Diana Henry’s latest, Pure Simple Cooking, is the perfect cookbook for these frugal times, when I find myself staying in far more than going out. The cover alone is enough to lure me in — a roasted chicken in a casserole dish with a couple pieces of crispy bacon on top and a halved head of garlic alongside.
It looks a bit messy, like it was cooked by a regular person in a home oven — and, most important — completely delicious. Henry is a Brit. She writes the food column for the Sunday Telegraph, and, like her British colleagues Nigel Slater and Simon Hopkinson (who wrote, respectively, The Kitchen Diaries and Roast Chicken and Other Stories, two of my favorite books of last year), her approach is bracingly straightforward, but not remotely boring. There are seven recipes for that affordable workhorse — the pork chop — for example, seasoned with everything from fennel seeds to plums and Chinese spices.
Much has been made of comfort food being a panacea for our current economic state, but Henry tells us by example that comfort food need not mean mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. Her apple pie is enlivened with lemon zest and shaved almonds and her potatoes are roasted with mushrooms and balsamic vinegar. Also, even slightly complex-sounding dishes — zucchini with ricotta, mint and basil, or baked sweet potato with cilantro and chili relish — turn out to be a cinch to put together.
There’s a reason why the subtitle to this book is “Effortless Meals for Every Day.” We Americans need to be reminded that there is more to “every day” (and more to “cheap”) than hamburger (or worse, Hamburger Helper). Tonight I’m having pork chops with mustard and thyme butter and I’m really looking forward to it.
Smothered Pork Chops with Mustard and Thyme Butter
For the butter:
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 1/2 teaspoons coarse-grained mustard
Leaves from 4 sprigs thyme
1 tart apple
1/2 pound potatoes, washed, but no need to peel them
1 onion, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup butter
4 8-ounce, thick bone-in pork chops
1 1/4 cups dry white wine or hard cider
To make the mustard and thyme butter, just mash the ingredients together, form into a sausage shape, wrap in plastic wrap and chill.
Preheat oven to 350. Halve and core the apple and cut into wedges about 1-inch thick at the thickest part. Slice the potatoes into rounds about 1/8 of an inch thick. Toss the potatoes and half the apple and half the onion, and season with salt and pepper. Put in the bottom of an ovenproof dish big enough to take the chops in a single layer. Dot with half the butter.
Melt the rest of the butter in a pan. Season the pork chops with salt and pepper and quickly brown them on both sides, just enough to color the meat, not cook it through. Put the chops on top of the vegetables and apple and put the rest of the apple and onion rings on top. Deglaze the pan with the wine by pouring it into the pan and letting it bubble while you scrape up the juices and bits that have stuck to the bottom. Pour this over the chops. Bake for 45 minutes, turning the onions and apples occasionally so that they get a good all-over color, until cooked through. Serve a couple of slices of the flavored butter on top of each helping.