19 November 2011

Weekend Cooking: Review: Mighty Spice by John Gregory-Smith

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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.

Mighty Spice at Powell's
Mighty Spice at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Sterling Publishing / Duncan Baird 2011
ISBN-13: 9780062095565
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: C
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Uniflame 11/19/11, 6:38 AM  

Awesome that you included a vegetarian alert! :) I love this! I will more likely buy a cookbook if I know that there are some dishes I can make from it, of course :) And it is good to know that these also can be found in non-vegetarian cookbooks :) Thanks!

Maggie 11/19/11, 7:12 AM  

Not being able to source all the ingredients needed for a dish is offputting, but I can relate to the very British "handful" and "bunch" measurements!
If you like spicy then my spicy apple chutney might be something you'd like.
Thanks for hosting Weekend Cooking and for the useful review.

Louise 11/19/11, 7:37 AM  

I love spices too, although chili not so much. I can cope with vague measurements like a handful or a small bunch (handfuls at least travel quite well around the world, as for bunches I have no idea how big an American bunch of cilantro/coriander may be, which can be a bit nerve wracking, but usually it doesn't matter all that much). But the thing I really hate in cookbooks, is the fiddling with the dish by the stylists for the photos- if the prawns should be shelled- then shell them! It's not all that hard....

Marg 11/19/11, 7:50 AM  

Not only did I not know what sprouting broccoli is, I have no idea what broccoli rabe is!

It is disappointing when there are those kinds of discrepancies in the book.

Thanks for the review.

caite 11/19/11, 7:53 AM  

those mistakes..one wonders where the editor was.
still sounds worthy of a look though.

Carol @ There's Always Thyme to Cook 11/19/11, 8:24 AM  

I don't mind hearing the negative, what you don't like in a cookbook might not bother me, and vice versa. For me, I love that a book has lots of pictures or illustrations. I'd definitely take a look at this one. The salad looks great, I love the spinach sub!

Kaye 11/19/11, 8:47 AM  

Those discrepancies would make me distrust the whole book.

bermudaonion 11/19/11, 8:48 AM  

The book looks beautiful and that salad sounds right up my alley, but I would be put off by the ambiguous directions. Thanks for the fair review!

Nan 11/19/11, 9:09 AM  

Thank you for the note about vegetarian entries. That's very helpful.
I think I could take all the problems with the book, except for the pictures that don't match! Really, how hard is that to get right?

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity 11/19/11, 9:19 AM  

Yes, I appreciate a balance of reviews! And these points are all important ones--especially the availability of the foods and the directions on measurements. I have a Rachael Ray cookbook that has so many delicious looking recipes but the ingredients are ones that I don't typically keep stocked in my pantry and would have to go out of my way to find.

I would love to learn more about spices, though. So often I cook a recipe and know it needs something but don't know what that something is.

Heather 11/19/11, 9:42 AM  

I like your comment about checking ot see whether you will be able to find the ingredients. In my kitchen tamarind is a staple so no issue for me. One year I wanted to purchase an East Indian cookbook for my brother in law. After finding the perfect book, I then then went to the Indian spice store and bought him a variety of the most used ingredients in the book. He lives more rural than we do and I didn't want him to not use the book for the lack of $20. in spices. He loved the gift.

Zibilee 11/19/11, 9:53 AM  

Candace, I totally appreciate your honesty and candor in this post, as this is a book that I could see myself buying, and then being totally annoyed with. It's hard to get some of the more exotic ingredients, even here in the city, and though I do really love cooking with spices and herbs, it would make me a little angry to see finished recipes that look very different than the ones I had prepared, or to find out that there are a whole host of ingredients that I couldn't get my hands on. I think I am going to have to take a look at this book in person, and not just order it blind. Very useful review today!

JoAnn 11/19/11, 10:34 AM  

I really appreciate the presentation of issues you have with this cookbook. The pharmacist in me NEEDS to have exact measurements! I always prepare a recipe according to directions the first time, then make my own changes later... I must have a precise starting point though.

Heather @ girlichef.com 11/19/11, 10:36 AM  

I don't think that would put me off this book, but I do see how it would be a deciding factor for some. I do appreciate hearing "the negatives" as well as the positives. I'll probably always want to at least flip through once, anyway. That salad does sound fresh and delightful!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 11/19/11, 10:45 AM  

I wonder if there's enough general spice info to make it a useful reference for someone like me (who needs hand-holidng in the kitchen and would NOT do well with a 'handful' of this and a 'pinch' of that).

