- Author: Dustin Blakey
Page, Karen and Dornenburg, Andrew. The Flavor Bible. Little, Brown and Co., 2008.
Sercarz, Lior Lev. The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices. Clarkson Potter, 2016.
One of the best things* about working in Cooperative Extension is that there always seems to be plenty of interesting food to try at the office. Between staff and volunteers, we get to try all sorts of flavors on a daily basis. I'm not sure we're at “arms race” status yet, but our office's nutrition educator, Amy Weurdig, just shared her newest tools to up her cooking game with us: two books about flavors and seasoning foods.
Along with working here at our office, Amy is a Master Gardener and a Master Food Preserver. She definitely gardens with food or drink in mind. Her latest plan is to grow saffron here in the Owens Valley. But what can you do with all that saffron, especially when you have a garden full of produce? After all, one zucchini plant, assuming you can keep squash bugs at bay, can feed a small army. Some creativity is needed to get it all used. And that's where seasonings and flavor pairings can come to play.
In her research Amy came across two interesting resources: The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg, and The Spice Companion by Lior Lev Sarcarz. These two books provide invaluable information about some key flavors we use in cooking, but they take a very different approach to the topic.
The Spice Companion is a beautiful book. (It covers many herbs, too, so don't worry if you're a spice-o-phobe.) Thomas Schauer's photographs and Nadine Bernard Westcott's illustrations, to me, are the highlight of this work. This is a book you will want on display, not jammed into the kitchen bookshelf next to the spiral-bound church cookbook you bought in 1983.
The book is organized as an encyclopedia of the world's spices. Each spice has a lovely illustration or photo, and possibly a food based on it as a key ingredient. Along with this artwork, there is text explaining its use, harvesting and botany. As an easy-to-use feature, each flavor has recommended food pairings, complementary spices, and recipe ideas. Reading through this book may inspire you to try a few new things since it contains some fairly obscure ingredients, but to me the best use would work like this: Let's say you planted a dozen pepperoncini plants in Spring and you're inundated with these peppers. What can you do with them besides make pickles or give them away? It turns out they're fairly versatile! I like its idea of using them to flavor an Italian-style bean dip. I see it as a fine book to browse while you're munching on a scone in the sunroom on Sunday morning.
The Flavor Bible takes a different approach to the topic of taste. Instead of an array of herbs and spices from A to Z, this book gets to business right away. While it is peppered with pictures of food, it is mostly text and is much more information dense. After 36 pages of how the book works (if you're impatient just read pages 35 and 36 get on with it) you are presented with over 350 pages of concepts, foods, flavors, and cuisines. Each entry will tell you when it is available, good ways to prepare, and recommended flavor pairings. The authors don't mince words here. This is a book you should look over to get familiar with, then keep nearby for reference. If you like to cook and eat more than read about and look at food then this no-nonsense book is for you. I see this as a book that will end up with stains and stuck together pages after a few years because you'll thumb through it with dirty fingers or a dripping spoon.
Some of the entries in The Food Bible are mundane, much like when the dictionary includes words like “smile” that you would never look up. For example there is an entry on sour cream that, naturally, suggests putting it on baked potatoes. However, most entries are more useful. The last entry “Zucchini Blossoms” should be of special interest to any gardeners who didn't realize all the fun things you can do there. I'm especially intrigued by its recommended pairing with lobster!
I probably gained 5 pounds just looking over these two books. (Reviewer's note: I was eating a giant burrito. Your experience may vary.) They are both full of ideas for the gardener with too much bounty, or one who is just bored and needs inspiration.
Either book will set you back about $40. If you are a passionate, but inexperienced or highly experimental cook—the kind who tends to wing it in the kitchen, you will probably appreciate The Flavor Bible. Those of you more set in your ways and just need some inspiration or would like to learn more about new ingredients will enjoy The Spice Companion. Both are good references, but they have very different approaches that may not appeal to everyone. I'm glad Amy bought both and let me review them both side by side.
Mmmm. Some butternut squash bisque with saffron sounds really good right now, Amy.
*Well it's good for my taste buds but not so much for my waistline.
- Author: Sarah Sheehan
The Cananga odorata is valued for the perfume extracted from its flowers, called ylang-ylang (a name also sometimes used for the tree itself), which is an essential oil used in aromatherapy. The oil from ylang-ylang is widely used in perfumery for oriental or floral themed perfumes (such as Chanel No 5).
Cardamom is a spice made from the seeds of several plants in the genera Elettaria and Amomum in the family Zingiberaceae. They are recognised by their small seed pods: triangular in cross-section and spindle-shaped, with a thin papery outer shell and small black seeds; Elettaria pods are light green and smaller, while Amomum pods are larger and dark brown. Cardamom is the world's third-most expensive spice, surpassed in price per weight only by vanilla and saffron. It is said to calm a crying baby as it makes them sleepy.
