Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cookery Bookery: Mighty Spice Express, by John Gregory Smith

Title: Mighty Spice Express Cookbook
Author: John Gregory Smith
Publisher: Duncan Baird Publishers
Publication Date: October 1st, 2013
Read: August 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Cooking
Rating: 4 Cinnamon Sticks

I love spices and international food. Susan does, too! Check out our “about us” sidebar. See? It’s true! You know those stories about college students who subsist on ramen noodles and Sunny D? Yeah, that wasn’t us. We had a fantastic cookbook from which we derived 90% of our meals, planned each week’s meals out in advance, had a complex method of splitting grocery bills between all flatmates…in short, food was a priority in our lives, and delicious, adventurous food filled with tasty spices and herbs was the highest food priority of all. Mighty Spice Express reminds me a bit of that college go-to cookbook of yore, and brings back wonderful food-memories from that time in my life (like the time we blew out a blender motor trying to make falafel. and the time we attempted keftas from frozen lamb and ended up with an unchewable result. I could go on, but that subject could be a blog post unto itself!). The author’s love of spices and international inspiration are displayed in his first cookbook, Mighty Spice Cookbook, and in this follow-up he sought to highlight the “express” option when it comes to cooking—even if you don’t have much time, you can still have delicious international food! To achieve this end, he turned to street food for inspiration. How cool a job must that be, to travel the world and eat things and then invent recipes based off of it?

Well, he took his inspiration from street food around the world, and I found the resulting cookbook to be in turn very inspiring. The photography is gorgeous and drool-inducing, of course, and well-staged to help you imagine the locale from which the food originated. The majority of ingredients are easy to source, with some of the more exotic fare easy to track down in a specialty food shop, an international grocery store, or through the magic of the interwebs. (Hot lime pickle? I will probably need to go to the internet for that one.) Stories about his world travels at the beginning of the book and interspersed between recipes help provide context, and a primer on the different spices and seasonings involved in the book helps you get a handle on the flavors you’ll be playing with. Most importantly of all, though, the recipes are fantastic.

There were a few things that got the skeptical eye—sun-dried tomatoes appearing in salsa multiple times, for example. (That one actually made me paranoid enough to turn to Google and see if that’s something common that I just completely missed out on.) A recipe for a “green salsa” which sounded delicious and I had no complaint about, save that it might have been more appropriately called “guacamole.” (While not an expert by any means, I’m an admitted snob where Mexican food is concerned.) A preponderance of ingredients being described as “smoky.” (I actually wrote them down and made a list ranging from “yeah, that’s smoky” to “is that smoky…?”: Chipotles, paprika, bourbon, sun-dried tomatoes, maple syrup, tequila. You be the judge.) But for every eyebrow raised in skepticism, there were scads more things that made salivate in anticipation of cooking them.

The Good and the Could-Be-Better

  • As I mentioned above, the photos are beautiful and the food looks great. I just wish they were able to include photos for all the recipes! This would be especially helpful for some of the more exotic dishes, where the average reader may or may not have an idea of how the finished product is supposed to look.
  • On a related note, there are pictures of the included spices at the bottom of every recipe page for quick reference. It’s a cute idea, but it’s most useful if you can recognize spices at a glance. Additionally, the other ingredients in the recipe aren’t necessarily pantry ingredients, so you’ll need to look at the full ingredient list anyway before grocery shopping. In the end, though, I like it—it adds color and interest to the recipe pages without being distracting.
  • I love that he looks to India, Mexico, Thailand, Korea, China and other amazing places for culinary inspiration! I think food is a fantastic way to experience other cultures, and the author really brings that out in this book. However, with the titles of some of the recipes I was left with questions. Okay, so we’re making a brewat, but what is a brewat? Chumula? Kedgeree? It’d be nice to know what these things are and at least have the cuisine they derive from specified. Of course the internet can solve these mysteries, but I always appreciate it when a cookbook is a self-contained entity with all the desirable info at my fingertips sans internet.
  • I love the header text that precedes each recipe—it’s nice to get a little context for the recipe, whether it involves the culture a dish comes from or the author’s experience with it (or in the best cases, both!). I suspect it may be a function of fitting recipes onto pages, but quite a few of the recipes do not have that header text, and I really wish they all did! While it’s not necessary, it’s definitely enjoyable and helps the reader connect with a chef/author and his or her recipes.
  • The cookbook is divided into the following chapters: Mighty Bites, Not Quite Lunch, Midweek Lifesavers, Nice & Easy, Something Spectacular, and Naughty But Nice. It would be handy if each recipe were listed with a page number under the chapter headings in the table of contents for easy reference—oh well. The recipes range from serving 2 and averaging 10 minutes to make in the Mighty Bites section, to meals serving 4 and taking more time in the Nice & Easy and Something Spectacular sections. I like that there are options for different numbers of people and different cooking times! Naughty But Nice then covers desserts and cocktails for a well-rounded selection of goodies.
  • I love love LOVE that the author includes ingredient preparation in the recipe itself and counts it towards the recipe’s cooking time. I really hate when recipes tell you it will be ready in 30 minutes, but then forget to tell you there’s another 30 minutes of chopping and measuring that they expect to be done beforehand. Leaving out prep time is cheating, and I’m glad this book doesn’t do it!

And Other Random Stuff

  • I love that there’s a recipe for crab cakes that does NOT involve bell peppers! So many crab cakes include them and I feel they overpower the delicate taste of the crab meat. No peppers here, WOOT!
  • Many recipes in this book require a mini food processor. I imagine a regular one will get the job done, but there’s a lot more surface area for you to scrape a small amount of sauce/paste/whatever off of. Mini food processors available for purchase on Amazon range from about $15 to $60, for those interested.
  • I learned a cool new word: spatchcocked! It’s a way of preparing poultry.
Overall, this cookbook is easy to operate and contains recipes for awesome food. Blue Mosque goat cheese tart? Oaxaca tostadas? Dongbai roast cod? Yum, yum, and yum. I will definitely be purchasing this cookbook so I can make these lovely dishes and more, and I’ll probably check out the author’s previous one, too. If you are interested in international cuisine and bold flavors, I would recommend this cookbook to you as well. Cook on, my friends, and be spicy!

In related news, the publisher has been kind enough to give permission for us to reproduce a recipe on the blog, which I will test out and indulge in a little iPhoneography to present to you. So keep your eyes peeled for that, coming soon to a screen near you!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.


Susan said...

AHHHHH, I REMEMBER THE KEFTAS! And the falafels! You'd think that after the first miserable attempt to use a blender as a food processor, we'd have figured out that the process doesn't work so well. Ah, youth! ;-)

The cookbook sounds really interesting and delicious. The pages sound colorful and interesting to read, and the recipes are foods I've never encountered before. I avoid bell peppers whenever possible, so a cookbook author who avoids them in a recipe has my confidence.

Other thoughts: Mini food processors rock. If your sun dried tomato tastes smokey, it sounds like a sun burned tomato. And I look forward to hearing you use spatchcocked in conversation more frequently!

Alyssa L. said...

Sun burned tomato! Lol. :)

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