On a late-March afternoon inside her Hudson, New York, home, the cookbook author Colu Henry was gleefully shaking up some improvised Ramos gin fizzes. “I don’t have orange-flower water, so I used a touch of orange juice. And I doubled the lemon juice, because I’m out of limes,” she explained, her tone less vexed than matter-of-fact.
Exact or not, the resulting Creamsicle-like cocktails were delicious, and delightfully strong (thanks to the absentminded omission of soda). The recipe is one of several opening-act cocktails from Henry’s new cookbook, Colu Cooks: Easy Fancy Food, a loose playbook of sorts for hosting and entertaining without fuss and agita.
She pulled two containers of cheese from her fridge. “We’re making ricotta-and-pecorino gnocchi. We can decide what kind of sauce we want later, yeah?” she half asked. “And this will only take about 20 minutes,” she added, before reaching back into the refrigerator for a bottle of sparkling rosé.
For many, after two years of living through a pandemic, socializing in 2022 still seems like a novelty. Occasions and opportunities to gather and celebrate friendships, to break bread and commune, remain far too precious to spend in our kitchens, laboring over elaborate dishes.
And yet, when it comes to quality versus convenience, life’s too short to sacrifice one for the other, Henry maintains. “You don’t need recipes that have all these lists of ingredients and complicated steps to make something celebratory,” she said.
Improvisation is often at the core of everything Henry does in the kitchen, as evidenced in the easy-to-riff recipes that make up her first book, Back Pocket Pasta. The native New Yorker has never received any formal culinary training, and the fact that she can cook with the skill and finesse of a seasoned M.C. or cabaret performer (more on that later) is part of what makes her such an enviable host.
Aside from its obviousness, the title Colu Cooks shares its name with the collection of short home-cooking videos that Henry and her husband, the artist Chad Silver, started shooting during the fall of 2020. “We had to quarantine for two weeks after arriving back home in New York from Nova Scotia, so we were sort of just playing around and putting them on the Internet,” she explained.
For viewers, the videos offered both culinary instruction and an amusing sight line into Henry’s subtly screwball personality. It’s hard not to imagine her breaking into laughter discussing the faux serious-sounding “three-step dredge” process behind her fried-fish sandwiches.
“You don’t need recipes that have all these lists of ingredients and complicated steps to make something celebratory.”
Henry filled two fresh glasses with rosé. “I have some mushrooms, if we want to make a mushroom, butter, shallot-y sauce,” she said. (We do.) “And we can add some pea shoots?” (Yes, please.) She melted a thick pat of butter in a saucepan before adding torn-up mushroom pieces, pulled like petals from a larger bouquet.
Whereas Back Pocket Pasta leaned into Henry’s Italian-American upbringing, her latest is a gorgeously designed capsule of what she’s craving and cooking right now. Other equally variable recipes from the book include crowd-friendly dishes such as citrus-braised short ribs, skillet Caesar salad, and “salty snacks” to wash down with gin-and-tonics.
At one point the book was slated to be a follow-up to the first—the next edition in a Back Pocket compendium—but then the pandemic hit, her publisher pushed dates back, and Henry’s own course changed several times over. Whether tactical or organic, though, directional shifts and all-out career pivots are not new to her.
Prior to cookbooks and recipe development, Henry worked in public relations for food and wine (including at Bon Appétit magazine and for the actor Kyle MacLachlan’s winery, Pursued by Bear), and before that as a cabaret singer. It’s almost no wonder that improvisation, culinary or otherwise, comes so naturally to the musical-theater major.
So would she sing before our supper? “It’s my party trick,” she coyly demurred, as she cut the logs of dough into rounds and carefully dropped them into the saucepan. A few minutes later, mouths were too full with pillowy gnocchi and the deep, rich flavor of brown-buttered mushrooms to pursue the request.
Fortunately, another opportunity presented itself later that week, during a downtown Manhattan gathering for Colu Cooks. As Henry and the author Lisa Taddeo mostly cackled their way through a casual Q&A session, the subject of favorite cabaret tunes arose. Perhaps it was the strong gin-and-tonics, or maybe the thrill of a crowd, but this time Henry answered in song: “Peel me a grape, crush me some ice … ”
Colu Cooks is out now
Laura Neilson is a New York–based writer and a contributor to The New York Times, T magazine, WSJ., and The Wall Street Journal