Pros: Good introduction to the subject
Cons: Recipes can be confusing
When I gave a cooking demo recently almost three quarters of the questions had to do with spices: how do you use them; where do they come from; can one be substituted for another?
This is not unusual. New---and not so new---cooks are both fascinated and intimidated by the use of spices. To the inexperienced, spices are exotic and mysterious. And they often confuse "spicy" with "hot," and are afraid to experiment.
That's where Michal Haines' new book, The Spice Kitchen come in. While retaining the romance and mysticism that the Spice Road brings to mind, the New Zealand chef---who, herself, shares a life-long fascination with these bold flavors---introduces spices in a lively, entertaining, and, more to the point, meaningful way. "My own culinary background," she says in the introductory material, "is as much about the discovery of flavors as it is about the knowledge I have acquired." The Spice Kitchen, at base, is a reflection of that idea. As such, it takes the reader on his or her own journey of discovery along the road to flavor.
Indeed, the general information found in her introduction, along with the in-depth spice glossary at the back of the book, go a long way towards preparing the reader for that journey. In the introductory material, for instance, she examines the tools---from mortar & pestle to electric spice grinders---that make handling spices practical. She then divides spices into five distinct categories: sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating; explaining the flavor profile of each, and giving examples of spices that fit each category.
Assuming the reader will, sooner or later, wish to create spice blends, she follows that with mini-profiles of the flavors that mark some spice-oriented ethnic cuisines, focusing on Indian, North African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Mexican.
Finally, she lists the 26 spices she considers essential to a serious spice chest. These, along with many others, are given comprehensive treatment in the final glossary. For example, allspice is merely listed as an essential spice-chest ingredient. In the glossary, however, she explains "A native to Jamaica, the dried unripe allspice berry is used in many different cuisines in sweet cakes and cookies, marinades, pickles, and pates. A member of the pungent flavor group, it works very well with shellfish and meats and is best purchased whole rather than ground as ground allspice quickly loses its flavor. Use: with bay leaves, turmeric, paprika, ginger, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, and cinnamon. Look for: whole dried berries (do not be concerned by differences in size of berries as this does not affect flavor). Store: up to three years away from heat and light."
It's not often that I quote so extensively. But I wanted to make the point that her five-page spice glossary (followed by another two pages of related ingredients) is both comprehensive and clearly written. No, it's not encyclopedic by any means. But it covers the spices most of us are likely to use---along with some offbeat but interesting ones, such as ajwain (which she calls ajowan). Indeed, if there's any lack in her coverage of actual spices it's the omission of alternate names and spellings.
All of this introductory material gives the cook a rough idea of where to use various spices, and how they'll affect the final flavor of a dish. But the only way to really experience spices is to use them in recipes. And that, unfortunately, is where the book suffers. Not in taste, as we shall see, but in several other ways.
First is the arrangement. Haines groups the recipes into categories that are arbitrary at best. Starting with Mezze, she proceeds through topics such as Mid-Week Speed, Portable Feasts, Luxury Sundays, Winter Blues, and so forth. Given the clarity in which she discusses the general use of herbs, these subjects are disappointing because virtually none of the recipes is exclusive to what the topic seems to imply. For instance, her North African Sunshine Chicken might, as she notes, be a sure hit with mid-week guests. But there's no reason not to serve it as a fantastic Saturday night dinner.
A minor point, you might think. But given the target audience, it can be confusing.
The second problem is one Haines shares with many other chef-written books. The recipes are prepared using commercial (what my son calls "industrial") equipment, and not actually tested in home kitchens. Nor, apparently, were they proofread by the author. As a result, some of them need serious modifications to work as intended.
Take, for example, her Spice Merchant Soup, with combines chicken, various veggies, and spices into a flavorsome soup. The ingredients list includes two chickens, each weighing two pounds, and enough cut up veggies to mound and overflow a three-quart bowl. I would suggest that the typical home cook does not have a stock pot near large enough to accommodate this dish. I also don't understand why she waits until the second half of the cooking time before adding the spices. Given the quantities involved, the soup would be better tasting if they were included right from the start.
Her Spiced Spanish Squid is a wonderful take on fried calamari, with ground almonds substituting for flour. Unfortunately, it doesn't call for precoating with flour or, even better, corn starch. As a result, the egg and almonds don't stick as well as they might, and you wind up with more breading in the fryer than remains on the squid.
Some of the recipe directions can be ambiguous or outright incorrect as well. Take her Egyptian Chickpea and Pumpkin Fritters. The final result is, by any standard, delicious as either a side dish or mezze. But the directions leave something to be desired. For instance, I would like to see the oven that, at 350F, can cook pumpkin soft in a mere 20 minutes. Working at 400F, it usually takes 45-60 minutes to get the squash fully tender.
Even the photographs can be ambiguous. Don't get me wrong. Jacqui Blanchard's photos---which illustrate about 95% of the recipes---are, without question, drop-dead gorgeous. And I appreciate the fact they are printed on matte paper, so there's no glare to get in the way. But it would have been nice if the stylist had bothered to read the recipes. F'rinstance, the North African Sunshine Chicken recipe specifies chicken thighs. The photo shows both thighs and legs, with the drumsticks dominating. "How come," the new spice cook might ask, "mine didn't turn out looking like that?"
Again, none of these things would bother an experienced cook. But for the new to spices cook, and outright kitchen neophyte, they can be confusing. Unfortunately, those are the very people who, when something goes wrong, blame themselves when it was the recipe itself that was wrong.
All in all, though, I'd have to recommend this book. Even the errors do not loom as large as they might. For the experienced cook they hardly matter at all. And the newbie should, without too much difficulty, be able to overcome them. More to the point, as an introduction to the use of spices, it shines.
Egyptian Chickpea and Pumpkin Fritters
1 cup chickpeas, soaked in several changes of cold water, rinsed
1 lb 2 oz pumpkin, peeled and chopped into chunks for roasting
Grapeseed oil for roasting
2 tsp ground turmeric
3 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and finely ground
3 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and finely ground
3 tsp garam masala spice blend
1 tsp ground chili flakes
2 tsp ajowan, toasted and finely ground
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
5 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
3 tbls plain yogurt
2 lemons, cut into wedges
1. Cook the chickpeas in plenty of water in a large saucepan for 40-60 minutes or until softened. Remove from the heat, rinse well then remove and discard the skins.
2. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C.
3. Place the pumpkin and unpeeled garlic in a roasting dish with a little oil and roast for 20 minutes until soft. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Leave oven on.
4. Grease an oven tray and set aside.
5. Place the cooked chickpeas in a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped. Do this in several batches if necessary so the food processor is not overcrowded.
6. Transfer the chickpea mixture to a large bowl. Add the pumpkin, peeled garlic, and the remaining ingredients.
7. Using your hands, mix everything together, roughly mashing the pumpkin in the process.
8. Form small balls of the mixture and place on the greased tray. Flatten the balls slightly---they should now be about 1 ½ inches in diameter.
9. Bake for 10-15 minutes until slightly browned and crisp.
10. Serve warm or cold with yogurt and wedges of fresh lemon as part of a mezze, with a simple green salad or stuffed into pita bread.
Recipe courtesy "The Spice Kitchen," written by Michal Haines, published by Interlink Books, 2009