The look of Donna Hay's food has long lured me in, and I have plenty of company. The Australian cookbook author's style launched the eponymous magazine (circulation 730,000) I used to track down at foreign newsstands, as well as a newspaper column and lines of housewares and food products. And she's sold 4 million books.
Yet looks aren't everything, or so say folks who have nothing to do with design. To that end, I've seldom been disappointed when re-creating any of Hay's dishes, and her recipe writing skews minimalist yet does not leave much room for guessing. The same can be said of the half-dozen or so things I tested from this book - Life in Balance: A Fresher Approach to Eating (Harper Collins).
Why would the appearance of Hay's food matter to home cooks? For the same reason Meryl Streep nails her character's blue-sweater speech in the film The Devil Wears Prada. It's a trickle-down thing: You're not plating haute cuisine when you're getting dinner on the table, but "eating with one's eyes" has been studied scientifically and cannot be discounted. Hay's food has crumbs and splotches of sauce and forks in situ, albeit carefully placed, in a way that draws you in and makes you want to taste it.
The approach Hay alludes to in her subtitle puts some so-called super foods and alternative grains and flours in unusual combinations, such as rice flour, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini, and mint loaded into breakfast fritters. Her super green stir-fry contains nothing I haven't eaten before, but its heap of sugar snap peas, edamame, asparagus by the inch, spinach, scallions, and gingery, spicy sauce seems new and inviting on all sensory levels. It's also something you could eat your fill of with satisfaction and no guilt.
In Balance, Hay devotees will notice the author's signature color palette has expanded. The clean, almost-Scandinavian icy lightness and textured linens are still evident, as backdrops for platters of lemongrass tofu and beef tataki. More prevalent here are darker hues that edge up on midnight and extend to purplish black. The effect is hardly somber; rather, it adds to the drama and richness of ingredients. Even brown food looks good, seemingly shot with the warmth of a Woody Allen film.
I haven't had a gluten-free, vegan, nondairy confection as rewarding as Hay's five-ingredient banana cookies, in a shade of cinnamon brown. They can be cakey-soft or chewy, depending on how your oven is calibrated - and are delicious either way. The flattened balls of dough are coated in Demerara sugar, which is now available at a good number of supermarkets and not to be substituted (I gave it a try).
They and the burnt-almond butter shrimp with chilies use that nut butter, a happy coincidence that will make you feel better about spending a sawbuck for a jar of the stuff. As many ways as I have eaten my favorite seafood, this preparation - again, easy with relatively few ingredients - shot right up to my top-five list.
None of the accompanying photos are from Life in Balance, in case you were looking to see what inspires me so. As I said before, Hay and her staff make it all look much better. As good as her food tastes.
Burnt-Almond Butter Shrimp With Chilies
Makes 4 servings
1/3 cup almond butter
2 small bird's-eye/Thai red chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro (optional)
2 large cloves garlic, minced to a paste
2 tablespoons water, or more as needed
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 or 3 limes), plus lime wedges for serving
Freshly cracked black pepper
24 jumbo, shell-on, deveined shrimp (about 11/4 pounds)
Watercress, for serving
1. Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
2. Use a fork to whisk together the almond butter; chilies, cilantro (if using), garlic, water, and lime juice in a mixing bowl. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. The mixture should be spoonable; if not, add more water as needed.
3. Cut each shrimp lengthwise, stopping short of severing them into separate halves; in other words, butterfly them. Arrange on the baking sheet, cut sides up. Spoon the almond butter mixture over each, covering the shrimp flesh completely. Broil for about 5 minutes, or just until the shrimp is opaque and the sauce has browned, crisp edges.
4. Serve hot, with the watercress and lime wedges.
- Adapted from Life in Balance: A Fresher Approach to Eating, by Donna Hay (HarperCollins, Sept. 6)
Per serving: 260 calories, 34 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 230 milligrams cholesterol, 240 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Super Green Stir-Fry
Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon peeled, shredded/grated fresh ginger root
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 bunches asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (18 ounces total)
2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
8 ounces sugar snap peas, strings removed and some cut in half on the diagonal
2 tablespoons black bean garlic sauce or chili garlic paste
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons water
1 cup shelled edamame
1 packed cup baby spinach leaves
8 ounces brown rice vermicelli (mai fun), cooked and drained
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and cut into very thin rounds, for garnish (optional)
Spicy microgreens, for garnish
Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
1. Heat the oil in a wok (or large nonstick skillet) over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the ginger and garlic; stir-fry for 30 seconds, then add the asparagus, scallions, and sugar snap peas; stir-fry for 1 minute.
2. Add the black bean garlic sauce or chili garlic paste, soy sauce, and water; stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the edamame, spinach, and noodles; stir-fry for 1 minute or until the noodles are just warmed through.
3. Divide among individual wide, shallow bowls; top with the red chili pepper, if using, the spicy microgreens, and the cilantro. Serve right away.
- Adapted from Life in Balance: A Fresher Approach to Eating, by Donna Hay (HarperCollins, 2016).
Per serving (using black bean garlic sauce): 250 calories, 9 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 380 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.