Esme 11/19/11, 10:46 AM  

I feel bad giving a bad review, however some books do deserve a bad review. The negatives you list about this book are valid-another frustration I have with cookbooks are missing ingredients from the instructions that are listed. Living in S. California we are fortunate that we can get most ingredients although I never heard of sprouting broccoli.

Nari @ The Novel World 11/19/11, 12:50 PM  

Its funny how selective I've become with cookbooks, and I appreciate negative reviews of cookbooks. The more I cook, the more picky I am about the cookbooks I select. I used to buy them in bulk at garage sales or library bookstores, but then I'd never use them. Now I carefully examine the recipes and pictures in cookbook I select before deciding if its the right now for me.

Margot 11/19/11, 1:10 PM  

It' my understanding that today's cookbooks are intended for the average home cook. No home cook uses handfuls of this and that, at least not when they're trying out a recipe. That's a major mistake on the publisher/editor's part. As to the photography - it adds to the inability to trust the entire cookbook. I assume what I'm looking at is the real dish. If that's not right, are the recipes full of mistakes too? Thanks for reviewing the book honestly.

Anonymous,  11/19/11, 2:02 PM  

This is one I probably would not have bought anyway, because the subject is so specialized. Thanks for the balanced review. - Fay

Julie P. 11/19/11, 7:25 PM  

Oooh. This would be a hard one for me because I like precise measurements. I don't trust myself enough as a cook.

Stacy at The Novel Life 11/19/11, 10:46 PM  

My 2nd daughter has recently decided to be a vegetarian so now I am always on the lookout for good recipes or recipes I can alter just a little - thanks for the heads up about this cookbook

Andi 11/19/11, 10:50 PM  

I'm a fan of the spice myself, so I would absolutely adore this book. I don't think I'd be daunted, but I can see how some cooks would be unnerved by the discrepancies. It just makes me annoyed with the photographer and/or publisher as such things can damage the author's credibility.

Peaceful Reader 11/19/11, 11:28 PM  

I love spices too and am happy there is a section for vegetarian dishes but I have trouble with hunting down unique ingredients. I did buy saffron for the first time last week and was happy to find it at my local organic market. Thanks for sharing this honest review!

Admin 11/20/11, 1:07 AM  

"Weekend Cooking" is a great idea.

Daryl 11/20/11, 9:43 AM  

No oooking but a mosaic with cups and if you look closely a fish!

Peppermint Ph.D. 11/20/11, 9:45 AM  

While I love spicy foods as well, my middle daughter does not; my husband is also not the most adventurous eater...I have to tailor my cooking/recipes for the entire family, which is why I've been enjoying Pinterest so much lately. I'm able to expand our weekly suppers but keep within the tastes of my family. That being said, I do sometimes enjoy cookbooks just for the information found within them. I love reading about bakers and their elaborate processes...even though I am so not a baker. Baking requires more precision than I think I'm even capable of ;) However, I would probably pass on this cookbook...I live in a very small, rural part of MS...we do not have an abundance of hard to find ingredients...and there is nothing more frustrating than finding a recipe you want to try and then being unable to find the ingredients.

Lisa@ButteryBooks 11/20/11, 2:33 PM  

Another cookbook author who traveled the world perfecting his craft...I so want to be them.

Karen White 11/20/11, 4:13 PM  

Great review - I think that this will help people decide whether or not the book is for them. Not all cookbooks can work for all cooks.

Are you able to share that Pomegranate, Fennel, etc. recipe?? That's kind of what I was thinking of for a Thanksgiving salad.

Sheila (Bookjourney) 11/20/11, 6:21 PM  

The salad sounds yummy - I love spinach!

Like you though, I do not like cookbooks where the ingredients are hard to find. I do not have time to search the town and the specialty shops usually are quite expensive for an ingredient I just want to try.

Christine 11/20/11, 8:14 PM  

I love a whole range of spicy foods myself. I'd consider looking for this cookbook at the library--it sounds like an interesting book to read and or cook from. Thanks for the review.

Vasilly 11/21/11, 12:29 PM  

Great review. I think you are spot-on about the problems that this cookbook has. If a beginner cook who's trying this book has to look at another source to see what shell shrimps look like or have to figure out the right amount of spices to use, there's an issue.

Anonymous,  11/21/11, 1:58 PM  

Chronicle Books is doing a drawing to give away $500 of books to a blogger in the USA who draw up a wishlist from their catalog. So many cookbooks to choose from. Then they draw from comments on the winning blogger's post and give that person $500 worth of books. Then they give $500 of books to the winner's designated nonprofit or library. Sweet promotion.

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