Mighty Spice – John Gregory-Smith

You never know what’ll be posted next hereabouts.  Here, a wonderful cookbook downloaded from Netgalley – thank you!

The first thing I always do with a cookbook is flip through it to gauge a few things. Is it attractive? Are there a lot of photos accompanying the recipes? Are there recipes I’m actually going to make using ingredients I can actually obtain and tools I actually have? I’m what the Food Network calls a home cook; I have called myself a foodie, though I’m not sure I quite qualify. Still, I figure if you have several thousand recipes saved to your hard drive you’re a foodie. My equipment is pretty basic, though; I do not, for example, own a blender apart from an immersion boat motor (I know), and while there probably is some store around here where I can find lemongrass I haven’t seen it yet. One more thing I look for in a cookbook is if there’s something extra: does the book have an interesting angle, or a personal viewpoint that adds interest?

Mighty Spice is visually beautiful, from the cover on through. I love the fonts used; I enjoy it when something other than plain old Garamond or TNR makes an appearance. (The text is, I am certain, beautifully clear “in person”; through Adobe Digital Editions on a 15″ laptop screen it’s problematic.) There are indeed a lot of photos, and very appealing ones at that, of both the finished products and, even better, of the spices that are the concentration of the book. That is, obviously, the angle here: the idea is to provide a little history and loving detail about 30 spices, with the promise that no more than five will be used in each recipe. (I would assume this is at least in part so that no flavors are overwhelmed, that the spices used get to shine.) At the back of the book is a guide to the spices highlighted throughout.

My main concern with this concentration is that I’m not cooking for just myself, but also for a digestion long used to a Scottish-Irish-boiled-meat sort of diet. (This is not yet another slam on British food, but just the observation that traditional Scots and Irish and British fare isn’t very spicy. I joke that our chili is Scottish chili; a real chili aficionado would laugh at it.) But while there are a large number of recipes here that call for chilies and other “hot” spices, there are quite a lot that surprised me with their simplicity while still being completely different from anything I normally make. Like, for example, (Lebanese Rice with Lamb and Aubergines)- almost a sort of eggplant-based lasagna with rice added. It’s wonderful, and I have absolutely no doubt that I will be adding this to the repertoire. (Confession: I substituted ground beef for the lamb. I would, fluffy guilt-inducing images aside, like to try it as written though.)

The drinks and dessert section is gorgeous. I’m primarily a baker (which is the primary reason why I’m far from svelte), and the Dark Chocolate, Clove and Cinnamon Brownies and Lebanese Lemon and Vanilla Cake (who knew I’d be cooking Lebanese?) were decadent and rich and absolutely to be made again, particularly the cake. You see, that recipe didn’t come out perfectly. (The second-degree burn from my failed attempt at caramel is just finally healing. They’re right – sugar burns are worse.) I am resigned to practicing, making it again and again until I get it right. I was very surprised at the number of recipes I really, really want to try; it’s been a complete reversal of my experience with Anne Burrell’s cookbook. I requested that expecting dozens of recipes I’d want to make, and instead I don’t think I found any.

There are recipes here which call for to-me outré ingredients, like the afore-mentioned lemongrass. Stop & Shop might have garam masala (in fact, I’ll bet they do), but I don’t know; I found tahini once but can’t remember where, and asking is pointless. (“Do you carry tahini?” *completely blank look*) But in several the starring spice is something as simple and comfortable as vanilla or cinnamon or ginger. The techniques are for the most part very simple, though I was stretched a little (and failed miserably at making caramel; turns out sugar burns really are that bad, but the band-aid will come off soon); there is plenty to be made here with the equipment I have (though the instruction to beat eggs and sugar on high for 10-15 minutes was daunting. I used a rotary beater as long as my arms held out).

I think the only slight drawback to this cookbook for me is that it is very quickly obvious that it comes from a British publisher (Duncan Baird Publishers). They do an excellent job of providing measurements and temperatures for just about everyone conceivable, but certain things are awkward – like recipes calling for seven ounces of butter when I’m used to cup-based measurements, and one stick (half a cup) is four ounces; others call for caster or icing sugar, which I had to look up (caster sugar is almost, but not quite, superfine sugar, and icing sugar is confectioners’ sugar); eggplants are called aubergines (which I knew) and so on.  But it all works, quite well.  This is highly recommended, whichever side of the pond you’re on.

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