Nutmeg is one of the two spices – the other being mace – derived from several species of tree in the genus Myristica. The most important commercial species is Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree. Nutmeg is the seed of the tree, roughly egg-shaped and about 0.8 to 1.2 in long 0.6 to 0.7 in wide, and weighing between 0.2 and 0.4 oz dried, while mace is the dried "lacy" reddish covering. The first harvest of nutmeg trees takes place 7–9 years after planting, and the trees reach full production after twenty years. Nutmeg is usually used in powdered form. Nutmeg and mace have similar sensory qualities, with nutmeg having a slightly sweeter and mace a more delicate flavor. Mace is often preferred in light dishes for the bright orange, saffron-like hue it imparts. Nutmeg is used for flavoring many dishes, usually in ground or grated form, and is best grated fresh in a nutmeg grater. For me, I use it in my Christmas gingerbread cookies and as a topping on eggnog.
Wrapping up our journey through the plantation was the skittering up a very tall coconut tree by another local boy was the last of our exploration. He was amazing taking less two minutes to climb the tree. The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is a member of the family Arecaceae (palm family) and was at least 50 to 60' high. He was back in a flash with coconuts for us all. With his broad knife wracked at each coconut enabling us to have a refreshing drink and a taste of the meat.
Coconuts are known for their great versatility, as evidenced by many traditional uses, ranging from food to cosmetics. They form a regular part of the diets of many people in the tropics and subtropics. Coconuts are distinct from other fruits for their large quantity of "water", and when immature, they are known as tender-nuts or jelly-nuts and may be harvested for their potable coconut water. When mature, they still contain some water and can be used as seed nuts or processed to give oil from the kernel.
We concluded our tour with a tasting of many very fresh, very ripe fruits and teas. It was an amazing experience to see the spices growing, learn the production process and the many uses they have. Now when I next visit a Spice Market, be in Turkey, Hungary, Tunisia, Austria or anywhere in the world, I will be awed by the work that went into bring those spices into our lives.
- Author: Sarah Sheehan
In December I visited the beautiful, fertile islands of Zanzibar, a centuries old trading center in the Indian Ocean, 21 miles off the East African coast. These islands are known for producing nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper. Ancient pottery implies trade routes with Zanzibar as far back as the time of the ancient Assyrians and traders from the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf region of modern-day Iran, and west India probably visited Zanzibar as early as the 1st century. They used the monsoon winds to sail across the Indian Ocean to land at the sheltered harbor located on the present day harbor of Zanzibar City or Stonetown.
A Greco-Roman text between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD mentioned the island of Menuthias which is probably Unguja, the principal island. From the seventh century wars in Asia and increasing trade motivated Persians, Arabs, and Indians to visit or migrate to Zanzibar. Vasco da Gama's visit in 1498 marked the beginning of European influence. Zanzibar then remained a possession of Portugal for almost two centuries.
Control of Zanzibar eventually came into the hands of the British Empire; part of the political impetus for this was the 19th century movement for the abolition of the slave trade (in which David Livingston played a big role). African slaves were highly sought after for their strength and Zanzibar was the centre of this extremely profitable trade. In 1963 the Protectorate that had existed over Zanzibar since 1890 was terminated by the United Kingdom. In April 1964, the republic merged with mainland Tanganyika. This United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was soon renamed, blending the two names, as the United Republic of Tanzania, within which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.
The day of our visit we traveled on gradually deteriorating roads into the countryside where signs for plantations and Department of the Interior research were plentiful. We passed thick vegetation including tall coconut and brilliant flame trees. Our local guide, Amour, spoke good English and was able to answer all questions easily.
The first plant we encountered was the ubiquitous, spicy-smelling cinnamon, obtained from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum. The bark is ground for most common usage.
Then, we encountered a bushy tree with star fruit or carambola. The fruit has distinctive ridges running down its sides (usually five but can sometimes vary); in cross-section, it resembles a star, hence its name. The entire fruit is edible and is usually eaten out of hand as we did.
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. When fresh and fully mature, it is approximately 0.20 in diameter, dark red, and contains a single seed (peppercorn). Peppercorns, and the ground pepper derived from them, may be described as black pepper (cooked and dried unripe fruit), green pepper (dried unripe fruit) and white pepper (ripe fruit seeds.
When you spot what looks like red grapes, you have found cloves. Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae, Syzygium aromaticum. Cloves are commercially harvested primarily in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Pakistan,SriLanka, and Tanzania. The clove tree is an evergreen that grows up to 8–12 m tall, with large leaves and sanguine flowers grouped in terminal clusters. The flower buds initially have a pale hue, gradually turn green, then transition to a bright red when ready for harvest. Cloves are harvested at 1.5–2.0 cm long. Cloves can be used as an ant repellent and supposedly as a pain-killer for dental emergencies.
The redlipstick was one of the more unusual plants we saw. The Aeschynanthus lipstick vine has pointy, waxy leaves and blooms with bright clusters of flowers. Vivid red blossoms emerge from a dark maroon bud reminiscent of a tube of lipstick. An assistant told us it was good for dying hair. It is supposedly an easy houseplant to maintain.
More of these fascinating plants will be featured in Part II.