Diana Henry on finding dishes that are delicious first, and healthy second

For Diana Henry, author of A Change of Appetite, eating healthy isn't about what you can't eat -- it's about eating the foods you love anyway. She went in search of dishes that were delicious first, then good for you second.

Melissa Clark: Your book is about how you changed your appetite. Tell me about that change.

Diana Henry
Diana Henry (Photo: Chris Terry)

Diana Henry: I had quite a lot of friends who kept talking about eating more healthily. They’re like me, they are in their late 40s. Either they wanted to eat healthy or they wanted to put their partners on a healthier diet. I think it's partly to do with getting older.

When I asked them what they were cooking at home -- because they were trying to cook protein and vegetables basically -- they were all trying to think of a million and one things to do with a turkey breast. It really wasn't exciting.

I thought, "This is kind of grim." So I thought, "I will start to think about what is healthy, but I won't come at it from the health position. I'll come at it from the delicious position. " Because I never liked the idea of healthy eating myself. Now I have come around to it.

When I started to think about the dishes that were actually good for you, I realized that most of the time it was the dishes that I wanted to eat anyway -- it's Middle Eastern food, southeast Asian food. The kind of stuff that's light and has got a lot of vegetables in it, whole grains, lots of what I call front-of-the-mouth flavors like chile, garlic, lime and ginger.

MC: In your book you talk about foods that are accidentally healthy, foods that you love anyway.

DH: That was my little catchphrase that I kept thinking of when I was trying to come up with dishes to go in the book. It was food that was delicious first, and then it happened to be very good for you second.

There are loads of it. Now we can get ingredients for any cuisine: Vietnamese, Indian, Lebanese. You can get everything.

MC: Middle Eastern cuisine comes up a lot in your book. I see you're using pomegranate, molasses, cumin and yogurt.

DH: I started to cook those when I moved to London. I'm from Northern Ireland. As I grew up in Ireland, we had nothing exotic whatsoever. I used to read the Arabian Nights stories. I used to dream about things like that: figs and pomegranates.

When I moved to London after I was at university in England, it bowled me over. At the end of my street in north London, there was a Turkish, a Cypriot and a Middle Eastern store -- all this stuff was there.

I discovered Claudia Roden, who is one of my favorite food writers. I started to cook like that and eat also in cheap little Middle Eastern restaurants in London. I’ve never lost the taste for that. I adore it. It's probably my favorite cuisine, to be honest.

They just cook so brilliantly with vegetables. In England we haven't really -- they've been a thing that sits on the side. They really put vegetables foremost and they use other ingredients that bring them to life. But they just know much more. It's in their whole culture what to do with vegetables much more than it is in ours.

MC: We talk a lot about vegetables moving to the center of the plate. Is that part of your philosophy for this book?

DH: It kind of is, but it happened accidentally. I think my eating had changed a bit anyway gradually over the last decade; I was eating a lot more vegetables partly because I had more ideas about what to do with them. I find that meat is meat, especially if it's something good like a steak. You don't really want to fancy that up, you just want the steak.

When it comes to vegetables, there's a whole section in my book about carrots. Carrots are something that I love. But I have about five different carrot salads. I started to think more creatively. I think about vegetables, but it came about quite naturally. I didn't force it.

MC: What are some of your favorite summer recipes from the book? I think we all want to start eating lighter this time of year.

DH: This is the best time of year. If you're going to start being a bit more healthy, this is a good time of year to do it. You can ease yourself into it and you'll be really used to it by the time autumn comes around.

But I go all over the place looking for ideas. There are lamb kebabs with a Georgian sauce called adzhika, which is made with celery, lots of chiles and red peppers. This is all blitzed together with garlic in the food processor. They put things together differently -- they use dill and coriander together. It has a little red wine vinegar and some olive oil.

It's fierce, it's really hot. I mean you eat it -- it's a real shock. But to have that with something as simple as lamb kebabs and then a salad of barley and tomatoes on the side, that's lovely. It's not difficult, but it's different.

I am very keen on labneh, that Middle Eastern drained cheese. It sounds ridiculous to say that you make your own cheese, but everybody is so into it now because all it is is draining Greek yogurt inside a piece of muslin or cloth. Then after 24 hours, you can unwrap this and you can break it into nuggets.

One of my favorite summer things is tomatoes that have been roasted in the oven with Moroccan harissa. This works even when you have tomatoes that aren't wonderful because it concentrates the sweetness in them. The heat does that. Then they're sweet and also very peppy because of the harissa.

I serve that with little nuggets of labneh, so you have the warm tomatoes, the coldness of the labneh, and then torn bread -- flatbread that you've toasted, bits of pita bread.

I serve that with lots of herbs as well as leaves. I think it's important to use herbs as a salad. There's lots of coriander in that, and there’s a saffron dressing on top of it. You just dissolve your saffron in either white wine vinegar or lemon juice, then you go ahead and you make a dressing with your olive oil after that.

Not only do you have different flavors in that, but you have contrasting temperatures and textures as well -- the bread is toasty and the tomatoes are soft.

I love where you can compose things and you have a lot going on in your mind at the one time. If you're eating that, you don't think, "I'm missing steak" or "I'm missing chicken." You're very happy with what you have.

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