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I'm going to start today's post off with a short personal note. You may have noticed that, although I am happy to write about novels I'm less than pleased with, I have not posted any negative cookbook reviews. There are two principal reasons for this. (1) I didn't know if there would be any interest in the negative and (2) I am very aware of the costs of cookbooks, and I feel bad when a publisher sends me an expensive and beautiful cookbook that is a fail for me.
After a quick Twitter survey, I realized that people appreciate balanced and respectful negative reviews for all kinds of books. Thus, every once in a while, I will talk about a cookbook that didn't make it to the top of my list.
When I first heard about John Gregory-Smith's Mighty Spice, I knew I had to have a look at this cookbook. I love spicy food, and I'm not just talking chilies. I love cumin, garlic, and turmeric as well as vanilla, cloves, and ginger. Gregory-Smith is a man after my own heart.
Gregory-Smith loves spices so much, he used to own a spice company. He traveled to China, India, Morocco, Mexico, and every other part of the world known for exotic (read: non-British) flavors. Then he returned to England and began developing the recipes you'll find in Mighty Spice.
The cookbook is divided in the usual way, from salads to meats, vegetables, and desserts. Throughout Gregory-Smith includes features on specific spices and also includes a spice glossary at the back of the book. Almost all the dishes are shown in full-page, mouth-watering photographs, and every recipe has a list of "go-with" dishes to help you put together your meal.
I tried the Pomegranate, Fennel, Orange, and Watercress Salad shown at the right (scanned from p. 23 in the book), substituting baby spinach for the watercress. The recipe was easy to follow, and the salad tastes as yummy as it looks.
Unfortunately, as much as Mighty Spice calls to me, this is not a cookbook I can whole-heartedly recommend. Although the following issues don't completely turn me off, they may very well bother readers who are less confident in the kitchen. First, many recipes call for "a handful" of herb leaves or "a small bunch" of something. Many home cooks need more guidance, especially for strong herbs like mint and cilantro.
In addition, there are a number of unusual ingredients that I can't find in the stores in my small town. For example, sprouting broccoli was completely new to me. It seems to be somewhat similar to broccoli rabe, but I'm not sure if I can make that substitution. Other recipes call for tamarind, fresh lemon grass, and curry leaves, which are difficult to get here. I'm not against hunting down ingredients, but I don't always have the luxury to travel from store to store or to mail order.
The third issue has to do with the photos. I understand that food stylists (photographers) aren't necessarily cooks, but in several cases the photos of the finished dishes did not match the recipe directions. For example, one shrimp dish called for shelling and deveining, but in the photo the shells are clearly intact. Citrus fruit is missing from the ingredients for a lamb recipe, but baked slices of citrus fruit are visible in the photo of the finished dish. I find these discrepancies to be disconcerting. Some cooks would be completely undone.
I am not, however, that easily put off, and despite the problems, I have several recipes marked to try. I was impressed with the variety of shrimp and lamb recipes, and I want to try some of the curries.
My suggestion is to look through the book before you buy. Ask yourself whether you can get the ingredients in your area. Then decide whether any of the problems I mentioned bother you. You might want to visit John Gregory-Smith's website, where you can find a sample recipe. There is also a 14-minute video of Gregory-Smith cooking a meal. He is entertaining and enthusiastic.
Vegetarian alert: There is an entire chapter devoted to vegetarian dishes, and the recipes look good and most are not soy based. The flavor range covers India, China, Mexico, and the Mideast.
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