'A Change of Appetite' Is a Cookbook Game-Changer

When her physician asked her to lose weight, Diana Henry searched for delicious food that was "accidentally healthy". The wonderful A Change of Appetite is the result.

A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious

Publisher: Mitchell Beazley
Author: Diana Henry
Publication date: 2014-06

Lovers of both cooking and reading require a steady influx of cookbooks to feed both appetites. But spend enough time cooking and reading, reading and cooking, and soon your appetite becomes increasingly difficult to sate, within the kitchen and without. If you see another meals-in-minutes, another creme fraïche at home, more fun with kale, or God help us all, another Moroccan carrot salad, well, you won’t be held accountable for your actions, now will you?

How you long for the rare cookbook that’s truly a game changer.

Enter Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite. The author of eight cookbooks, the Irish-born Henry is well-known in London, where she writes a weekly Sunday Telegraph column. Those of us in America aren’t as fortunate, for Henry’s work is difficult to locate stateside. When A Change of Appetite appeared in my local bookstore, I pounced.

A Change of Appetite was Henry’s response to her physician’s request that she lose weight. Meanwhile, friends were asking for healthier recipes; Henry’s father was battling cancer. Yet A Change of Appetite is hardly the pedantic work of a reformed sinner. Writing "the term 'healthy' does negative things to me", Henry instead sought foods that were wonderful to eat while being "accidentally healthy". In so doing, she assembled a book of interesting, delicious dishes appealing to even the most die-hard white-starch fanatics. People like me.

Any diet that demonizes or demands the eliminating of entire food groups (discounting reasons like Celiac, Diabetes, or religious belief) gives me pause. Apart from practicing common sense -- moderation in all things, including moderation itself -- there's the question of digestion. Mine is testy due to a rare collagen disorder. The Michael Pollan/Mark Bittman dictum of a plant-based diet won’t work for me. Those greens I do ingest must be thoroughly cooked. That nice bowl of muesli you had for breakfast is my bowl of gravel.

Still, I knew there were better choices, even for people like me (she wrote hypocritically, spooning down white rice for lunch). When Henry suggests adding a dash of whiskey to the "Proper Slow-Cooked Oatmeal With Maple Apples", of a weekend morning, adding: "Pretend that, in the middle of a healthy cookbook, I didn’t really say that last part... but boy, it’s good. "

Well, no problem. Happy to oblige.

Henry’s love of food makes A Change of Appetite welcoming rather than punitive. No food is verboten. Readers aren’t guilt-tripped. If there’s a single food to be avoided, it’s sugar. "Watch sugar like a hawk," Henry warns (italics hers). Should you eradicate it entirely?

"The problem isn’t what you eat at one meal, but what you eat across the board."

In other words, balance is what matters. Yet it’s no surprise that Henry’s search for big flavors and accidental health leads her away from European food. A Change of Appetite tacks eastward, toward the cuisines of Persia, China, Japan, Burma, and Vietnam. Flavor comes not from fat or sugar, but from lemons and limes, ginger and garlic, peppers and onions. These are big "front of mouth flavors"—spices, sharp citrus, creamy yogurt.

Protein means lots of fish, a little poultry, minimal amounts of red meat. There are plenty of grains, just not white ones. Instead, she suggests you use whole wheat flours, wheat berries, quinoa, spelt, lentils, farro, and brown rice. To say you won’t miss the meat is trite, yet truthful.

Consider Middle Eastern Yogurt Bread. I baked the first loaf on a Friday. That we were in the midst of a heat wave, have no air conditioning, and needed to fire the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit did not stop me. Made from whole wheat flour, bread flour, yogurt, olive oil, and yeast, I’m certain Middle Eastern Yogurt bread is amazingly healthy, provided you don’t eat the entire loaf in two days.

Unfamiliar with Japanese food until she visited a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in London, Henry describes discovering Japanese cuisine as: "like being a reasonably good painter who suddenly finds a whole school of artists whose work is breathtaking."

Discussing the Japanese sense of color and texture, of reverence for mindful eating, Henry adds, "I know this sounds a little bit Californian for us no-nonsense and rather cynical Brits, but there is more to cooking and eating than ingredients and skill."

What cookbook does Henry cite recipes from most? None other than California native Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s peerless Japanese Farm Food.

The Japanese Rice Bowl, in its purest incarnation, calls for sustainable sushi-grade tuna atop vegetables, brown rice, and a soy/lime dressing. Sustainable tuna exists. I bought some without going bankrupt or poisoning anybody, and we ate one of the great meals of our lives. Those fearing or abhorring raw fish can cook it, or substitute chicken or tofu. In hideously hot weather, this is perfect food: easily prepared, easily eaten.

A Warm Salad of Salmon, Baby Leeks, Parsley, and Capers got modified a bit—I used cheaper rock cod. Even the freshest rock cod can be rather boring. But roasting the fish per Henry’s method resulted in pearly chunks of flesh that soaked up the lemony dressing. With the gently oniony leek, parsley, and sharp hit of caper, the entire dish was anything but dull.

I detoured a bit from the Artichoke and Ricotta Salad With Honeyed Preserved Lemon Dressing. Henry’s recipe calls for jarred or canned marinated baby artichokes and a tablespoon of honey. I took advantage of living near Castroville, California, artichoke growing capital of the country, and bought fresh baby artichokes. No honey, because I can’t stand sweet with savory. The result, a pretty plate of green, white, yellow, and red. It didn’t last long. The ricotta -- here, the firmer ricotta salatta -- played off the bitter artichoke, salty preserved lemon rind, sweet tomatoes, and zippy fresh salad greens. The dish is wonderful and would be appetizing no matter the time of year.

There are literally dozens more recipes that I could call out, here. But just a few: Japanese Ginger and Garlic Chicken With Smashed Cucumber; Turkish Spoon Salad With Haydari (Haydari being drained Greek yogurt with hot pepper, dill, and garlic); Roopa’s Scrambled Indian Eggs, which call for hot chiles and the admonition that only a lightweight would seed them. Real black bread.

Barraged by conflicting dietary information, much of it dictatorial in nature, many of us become confused, conflicted, or just plain annoyed. Tossing up our hands, we ignore "expert" advice, carving our own dietary paths. Some attempt moderation, others exist on junk food. Still others adhere to extreme, often punishingly limited diets with an almost religious fervor.

For my part, happily consuming fish for dinner, then finishing the leftovers the next day is a pleasure, to say the least. Voluntarily choosing wheat bread over my morning bagel is definitely different. Any book leading me to that, without hectoring me is well worth my dollar. A Change of Appetite truly is a game changer. It's unexpected and completely welcome.

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