. I took the same nostalgic turn – perhaps because of all the gin – when I was testing the fabulous Butter & Scotch gin milkshake extravaganza, the Ramos Gin Fizz last September. I suppose if you wanted to be lazy, you could use a jar of good apricot jam in the Fool recipe, but it would be nowhere as good as taking the time to roast the apricots. Roasting apricots is simple, but the result is anything but. This creamy pudding – laced with orange blossom honey – is sentimental and lovely, and anyone could eat the whole bowl to themselves, dipping in amaretti while downing gulps of gin and crying about old sweeties you never see anymore. Like Spangles. This recipe also involves whipping double cream, which I have to say is basically one my favourite things to do.
One of my favourite writers is George Mackay Brown. His writing is another ‘simple’ thing. His poetry is beautiful, and the sparseness of it carries into his exquisite short stories, or the prose of his novels, like the great Greenvoe. Like haiku, the qualities of which I’ve seen his work compared with, Brown’s writing appears simple, but in actual fact there is great craft in that keen and keening voice. I tried to write poetry in the style of Mackay Brown once – under his spell of apparent simplicity. It was shit.
Diana Henry’s Chicken with Indian Spices, Mango and Coconut is really, really superb. I deliberately took her advice and substitued Patak’s paste for the process of making my own. The mango adds a sweet but tangy flavour to this big and creamy curry and I realised, uncomplicated though it was, I don’t think I have ever combined mango and coconut. I must have done, but it didn’t seem so at the time. 3 tablespoons of double cream go in – which is cause for celebration, quite frankly – and the mango has to be just ripe.
Going back to that slightly troubling lamb in molasses, I accompanied it with the Smoky Couscous. The mango reminds me of this, because racking my brains, I couldn’t think I had ever put paprika in couscous. Surely I had? Surely! But I think not, and this combination is incredibly successful, my test diners wolfing down their hazy couscous like gannets. You can roll bits of the lamb and the couscous mix in a flatbread together and immediately feel like rolling another as you eat the first. I’m reminded of my Uncle, who could drive his van with one hand on the wheel and roll a Golden Virginia cigarette with the other. At the vital moment, he did a milliseconds ‘no-hands’ to switch grip on the wheel – fag went to the mouth and a Zippo fired and disappeared – and the van was filled with smoke. This isn’t an advert for smoking or not holding a steering wheel properly – not at all – but the theatricality of this manoeuvre has stayed with me always.
Having just written a whole book about chicken, you’d think Diana Henry would be fed up of it, but not a bit, and I really enjoyed making and eating Ishita’s Chicken Masala, a roast chicken recipe Henry has borrowed from one of her favourite tweeters. To make things even simpler, she offers different approaches to the spiced butter which goes under the skin turkey-style and by cooking permeates through superbly without making it taste like a scone which I am sometimes wont to achieve by doing this. I really like these one chicken recipes and this one works particularly well. It can be simple to make, and corners cut, or more patiently constructed. As she does throughout the book, Henry offers options where they exist.
Now I hope I’ve made stout defence overall defence of Simple, because there’s one thing I don’t think works: the “effortless food” of the subtitle. Simple, yes, big flavours, yes, but I can see why people might feel that Simple isn’t effortless. For a whole load of reasons – time, skill, ingredients, life. It doesn’t bother me now, I have to say, but I have to mention it because if you bought the book – as a present maybe – on the strength of all the food in it being effortless, there are dishes where you might feel let down. But I really do think this is a minor point and really an issue of word choice. It probably only applies if you buy the book unseen, online maybe. One flick through the pages is enough to show what it’s about; the book isn’t called Half-arsed: easy prep, big flavours after all. It’s just harder to nuance effortless though.
Diana Henry’s Simple inspires thoughts and memories – about food, the past, shopping with mother and the nature of simplicity in all things – from art to roll-ups. Cookbooks of this depth will do this kind of thing – in the writing, and in the lessons of the dishes themselves, the experience of cooking them. I like cookbooks where I feel I’m learning and thinking all the time, and this is one – I came away with a stronger sense of the food I like to eat and serve, the kind of cooking I like to do, and ultimately what I want to spend time on.
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – Charles Mingus