I haven’t always been interested in cooking or cookbooks. When I was a kid and young adult I was completely obsessed with movies. Didn’t give my folks much bother because I was either at school, working my afterschool job (video store clerk!), or watching movies. New or old I’d pretty much watch anything and, it was through some serendipitous events that I found myself at university studying films and film theory. It was glorious! But I don’t find I use much of my film knowledge nowadays — and, you’re all probably wondering what, if anything, any of this has to do with cookbooks.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in discussion with a friend, we were talking about cookbooks. While there are cookbooks that follow a particular brand (say, Martha Stewart for example), there are some cookbooks that fall into a culinary version of auteur theory. In a food context, this version of auteur theory links a particular writer with a strong idea about food. The kinds of recipes they write, ingredients they choose, what photographers they work with, etc. It’s almost as if you could rip off the front cover, hand the rest of the book over and a person could still know who wrote it. Some examples I used: Yotam Ottolenghi or Ina Garten or Hetty McKinnon. These writers have a strong sense of the food they make, recipes they write, and the influence they have over home cooks.
It was during a recent meeting of the cookbook club that I belong to that we focused on the works of Diana Henry — an author that, in my mind, is a culinary auteur. Instead of choosing just one of her titles, each member of the group could pick any Henry book to cook from. To be honest, with (at the time) 11 outstanding books to pull from why limit ourselves? What I noticed is that there are common, distinct threads running through her work — ingredients Henry uses (and the way she uses them) is the main one but there’s something particular in the way she discusses food. I found myself quite interested in her recipe head notes because it’s here where Henry’s personality and opinions on food really come through. So, when I received a copy of her latest cookbook, From the Oven to the Table, in the mail last month, I was curious how this book would follow her others.
From the Oven to the Table follows the familiar big flavours and ingredients as well as gorgeous photography present in Henry’s other cookbooks but in all honesty, I found the approach much simpler with this book. A well-stocked pantry and some good-quality sheet pans, roasters, gratin dishes, or the like will have you on your way to getting a meal made with minimal effort. And, after reading her introduction I feel like this cookbook was really written over the past couple of decades, born from the Monday-to-Friday-get-a-meal-on-the-table situations that Henry experienced cooking for her own family. I really appreciate that she understands how busy life is and has offered recipes that are virtually “hands off” — the tagline for the book after all is “simple dishes that look after themselves.” What I’ve found with the recipes I’ve tried is that you prep the ingredients, get them in a pan, stick them in the oven, and voila! Instead of actively cooking, standing at the stove I used that time my dinner was roasting or baking to tidy-up the kitchen and have a quick sit down in my favourite chair by the window. Maybe a bit gratuitous for a Monday night but it feels mighty nice to not toil over the stove, eat, and then trudge back to the kitchen to clean up everything.
The recipes are organized into seven chapters: Simple Suppers (sausages, chops, fish fillets, & the like), My Favourite Ingredient (chicken thighs forever), Asparagus to Zucchini (spring & summer vegetables), Beets & Bitter Greens (autumn & winter vegetables), Cook Until Tender (grains & legumes), Weekends & Holidays (roasts, birds, & whole fish), and Something Sweet (desserts & cake). Aside from some specialty grocery items such as miso or preserved lemons, all the ingredients I needed for the recipes I made are found at the local market or grocery store. While none of Diana Henry’s cookbooks are special diet books, I found more than enough vegetarian-based recipes to suit my family. If you’re looking for vegan or gluten-free recipes, it’s just a matter of hunting them out in the book (there is no index or special symbols).
It wasn’t just me who enjoyed cooking from this book! There were recipes that even my 5-year-old daughter helped with, which really helps her to feel some agency about what we’re eating. One day after school I decided we’d have the White Beans & Roasted Tomatoes w/ Capers, Mint, & Chili Dressing and once I’d gotten the tomatoes into the oven, I had my daughter measure and whisk the dressing. Then, together we mixed all the components in a large serving bowl and I served the dish with warmed flatbread. A little spicy, a touch cool, sweet and mellow this recipe is bold on flavour with minimal ingredients. It was also a recipe that my daughter enjoyed — maybe if I’d made and served a dish with mint, chili, capers, and garlic she’d have been a bit more resistant to trying it but as it was she “sampled” the ingredients as she added them to the dressing and was pleased to have “made” dinner that night.
Most certainly things like pizza, pasta, and pot pies are baked in the oven but this is not what Henry’s book focuses on. From the Oven to the Table is really about roasting or baking ingredients — beans/legumes, grains, fruit, and vegetables for the meatless crowd and, people who delve into “meatier” cooking will appreciate that she chooses mostly chicken, fish, or lamb (with some pork or beef) that are (as I understand) easy to cook in the oven with good results. Some dishes I tried needed a bit of advanced prep — such as soaking the beans for the Oven-Baked Beans w/ Rosemary & Chili but really all I did was put the dried beans in water the night before and let them soak until I was ready to bake dinner the next day. Whereas a recipe like the Baked Sweet Potato w/ Avocado & Chimichurri could be made on the fly.
I enjoyed the leftovers — hearty and delicious, I found that dishes such as the baked beans or the Roasted Autumn Vegetables w/ Walnut-Miso Sauce (this recipe is available via Food52) were perfect spooned or smashed on toast the next day. I always consider recipes that leave enough for leftovers the best — it’s like giving your future-self a little helping hand. And, I’m not sure about you but I often find that with roasted vegetables the flavour only gets better the day after you’ve made it. This is especially true for the Roasted Indian-Spiced Vegetables w/ Lime-Cilantro Butter. Having just a small amount leftover the next day I made some rice so that we could all enjoy a bit of those delicious spiced roasted veggies.
Just as in her other cookbooks, she uses fruit to perfection — sometimes doing nothing more than roasting them. I made the Ginger-Roasted Plums w/ Lime, Rum & Brown Sugar Cream a couple of times because I loved the flavour of the roasted fruit with the lush, coolness of the cream (and, the brown sugar does indeed become “soft and molasses-like” after it’s sat on top of the cream/yogurt mixture). With all the elaborate baking books out there, I feel that fruit is often overlooked as a dessert. The beauty of this ingredient is that not much needs to be done to it in order to enhance it’s flavour save a bit of time in the oven. Henry perfectly recognizes this, and her fruit-based dessert recipes really reflect this. There are delicious-looking recipes for a Chocolate & Red Wine Cake and Baked Rice Pudding w/ Quince Jelly & Blackberries I can’t wait to try too.
What From the Oven to the Table offers is casual, easy cooking at its best. Nothing fussy and recipes that anyone with an oven can make (no special culinary skills required). Just as in Henry’s other cookbooks, she really homes in on producing a final dish that’s full of flavour. With a dozen cookbooks to her name, From the Oven to the Table follows in step with the kinds of recipes that home cooks have come to expect from her (without feeling you’re getting one cookbook over and over again). In this respect, Henry is a true auteur when it comes to her writing and recipes. If you’re curious to see what else I’ve tried, then visit my dedicated Facebook post or my custom Instagram hashtag #eatworthyfoodfromtheoventothetable.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Manda Books for providing me with a free advanced copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions are my own.