Diana Henry Tells Us How to Write a Menu
The celebrated cookbook author answers the age-old question: "Do these dishes go together?"
While many home cooks struggle with putting together a balanced menu, that's not so for prolific British food writer Diana Henry. Writing menus is practically second nature, so it's fitting that they're the subject of her most recent cookbook (her eleventh!), "How to Eat a Peach: Menus, Stories, and Places." Henry first started approaching meals this way after a trip to France at the age of 16: "I was struck by how every meal was several courses-not necessarily grand, it might have been radishes and butter, a pork chop, a green salad, and then some fruit-but it felt special because of that bit of thinking around it."
The book contains 25 menus layered with personal stories and influenced by cuisines that run the gamut from French and Italian to Korean and Thai. "Food has always been a way for me to go to other countries," says Henry. Growing up in a small town in Northern Ireland, she traveled by cooking the food of those countries, and it's still how she revisits favorite destinations or explores new places. Her lyrical storytelling adds color and context to the recipes in "How to Eat a Peach," giving them a true sense of place. Each menu opens with an image that sets the scene and illustrates Henry's deeper connection to the food, whether it's a bowl of squid ink juxtaposed with a beloved painting from Madrid, or the perfect white peach bathed in summer light that gave the book its name.
Ever the pragmatic food writer, Henry weaves in plenty of useful tips on menu planning. While she doesn't follow hard-and-fast rules, she does have guidelines that have become a kind of instinct. One lodestar is contrast: in temperature, texture, and flavor. "You shouldn't have too many rich things in one meal," advises Henry. "I wouldn't serve something with hollandaise or mayonnaise and then an ice cream that has a yolk-based custard for dessert." You also ideally don't want to repeat ingredients, although Henry is fine with doubling up on seafood, with shellfish for the appetizer and fish for the main course.
Simplicity is another guiding light for Henry's menus. "If you're a worried cook, you tend to keep adding dishes to your menu," she says, "but that's a lot of work, and it's not that elegant." A pared-back approach lets the cook relax and allows the guests to really taste every dish. Henry also isn't against going the store-bought route, especially for dessert. Her favorite work-arounds for pudding include dessert wine, such as vin santo after an Italian meal; chocolate and sherry; and cheese and fruit. Henry still thinks fondly of the time she was served apples, cheddar, and walnuts at someone's house for dessert. "We cracked the nuts ourselves, and it was just lovely," she says. "I've never forgotten that, and I can't even remember the rest of the meal! The bit that was really good was the bit that had simply been sourced."
While home cooks tend to craft a menu around the main dish, Henry is a proponent of starting with any course or ingredient that inspires. The centerpiece of one of the summer menus in her book is a glorious apricot tart. Since the dessert is somewhat labor-intensive with pastry and frangipane, Henry chooses a main that doesn't call for much work or lots of accompaniments: roast chicken with lemon. And since a whole bird is a very solid dish, it's preceded by a light, fresh-tasting starter: sea bass crudo with radishes and nasturtiums. "You get crunch and pepperiness, and the flowers and the beauty of the dish make it quite different from the chicken," says Henry. And while that can easily be a meal in itself, there are also zucchini fritters because she knows "people like little fried things in their hands."
Another consideration is how many people you're cooking for, especially if the meal involves a technique that requires concentration. Henry loves standing at the stove and serving the aforementioned fritters straight out of the fryer on napkins or paper towels while her guests are having drinks, but she would never attempt it for more than four people. "I don't actually like cooking for more than 12 people-I panic. It's why I'm not a chef," she says. "Just because you're a good cook doesn't mean you can do it in performance mode."
Timing is also crucial when it comes to pulling off a menu, and not just during major holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. Even if it's a simple meal, Henry makes ahead as much as she can the day before, and writes down what needs to be done on the day of, down to when each dish needs to be put on the stove or in the oven. "There should be an absolute maximum of two things you have to do at the last minute, and preferably only one," says Henry. Otherwise, you'll be spinning too many plates, and it'll be too difficult to chat with your guests and keep track of everything. It's generally not a good idea to try new recipes when entertaining, especially ones that have the potential to derail your timeline, like fresh pasta, or in Henry's case many years ago, apple strudel: "The first time I made it from scratch, I started at lunchtime, and we didn't eat dinner until eleven at night."
Her final piece of advice is to pay attention to the little touches that people often take for granted: bread and butter, a jug of water, candles, flowers even if they're just in a jelly jar. "It's a good approach to life as well as to dining: if you take care of the small things, it makes such a difference. It makes people feel cared for." While Henry makes clear that a home is not and should not be a restaurant, she loves the suspension of reality that comes with eating out and strives to bring that quality to dining in. "When you go into a restaurant, you can forget about the things that are bothering you in real life and just feel looked after," she says, "and I hope people feel that way a little bit when they come to my home." Of course, should she ever change her mind and open a Chez Henry, we'll be first in line.