The Instant Cook

by Donna Hay

photographs by Con Poulos

Published by HarperCollins

192 pages, 2005




New Food From the Dynamo Down Under

Reviewed by Monica Stark


After a while, you can't help but wonder, "What could possibly be next?" At 34 years of age, Donna Hay would seem to have climbed every mountain available to her. And then some. Yet she keeps right on climbing.

While attached to the Australian edition of marie claire magazine, Hay produced a line of bestselling marie claire cookbooks that were published internationally as the new cook, new entertaining, new food fast and flavours. And while all of these books said marie claire on the cover, Donna Hay managed to imprint them with her own special might and magic. She did this by doing nothing less than reinventing the cookbook wheel. Less than a decade later, Hay's signature stark and simple style is finding its way to the highest end of cookbooks from almost every country. This new book season alone I've found myself saying, "That looks like a Donna Hay book," about no less than half a dozen books.

By 2001, Hay was ready to step out of marie claire's shadow with books that trumpeted the name of their already famous author. off the shelf, modern classics book 1 and modern classics book 2 followed each other in rapid succession, each heaping Hay higher in an ever-growing list of awards and each rapidly clambering onto numerous international bestseller lists. And then, perhaps because she needed a change of pace, donna hay magazine was launched late in 2001. At present it is Australia's fastest growing food title and -- alas -- no editions have been announced for distribution outside of Australia. Though non-Australians aren't being left high and dry. In fact, Hay's latest book, the instant cook, rivals the best of anything the Aussie domestic diva has dished up before. the instant cook is bigger, more complete and simply more impressive than anything she's delivered before.

As the title suggests, in the instant cook Hay is focusing on food that can be whipped up painlessly by home chefs with a desire to eat well but without the time to produce complicated meals:

Time, for most of us, is a precious commodity. Which is why, although we all love a home-cooked meal, we don't want to spend hours in the kitchen -- or at the supermarket -- pulling one together.

Hay's response to this definite need is -- for those familiar with her work -- predictable in its perfection and whole meal approach. Typically for Hay, the book is organized in straightforward fashion with chapters on soup; salads; pasta, noodles + rice; chicken; meat; seafood; vegetables and sweets. Each chapter begins with a few well-chosen words followed by a smattering of smashing photos, followed by Hay's signature no-nonsense recipes.

If you've never seen one of Donna Hay's cookbooks, the recipes will floor you. There are no endless steps here. No detailed descriptions of chopping and simmering and stirring. A recipe title followed by the required ingredients followed by a brief paragraph to describe preparation and then? Done like dinner. In many cases, Hay has included four and even six recipes per page, the exception being when a recipe can be prepared in slightly different ways. In those cases, Hay provides photos of each variation along with a few lines of how these variations are executed. For example, a recipe for Spicy Rice Noodles can be varied with the addition of chicken or egg or pork. Or Quick Flat Roasted Chicken can be prepared with soy and spice or herb and pepper or chilli and lime. In reality -- and in most other books -- these would be treated as distinct recipes. But Hay cuts through the mystique and shows us how simple it is to make one thing into another with very little fuss.

The recipes Hay includes this time are just as interesting and varied as those that have appeared in her previous cookbooks. Baked Risotto with Bacon and Peas, for example, provides an innovative low-tech rethinking of a high maintenance classic. Ditto her Baked Fish and Chips. Hay's Green Olive Baked Chicken is almost unthinkably simple, yet wonderfully sophisticated. Her Thai Red Pumpkin Curry is rich and classic in feel, yet absolutely new in delivery. And the Chocolate French Toast? So simple, yet alone worth the price of admission.

Those that have read this far will be unsurprised to find that I think the instant cook is another winner for Donna Hay. From a herd of superlative books from this author, the instant cook is the best of the bunch, ready to help you enter a new era of stress free food preparation. | April 2005


Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.