LONDON — If you want to peer into writers’ souls, the saying goes, you peruse their libraries. But for food writers, you’ll also need to snoop around their larders.
Diana Henry studied English at Oxford before deciding to write about food, so sure, she had Yeats, Colum McCann and Anne Enright on the shelves of her North London home.
But far more revealing are the multiple jars of pearly goose fat, the brackish squid ink, the pickled rhubarb and the 15 varieties of homemade jams and jellies (medlar, passion fruit, quince) that overflow her pantry, taking up every possible inch before creeping down to the floor and annexing a swath of the laundry room.
“I think a larder is all about possibilities,” she said on a recent afternoon. “It gives me freedom when I’m writing recipes to know that if I’m putting together sweet potatoes with preserved lemon, if I suddenly decide I need to add walnuts for texture, I’ll be able to follow it through. And I’m constantly writing recipes.”
To say Ms. Henry is highly prolific is to understate the case. She has aweekly recipe column for The Sunday Telegraph, she contributes regularly to other publications and she hosts BBC radio programs as often as she can manage it. Then there are her cookbooks, of which she’s written 10, including her latest, “Simple,” which has just been published in the United States by Mitchell Beazley.
But despite winning a slew of prestigious food writing awards and having a growing number of devoted fans, she is not a household name in Britain or the United States in the same way as, say, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver or the cookbook author and chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Part of this may be because widespread recognition comes more slowly without the platform of television, or several critically acclaimed restaurants.
Instead, her copious energy goes into her writing, and into researching, inventing and testing dozens of new recipes every single month — hundreds per year — all by herself in her spacious, light-filled kitchen.
What distinguishes her work isn’t just the quantity of recipes she produces, but their quality and originality, particularly in the creativity of her flavor combinations. Seasoned with Kashmiri chiles, saffron, grape must and tamarind; garnished with pomegranate seeds, fresh mint, dill and parsley; and drizzled with prodigious amounts of sour yogurt, her dishes are intelligently conceived without being pretentious.
“Diana doesn’t start from zero when she writes something,” Mr. Ottolenghi said. “She references others, she does research. And she thinks about food not just in terms of flavors but in terms of context.”
She also seems to know what her audience wants to eat a step ahead of everyone else. Her first book, “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons,” was published in 2002, half a decade ahead of Mr. Ottolenghi’s self-titled cookbook, in which he explored and popularized very similar Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors and techniques.
“She’s very much a London cook,” said Nigella Lawson, the food writer and TV personality. “It’s such a cosmopolitan city, and the range of ingredients is so invigoratingly varied, that it informs her cooking.”
Then there is the writing itself, luminous and evocative. In “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow,” her 2011 book celebrating the wintry cooking of northern climates (including Scandinavia, Russia, the northern part of the United States and Canada), she writes of plums and figs: “I’m drawn to their rich, purplish blotches of color: Study them through half-closed eyes and it looks as if they’ve been drawn in smudgy pastels.”
It’s the kind of prose that makes you want to run immediately into the kitchen to have your way with some figs. And when you get there, you discover that none of her recipes are fussy, and all of them work. To be accessible, reliable and still thrilling is a very rare achievement indeed.
“She can write a recipe for cucumbers with radishes, cherries and rose petals,” Ms. Lawson said. “With another writer you wouldn’t trust it, but with Diana you want to give it a go because it feels both safe and inspiring.”
Ms. Henry was born in Northern Ireland, one of four children in a home where her mother was a good if predictable cook.
“My parents weren’t foodies, but we had properly cooked food every day,” she said. “There was pheasant someone gave us, or wild salmon, or runny homemade jam from a neighbor, but it wasn’t fancy.”
Her culinary epiphany came at age 15, when she went to a small town in France as an exchange student. There, she learned how to dress salads with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and Dijon mustard. Even familiar meats like pork chops and steaks were better in France. She kept cooking when she returned home, making quiches and tarts to the delight of her family.
After graduating from Oxford, she got a postgraduate journalism degree, then began a career as a television producer at the BBC. That came to an abrupt halt in 1998 when she had her first son, Ted. The exhilaration she once felt working 12-hour days, six days a week, in an office turned to agony.
“I couldn’t bear to leave him, so I knew I’d have to find something I could do at home,” she said.
She began again by ghostwriting a cookbook. Then, the idea for “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons” came to her, inspired by cooking out of Claudia Roden’s books, and tinged with memories of the exotic-seeming ingredients — figs, pomegranates, rose water — she read about in “The Arabian Nights” as a child.
When she sold the cookbook in 1999, she didn’t have a mobile phone, so she called her mother from a call box on the street outside a cafe where she had just met with her new publisher, breathless with glee.
More books and another son, Gillies, now 11, followed. A few years later, so did a divorce, which brought financial difficulties — as well as a freedom she had not expected, but relished.
“Because I’m divorced, I do have to look after myself,” she said. “No man ever will, so I just get on with it. That, in itself, is liberating.”
And she was able to give free rein to her workaholic tendencies — she could work until 2 or 3 in the morning, those quiet, stolen hours, without anyone complaining.
“Sometimes I don’t know when to stop,” she said. “But I love it, I suck life up. I wish I had 48 hours instead of 24 in every day because there’s still so much to learn.”
She travels frequently to research cuisines, a now-essential part of her creative process. On a trip to Iceland, for a forthcoming book called “North,” a more in-depth study of some of themes from “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow,” she sampled rye rolls that were served with a green butter made from spruce needle oil. She thought it was just like eating trees:the rye so woodsy and so earthy, the butter so green and sweet.
“I thought, how can I eat trees at home?” she said. Without spruce oil, she couldn’t simply replicate the dish.
Her brain whirled, finally landing on roasted beets, another Icelandic staple that, like rye, is earthy and sweet. The rolls became a crisp bread-crumb topping. Then she added goat cheese for creaminess, and dill for something green and fresh. The recipe landed in the vegetable chapter of “Simple” as roast beets with goat cheese, rye and dill.
It was completely different from the dish that inspired it, but the endpoint was a satisfying recipe that could be made in any of her readers’ kitchens.