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IF I WERE QUEEN OF THE UNIVERSE, my first executive action would be to appoint the Irish writer Diana Henry as Earth’s cultural ambassador, put her in a fancy rocketship with a good kitchen, and shoot her into space, where her job would be to spread her knowledge of Earth’s great culinary spirit to all friendly aliens. She has already taught this world so much.
Henry is the longtime food columnist for the London Sunday Telegraph and one of the—if not the—hardest working food writers in the world.
In addition to her Sunday column, for which she has posted about three recipes a week for the last 18 years, she is also the bestselling, prizewinning author of over a dozen cookbooks, which gather and synthesize a multitude of flavors and cuisines from all over this planet. (Every single one of them is gorgeous.) Her current project, which she’s been working on, intermittently, for the last 21 years, will be called North. It explores the food of Scandinavia, as well as food from “the northern and European bits of Russia, from Germany, the Baltics, Ireland, Scotland, the north of England,” she says.
Henry is absolutely obsessed with flavor. She’s also obsessed with sharing it.
“I’m a taste chaser,” she said on a Zoom conversation from her home in London, after she’d been up until 4 a.m. going through old recipe books and clippings, a regular practice.
“I’d say, for just my books alone, I’ve written over 2000 recipes,” she said. She also posts a recipe daily on her Instagram (from her 18 years’ worth of Telegraph recipes).
When I whistled at these numbers, she said: “It’s not very hard. Because I never stop thinking about flavors. It’s a kind of madness!
“When I was knee deep in my old cookbooks the other night, I came across ingredients that I don’t use very much or don’t understand very well. Like tamarind. I’ve only ever used it a few times! And then I thought: Black limes. I bought a pack of those and never really learned to use them. So what should I be doing with black limes? What do they taste like?”
This is just the way Henry talks in general, as if she’s writing recipes in her head—a lovely whirlwind of energy and stories and questions, skipping all over the place but never losing focus.
That’s also how I’d describe her books, which reflect her years and years of travel. But she attributes their authentic, perpetual sense of wonder to her provincial childhood.
When I asked her which of her books was her favorite, she mentioned her first, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, which “was about places I thought about—the Middle East, Spain, North Africa—when I was growing up in a very grey and very parochial Northern Ireland. I grew up during the Troubles—it’s no wonder I wanted to escape through cooking and reading and writing.”
However parochial her childhood was, it was filled with straightforward, delicious food, in part because the Henrys lived in the Northern Irish seaside towns of Portstewart and, later, Portrush. “We had wild salmon, really fantastic fish, diver scallops. Oh my God: Dublin Bay prawns, fresh every week at the market, though it wasn’t a fancy market. My mum brought them home raw—it really hurt your hands shelling them. And then she would put them in her breadcrumbs—we had scampi every Friday night, with homemade tartar sauce.”
Another key point: the food she grew up on was homemade, out of necessity. “I laughed when I first heard the phrase ‘from scratch.’ I thought, what are you talking about? What does that mean? Because everything was made from scratch!”
In Henry’s world, it will probably always be. Despite her spot in the glittery food firmament, “I’m not connected to any food movements,” she says. “I’m just about home food—food you can cook every day. I’m about empowering people to cook.”
Henry counts her very first trip out of Northern Ireland—to France, at 15—as her culinary awakening. Moving to London after college, she realized, “I can taste the world now.” But above the impact of her childhood kitchen, or early obsessions (Henry began keeping a recipe notebook at 16), or the transformative travel she would experience as a food writer, she holds books (and books and more books—over 4000 of them at last count) responsible for making her who she is today.
“Look,” she said, turning her computer around so I could survey the room, basically floor-to-ceiling cookbooks. (Her son Ted, 22, was also there having lunch; she has another son, Gillies, who is 15.)
Henry did go to culinary school for a year, and later left her career in television to be with newborn Ted—and to write. But books have always been her school
“Anyone can become a good cook if they’re interested. I became a cook as much by reading as by doing,” she says.
Which is exactly why I’d like to send her all over the universe. She is the embodiment of a “Reading is Fundamental” ad campaign for the power of cookbooks, my favorite books.
Henry has always been inspiration to me, as one of the most indefatigable cookbook writers I’ve ever met, so remarkably so that this quality was the focus of a piece about her in 2016 in the New York Times.
But don’t let the word “indefatigable” distract you from the fact that she is also one of the most beautiful writers about food you’ll ever read. My particular favorite is the peripatetic travelogue-cum-cookbook How to Eat a Peach (about which Nigella Lawson said: “I couldn’t love anyone who didn’t love this book”), which takes you from Mexico to Istanbul to Brittany to New York and beyond. Her writing is so rich it often feels like a novel. “I don't understand why people are interested in recipes without the context. I really want to know about other countries, other cultures,” she says.
