Pros: Straightforward explanations of herb & spice usage; great starter recipes
Cons: Could use more illustrations
Reviewed by Brook Elliott
Y’all need to know, right up front, that obtaining a review copy of Spiced Right was somewhat of a challenge. Sandra Bowens is a member of Cheftalk’s review staff. Somehow she had it in her head that it wouldn’t be right, therefore, for a review of her book to appear in our pages.
In a word: nonsense! There’s no reason that reviewers, who are also authors, should be barred from exposure. Particularly when their writing is spot on, as this book is. Objectivity comes from having somebody else review the book, not from ignoring it. Once she understood that I was able to overcome her reluctance.
That said, I was particularly interested in seeing this book. Herb and spice use rank among the largest group of questions asked; not only from novice cooks but even from some professionals. Rarely do cookbooks adequately answer those questions, because, for their authors, herbs and spices are merely part of the ingredients. They do not explain why those choices make the most sense, hardly ever offer alternatives, and, in general, do not have specific expertise in their use.
None of this applies to Sandra. Among her credentials can be listed being a sales representative for herbs and spices to the restaurant trade and global explorations into the herbs, spices, and other flavorings that make world cuisines special. For the past ten years, her acclaimed website, www.APinchOf.com, has been devoted to sharing her knowledge of herbs and spices with both professional and home cooks.
Spiced Right is a distillation of all she’s learned along the way. What it’s not is a collection of chefy dishes using offbeat and hard to find ingredients. Rather, each of the 160-odd original recipes uses generally available herbs and spices to create everyday dishes---many of which are company level as well. Rather than going outside the box, as so many authors are wont to do, Bowens adapts recipes, putting her own spin on them in a way that introduces herbs and spices in a non-intimidating manner.
Take, for instance, her Winter Quiche recipe. I mean quiche, right. What could be more basic? In this case, her combination of shallots (instead of the more common onions), herbes de Provence, and fontina cheese creates a dish that is both familiar, on one hand, but with an outstanding flavor and consistency unusual in standard quiches. Something I found appealing, particularly for the typical home cook, is that she’s confident enough to suggest a premade pie shell for those who do not wish to make their own; or for those, like me, who seemingly cannot do so.
Although a big believer in fresh ingredients (she continually makes reference to growing one’s own herbs, for instance), she recognizes that most home cooks will buy commercial products. Rather than getting snobbish about it, she offers tips for getting the most out of them instead. “Seasoning blends,” she says, “those you make yourself or buy already mixed, are handy at mealtime. Look for blends without salt of MSG so you get your money’s worth in herbs and spices, not sodium; you can add salt if you so desire as you cook.”
A refreshing change from the usual advice offered home cooks!
Spiced Right is also not one of those tomes filled with food porn, in which stylist-arranged still life photos dominate. In fact, there are relatively few photos at all. Each chapter is preceded by a picture, topping the contents page for that section, and that's it. More than making up for the lack of photos, however, are the sidebars called “Savory Asides.” Each of these yellow columns offers tips and advice for various aspects of growing and using herbs and spices. My one criticism is that some of these are printed in the gutter, which can be disconcerting.
The book is arranged in ten more or less standard categories, such as appetizers, soups & stews, and so forth, most with a whimsical comment. For example, Bowens calls appetizers and snacks the fun foods; the chapter on meats, chicken and fish is “mostly turf, some surf; and of course there’s a chapter on sweets, because “sometimes you need a little something” There are some you don’t see in a general cookbook as well. She includes a chapter on breakfast and another dealing strictly with salads.
Each chapter includes its own introductory material, dealing primarily with the herbs and spices used in that chapter, and explaining the whys and wherefores of those choices. Each recipe is topped by commentary and a few words about her personal experiences. And there are several of those Savory Asides in each chapter as well.
So there’s no dearth of good info about herbs and spices. But what about the recipes?
My first try was for the Spicy Pumpkin Squares. After all, life is uncertain so we should always make dessert first. Besides which, I’m covered up with puree from the Flat Tan Field Pumpkins I’d grown, and need to be using it anyway.
I think this is a case where the recipe title can be misleading. For many people the word “spicy” connotes either heat, or a dish which is overly redolent with the taste and aroma of the spices, often to the detriment of the dish itself. That’s one reason I’m not a fan of most pumpkin pies.
Bowens’ pumpkin squares, however, are light and creamy, with just enough flavoring to enhance the pumpkin and bring out its best. As a simple dessert it’s close to perfect. Or, with a little extra ummph you can perk it up for a fancy dinner. I’m thinking something like a squizzle of orange-ginger syrup and a dollop of whipped cream.
For a savory dish, I turned to her Herbed Chicken Pot Pie. This one calls for poaching the chicken in a broth redolent of fresh herbs, including thyme and rosemary, which are repeated in the sauce, along with parsley and a hint of cayenne. Here again, the herbal flavors come through, but without dominating the dish. Personally, I’d have upped the cayenne just a hair, but that’s just me. I particularly liked the biscuit crust she uses.
Next I made the Winter Quiche, discussed above, and it will be a permanent part of our family repertory. Oddly enough, Bowens recommends it as a breakfast dish, and I suppose it would work that way. But it’s certainly a fine choice for a brunch, luncheon, or light dinner.
Her Asparagus Ham Roll-Ups are also listed as a breakfast choice. Frankly, I don’t see them for that purpose at all. But they are an interesting variation of asparagus wrapped in bacon, and her suggestion for tying them with intertwined strips of carrot and green onion turn an otherwise plebian dish into a festive one.
If you’re an experienced professional or advanced home cook, this book might not be for you. But for beginners, or those trying to better understand how herbs and spices contribute to the flavors of food, Spiced Right is a good starting point.
Incidentally, although the book is available through Amazon, Bowens is offering it to Cheftalk members at a discounted price. For details, go to www.createspace.com/3565811, and use the discount code U9KGY74Z.
1 9-inch pie shell, unbaked
1 tbls unsalted butter
1 tbls olive oil
2 cups (about 7-8 medium) shallots, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
½ tsp salt, plus ¼ tsp
1 tbls dried herbes de Provence
2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded Fontina cheese
3 large eggs
1 ¼ cups half-and-half
1/8th tsp freshly milled black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Parbake the pie shell: Prick the entire surface, even the sides, with the tines of a fork. Line with parchment paper and fill the cavity with dried beans or pie weights and then bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool while you prepare the filling. Turn off the oven for now.
In a wide skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the shallots, sprinkle with the ½ teaspoon salt and toss well to coat with the butter and oil. Cook, stirring regularly, until the shallots are softened and beginning to brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the herbes de Provence; allow to cool completely before proceeding.
Once the shallots have cooled, preheat the oven to 400 degrees again. Mix the cheese into the shallots and spread evenly over the prebaked pie shell.
Whisk the eggs in a medium mixing bowl. Add the half-and-half, the ¼ teaspoon salt and the pepper and whisk well to combine. Pour this mixture over the cheese and shallots.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the center is set. Allow to sit for ten minutes before slicing.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.