THERE IS AN air of effortlessness to Colu Henry’s culinary world. It comes through in her general cheer, in the vivid colors and textures of the tantalizing food photography on her Instagram, and in the supportive bent of her Patreon newsletter (a recent post is titled “Three (Vegetarian!) Recipes for When You Think There Is Nothing in the House”).
It’s clear that the Hudson, New York–based cookbook author and recipe developer takes simple pleasure in preparing beautiful food, while genuinely wanting to show others how to do the same. She also wants you to know that it doesn’t require a culinary degree. For Henry, who first gained a love of cooking from her Italian-American family, it starts with learning how to shop. Ensuring that you have high-quality seasonal produce and trusty pantry staples on hand, plus learning to look around the kitchen, is all it takes, she promises, to put a simple, satisfying, fancy-ish dinner on the table with relative ease. Henry’s philosophy is straightforward. As she wrote in her first 2017 cookbook, “Back Pocket Pasta: Inspired Dinners to Cook on the Fly,” if you have a well-stocked pantry, dinner “is never more than a pot of boiling water away.”
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The idea for “Back Pocket Pasta” came from the hashtag — #backpocketpasta — that Henry appended to the recipes she posted to Instagram while working at Bon Appétit. They were designed to be cooked with minimal fuss after the 10-hour workdays Henry regularly put in working at the magazine and in public relations. And though she says the dishes are meant to “cook on the fly,” Henry’s recipes are keepers, in part, because they are so elegant. The dishes she considers weeknight go-tos would be dinner-party showstoppers for a lot of home cooks.
“Back Pocket Pasta” seemed designed to relax the reader, to show them that with the right staples and a few lessons in how to read the kitchen, dinner can be unintimidating. It’s a trick she repeats to grand effect in her new cookbook, “Colu Cooks: Easy Fancy Food.” Henry’s creative spirit and wholesome glamour come through in these new recipes, which play up the simple sophistication she brings to cooking.
In the opening pages of “Easy Fancy Food,” Henry writes about moving from Brooklyn to Hudson in upstate New York with her husband, Chad, and their dog, Joshie. Leaving the array of urban dining options behind meant cooking even more, but having more space at home meant inviting friends over every night. As such, this book is packed with characters and the stories that swirl around them. As Henry writes, she realized that the joy of recording her recipes “wasn’t just the food; it was sharing stories through food and recipes about the people I chose to surround myself with and the places I’m lucky enough to visit.”
There is a robust description of Henry’s recommended pantry staples (she even shares brand names). There are recipes for meal-sized salads, hearty soups, stew, risotto, and pasta — the “Spring Lamb Ragù with Anchovies and Pea Shoots” is a standout. There are also simple chicken dishes, including a spatchcocked bird roasted with a paste made from the Indian condiment lime pickle (hands down my favorite food in a jar). For even more go-with-the-flow dinner vibes, there’s a fish-forward chapter called “When Cooking on Vacation.” (Henry, for one, does not need to be waited on at a resort: “Give me a basic kitchen and a charcoal Weber grill and I am hot to trot,” she writes.) And a section on comfort foods serves up pork chops, beans, sausage and peppers, and more.
A chapter called “To Feed a Crowd” features simple, smart recipes for slow-cooked main dishes like “Citrus Braised Short Ribs with Herb Salad” and “Fennel-Rubbed Pork Shoulder with Creamy White Beans and Herb Oil.” There’s also a mysteriously breadcrumb-free family recipe for eggplant parm, among others.
Henry admits that she is not a baker, so in “Easy Fancy Food,” she writes, “I decided to do what I do when having people over for dinner: I called on some incredibly talented friends to ‘please bring dessert’ and contribute their favorite simple recipes.” The desserts that close the book range from “Cultured Butter & Tahini Cookies” to “Nutella Fudgesicles” to “Rhubarb Mess with Bay and Cardamom.” There’s also tiramisu, a cake, a torte, a crumble, and even a take on a Baked Alaska. These desserts all come from friends, and each contributor has teed up their recipe with a backstory. It provides a delicious community finish to a book that elevates the art of actually enjoying yourself while cooking for those you love.
Henry’s dishes are modern and refined, but they draw on a legacy of comfort cooking and laid-back entertaining. That, along with the charming, approachable prose in this book, makes readers feel like they’ve snagged a coveted invite to a dinner party (casual, of course) at Colu’s.
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Tara Donne Photographer
Tara Donne is a commercial and editorial photographer whose lifelong loves mirror what she shoots for a living. She grew up in the country, in a family of fantastic cooks and bakers who value their time together at the table above all else. She finds inspiration in both of the places she now calls home — the Hudson Valley and Brooklyn, New York.