Interview by Samantha Hahn
Colu Henry’s Back Pocket Pasta is full of incredibly delicious dishes that are magically very simple to make. Colu pairs the recipes with wonderful anecdotes that ground them in personal and family history which makes the book so much more than a cookbook. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Read on…
Samantha Hahn: Hi Colu, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. First off, not to be gross but looking at the pages of your book makes me salivate. If I could bring one thing to a desert island it would be cacao e pepe in a big bowl. I’ll start with a question that seems totally obvious to me but here goes, why a pasta cookbook? Where does your love of pasta stem from?
Colu Henry: Not gross, flattering! I grew up in a very pasta passionate family. My great grandparents came over from Italy in the early 1900s and my Nonni lived with me growing up, so culturally I was raised, molto Italiano. We had pasta three times a week with meat sauce on Sundays. It’s always been a food that I hold close to my heart. It’s nostalgic, comforting and man, it’s delicious.
SH: Your subtitle is Inspired Dinner to Cook on the Fly. I appreciate that so much. Long and tricky recipes deter me. Yours are so thoughtful and delectable at the same time they’re presented in very manageable steps. How do you think it’s possible that you were able to come up with such succinct but amazingly flavorful dishes?
CH: Thank you! I think they key is learning what ingredients play well together and that for the most part items can be interchangeable. My good friend Samin Nostrat wrote an amazing book called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is also a helpful tool to keep in mind when composing a dish. All recipes should have those four components in balance. Swapping out Brussels sprouts for broccoli rabe isn’t going to throw off a dish, but what will is if it isn’t seasoned properly and the vegetables aren’t sufficiently charred for texture. Almonds or hazelnuts? You choose, they both have crunch.
SH: Let’s go back in time a bit, where does your love of food stem from? Each recipe has a lovely anecdotal intro. I love your Buttery Basil Pesto with Linguine thoughts. You mention that your mama picked basil from her garden, I’d love to hear more about this, and your family’s eating life. It really feels that each recipe in this book has a personal meaning to you.
CH: Food has always been first and foremost in my life. Every moment of my day is filled with what the next meal will be. In addition to growing up in a food-focused family, I worked in restaurants all through college and for four years when I first moved to New York. It’s something I just can’t get enough of or stop learning about. I’m so grateful I’m able to work in a field that I genuinely love.
SH: When beginning the book, which came first, the memory or the recipe?
CH: That’s a very good question. I think the book is a balance of both. The opening chapter of Back Pocket Pasta is mainly inspired by family recipes that I’ve tweaked over the years. The others were developed by meals I created at home after a long days work or that were inspired by friends and travel. I think the stories behind these dishes drive the book, they are all very personal and I’m so lucky that I was able to share them.
SH: Do you have a favorite dish in the book?
CH: I have a few! I love the Moroccan Lamb Ragu, which is finished with Greek yogurt and mint. I also love the Rotini with Caramelized Onions, Toasted Walnuts, and Feta, which was one of the first recipes I came up with for the Brooklyn section of the book.
SH: What prompted you to leave PR and supporting winemakers and chefs to becoming one yourself?
CH: Truth be told, I still handle PR for some close friends, but it has to be the right project. I love doing it, because it’s another way to approach storytelling and keeps me in the loop on things. Plus, I love championing good people! That said, when I’m in the kitchen developing recipes I’m able to let loose and get inspired. It’s a good way to keep things in balance. In some ways, the path that I’ve taken makes a lot of sense. Over the years in PR I’ve had to rewrite chef’s recipes, produce photos shoots, put together call sheets and more. All these skills come in handy when writing a book, because it’s not just about writing recipes, it’s one huge creative special project that needs to be managed.
SH: How did you come up with the format of the book: Personal anecdote followed by a recipe? Why was it important for you to root the recipes in these beautiful personal history intros?
CH: As I looked at organizing the book, I realized that the pastas I make truly change given the pantries I had access to. By nature, these were different locations, which then turned into stories about the people and places I made them. In general, humans want to connect with other humans, and I’m infectiously always trying to bring people together. I hope that that came through to the reader.
SH: You live in Hudson, New York. I assume you moved from the city when you were at Bon Appétit and Full Picture PR. What prompted the decision? Do you have a garden?
CH: My husband Chad and I came to Hudson once, fell in love with this town, and bought a house. It was certainly an impulsive move. We were drawn to the people here and the creative possibilities. Brooklyn continues to be prohibitively expensive and we didn’t want to have to work to live if that makes sense? Hudson was the best of Brooklyn in a smaller town and gave us many possibilities. For instance, we just bought Otto’s Market, a small grocery store, in Germantown with some friends. That could never have happened for us in the city. I loved my time there and I still go down frequently, but I don’t need to be there every day. We don’t have a garden right now as we live right in town, but our next plan is to buy land and build a home, so hopefully, that won’t be too far off in the future.
SH: Did you enjoy the experience of authoring a book? I have seen a lot of early praise for Back Pocket Pasta. Do you think you’ll do another cookbook? I’m sure your friends and family enjoyed being guinea pigs to test your amazing recipes.
CH: I loved every piece of writing Back Pocket Pasta even though sometimes I wanted to pull my hair out. It’s a learning curve for sure, but the very best kind. I’m working on a proposal right now for my next book and I can’t wait to share what it will be about! It’s not pasta.
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