Cookbook watch: 'A Change of Appetite' crosses the pond, good food follows

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
British food writer Diana Henry puts unexpected spins on familiar themes

Further proof — as if any were necessary — that when it comes to cookbooks, the United States and Britain really are two countries separated by a common language: Diana Henry’s terrific new book “A Change of Appetite.”

Henry, food columnist for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, is one of the leading food writers in Britain. She is the 2013 Cookery Writer of the Year and she has twice been named Cookery Journalist of the Year.

Yet she is terribly underappreciated in this country. That’s our loss, because her recipes are both accessible and challenging. The food is just different enough from what we’ve come to expect that it’s compelling in a way many other cookbooks aren’t. You may think you know where a dish is heading, but then she throws in a twist.

Henry is much more comfortable incorporating elements of Middle Eastern, Indian and Scandinavian cooking into her recipes, giving what might seem like familiar templates an intriguing twist. (In a nod that cookbook myopia goes both ways, when explaining a Middle Eastern preparation, she feels it necessary to explain who Paula Wolfert is to her British readers.)

A dessert of figs and melons seems like a nice idea, but when you finish it with a syrup scented with ginger, star anise and a lot of lime, it becomes something I really need to try.

Sauteed squid is served with a spicy couscous studded with green beans and perfumed by a ton of green onion, mint, parsley and capers.

Tomatoes are roasted with saffron and harissa and served dotted with herbed labneh and sprinkled with almonds.

And on it goes — cook with Henry and you’ll become acquainted with new flavors such as the roasted grain freekeh, the Middle Eastern spice sumac, Turkish pepper pastes, the toasted seed mixture dukka and the Macedonian sauce tarator, a versatile combination of yogurt, walnuts and garlic thickened with bread.

She’ll also have you rethinking some ingredients you may not have tried in a while. Henry uses rye bread with the same alacrity we Californians toss around sourdough. Think about rye crumbs on top of a breakfast of lightly sweetened berries and yogurt.

Ostensibly, “A Change of Appetite” is a healthful cooking book — the subtitle is “Where Healthy Meets Delicious.” But the emphasis is much more on the second part than the first. Actually, it wasn’t until I’d spent several days with it that I even realized these dishes that sounded so good were supposed to be good for you too.

We Yanks have shown ourselves to be remarkably broad-minded of late, particularly when it comes to great cookbooks. Think of the success of Yotam Ottolenghi, for example. Perhaps “A Change of Appetite” will do for Henry what “Plenty” did for him.

It certainly would be our gain.

Sweet saffron roasted tomatoes with labneh

For the labneh

1 3/4 cups Greek yogurt
2 garlic cloves crushed
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, mint, or parsley leaves
Pinch of salt
Black pepper

Make the labneh the day before you want to serve the dish. Line a strainer with a piece of cheesecloth and set it over a bowl. Mix the  yogurt with the garlic, herbs, salt and black pepper. Transfer to the cloth, tie it up and refrigerate. The yogurt will lose moisture over the next 24 hours, producing a firmer “cheeselike” substance. Help it along by giving it a squeeze every so often.

For the tomatoes

18 plum tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons harissa
Good pinch of saffron, plus extra to serve
1/2 tablespoon sugar (unless you have great sweet tomatoes)

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and lay them in a single layer in a  large roasting pan (or two small pans). Mix the regular olive oil, harissa and saffron and pour the dressing over the tomatoes. Turn the tomatoes over in the oil to make sure they are well coated, ending with them cut side up. Sprinkle with the sugar and season. Roast in the oven for about 45 minutes or until caramelized and slightly shrunken. Let cool a little.

To serve

Arab flatbread
1 1/2 cups slivered almonds, lightly toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves

Take the labneh out of its cloth.

Carefully move the tomatoes (they will be fragile and can fall apart easily) to a serving plate, dotting nuggets of the labneh among them as you work. You can also toast the flatbread, break it up, and arrange it among the tomatoes as well (or serve it on the side). Pour on any cooking juices that have collected in the tomato roasting pan, being sure to douse the flatbread if you have included it within the dish.

Sprinkle the almonds over the top, then heat another good pinch of saffron with the lemon juice in a small saucepan. Add the extra-virgin oil and mix with a spoon. Spoon the mixture over the dish; the golden dressing looks beautiful agains the white labaneh. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve warm, or at room temperature.

From Diana Henry’s “A Change of Appetite.” This recipe was not tested in the Times Test Kitchen.

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