I also admire Henry, because she makes her astounding career look so easy, despite serious challenges that would make most women crawl into a hole. Today in a piece in the London Telegraph, she recounts the most recent (it’s behind a paywall), which I’ve known about for a while. During the past year whenever I hadn’t heard from her, I worried that she’d landed back in the emergency room. But there she was: writing, developing recipes and sharing them with her enormous audience, as if her life were completely normal.
Another reason I adore her: she is so much fun—a bright light in a dim room. When I asked her for a salad, she gave me a choice of over a dozen. And when we finally talked, and I simply said the word “salad,” she instantly (and poignantly) recalled the moment, back when she was in France at 15, when her young French friend Clotilde took her to her grandmother’s garden to pick greens and herbs.
“Honestly, it was idyllic. One day we might take tarragon, we might take chives, put those snippets into the bottom of the bowl with white wine or cider vinegar. There would be good Dijon mustard, and always extra virgin olive oil, the wonderful Provençal stuff.”
And today? “Oh, I love a plain green salad. God almighty. A slightly mustardy dressing, with some chopped shallot, and you could leave the chopped shallot in that dressing. I could have that every day, especially with a very good romaine or the floppier soft greens. That’s the pinnacle, really. I mean that young thing of learning to love green salad with a crisp baguette that’s really soft inside. . .
“Those are all very simple things, but they’re wonderful things.”
*RECIPE: Diana Henry’s SALADE GAVROCHARDE
This is for nostalgic reasons. I first ate it in Paris when I was about 22. It was a tiny cheap bistro—all I could afford then. (I used to carry around a copy of a book called Pauper’s Paris and it led me to the most amazing little restaurants, many of them at the end of a Metro line.) I’ve been making this ever since. Roquefort, walnuts, tomatoes, leaves. —Diana Henry
NOTE FROM EMILY and the DOS: I am unable to find frisée, which I love, in my local grocers here in the mountains of North Carolina. I took Diana’s word and used soft leaves (baby Boston) rather than spinach. But in order to get the bitterness and a bit of the texture of frisée, which is a chicory, I added shredded radicchio, which is also a chicory.
For the salad
4-5 ounces salad leaves (I like frisée and baby spinach)
12 well-flavored tomatoes, quartered
2 ounces walnut pieces, toasted
4-5 ounces Roquefort cheese, crumbled
For the dressing
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
a smidgen of Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
pinch of caster (superfine) sugar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Whisk all the dressing ingredients together with a fork. Toss the salad ingredients with the dressing and serve immediately.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
As if Diana Henry wasn’t busy enough, she sent us these two irresistible salad-related lists. (She also revealed that the Department of Salad drew her in because we love fruit in salads. The boys in the lab are still strutting around like peacocks from this compliment.)
LIST: FIVE SALADY THINGS Diana Henry FINDS COMPLETELY IRRESISTIBLE
Mangoes—only just ripe. I love fruit in salads in fact. (That’s what drew me to The Department of Salad. You always seemed to be using blackberries!)
Salty, sweet, hot and sour dressings. So we’re talking Vietnamese and Thai. I could almost lose my head over these, they are so more-ish.
Nuts. I adore walnuts and hazelnuts in autumn salads.
Bitter leaves as well as softer sweeter ones. You are a good salad maker if you love contrast, and this is one of the basic contrasts in a salad.
Warm salads. I love them with roasted pumpkin or rare duck breast, for example. I’d almost say I like autumn salads better than summer ones.
*LIST: FIVE THINGS Diana Henry WANTS A SALAD TO BE
FULL OF LIFE. So much so that it’s almost impossible to contain it in a bowl or on a plate. I think it should feel as if they could take flight, if that makes sense. I wish I could get more small leaves or that I was a good gardener—I love those little sprightly bits of greenery you can add at the end. They give it life and structure too
LIGHT. Since I think salads should feel full of life, I am not so keen on salads made with mayo. The more liquid the dressings the lighter the salad.
NEVER STODGY. People make salads now—as I do—with roast vegetables and ingredients that would have seemed odd in the past, or at least unusual. It’s important not to chuck just anything into them. You have a bowl of cold roast potatoes in the fridge? Maybe there’s a better vehicle for firing life into those
HAPPINESS INDUCING. A soup makes you feel warmed and happy, a salad should make you enlivened and happy. It should energize you, but that doesn’t mean it should be all about crunchiness or ‘clean eating’ (God help us).
WELL DRESSED. And you have to approach that dressing anew—each salad has its own dressing, made with the oils and acids you have at any particular time. Remember what it’s going on—whether it’s mild, like mozzarella, or sweet, like roasted pumpkin. And sometimes salads barely need dressing at all, and you have to know when to leave well enough alone. Really great tomatoes—both sweet and acidic—might only need salt and extra virgin olive oil.
That’s It! We’re finished here. Midweek, for our paid subscribers, we’ll have another terrific salad from Diana Henry. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.