Sophie Dahl’s Voluptuous Cooking
Sophie Dahl has spent her life fantasizing about food. As a little girl, she dreamed about the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, written by her famous grandfather, the children's-book author Roald Dahl. Since then, the 32-year-old has launched her own writing career—both as a journalist (she's a contributing editor for British Vogue and Waitrose Food Illustrated) and a novelist (most recently, Playing with the Grown-ups).Now, she's combining her love for all things literary and culinary with a cookbook, Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights. Due out in the United States this month, it has already inspired a TV show for BBC Two created by Jamie Oliver's production company, as well as a follow-up book, Miss Dahl's Guide to All Things Lovely, to be published in the U.K. next year. Dahl, a former model, combines sexiness and accessibility in a way that evokes comparisons to Nigella Lawson, another voluptuous British foodie. But her passion for healthy eating is entirely her own.
© Jan Baldwin
Dahl uses very little meat in her cooking, focusing on fish, vegetables and whole grains. To cut back on processed foods, she often substitutes agave syrup and honey for refined sugar, and spelt and whole-wheat flours for white flour. But like her grandfather, who had a penchant for Burgundy, borscht and good dark chocolate (not all at the same time), she doesn't believe in deprivation. Her recipes often include small amounts of "voluptuous delights" such as crème fraîche, butter and cream. In her cookbook, she intersperses those recipes with stories about her struggles with weight during her modeling days—including a raw-food period in which she put on pounds "pretending that epic amounts of nuts and avocados doused in honey…were 'good for me,' just as long as it was all raw."
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When Isabella Blow, a maverick fashion editor at British Vogue, discovered her at age 18, Dahl didn't look like a stereotypical model. Yes, she was 5-foot-11, with huge eyes and ridiculously high cheekbones. But she was a size 10 with "huge tits and a big bum," as she puts it, at a time when the emaciated, heroin-chic look was in. "My modeling career was really just a long accident—one that happened to coincide with my chocolate-cake phase," Dahl says as she cooks lunch for friends, sautéing onions for a zucchini-watercress soup she enriches with a tablespoon of cream.
© Jan Baldwin
"None of the sample sizes ever fit me at the photo shoots," Dahl continues. "One would think that would've made me want to lose weight, but I just got rounder. I was known as the big model, so I thought I was supposed to eat." Part of the problem was that she ate so many meals in restaurants while traveling around the world for photo shoots. "A friend warned me that restaurants don't care if you get fat. They want you to come back again and again, so they make the most delicious food loaded with cream and butter. I naively thought that was rubbish." Only when Dahl returned to cooking the way her paternal grandmother, Gee-Gee, did on the Sussex coast—picking vegetables from the garden, buying seafood from the fishermen up the road—did she finally begin to make peace with food and shed what she likes to call her "puppy fat."
© Jan Baldwin
There was a time when Dahl would have sneaked spoonfuls of the coconut she's toasting in a skillet to use as a topping for her coconut-mango frozen yogurt. "I used to be a master picker," she confesses. "It was a horrible habit, almost an addiction, that I finally broke. Now I eat mindfully. Gee-Gee was a firm believer in eating three meals a day, and maybe something sweet with tea." Dahl made small, gradual changes to her diet, stocking her kitchen with healthy ingredients like the carrots, sweet potatoes and parsnips she roasts and tosses with balsamic vinaigrette and a bit of feta cheese. She began to experiment with the basics in her pantry, making dishes like the one she calls Paris Mash—wine-stewed lentils with spinach, mâche and a little crème fraîche: "It's what I cook when I have no food in the fridge."
As an hors d'oeuvre for her friends, Dahl deftly transfers warm buckwheat blini from the stove to a plate, then tops them with smoked salmon. She sometimes makes the blini for Sunday breakfasts with her husband, the jazz musician Jamie Cullum. "There is nothing better than a proper breakfast," Dahl says. "It's the easiest way to start the day healthy. Much easier than exercise."