Seasoning Savvy: How to Cook With Herbs, Spices, and Other Flavorings


Seasoning Savvy: How to Cook With Herbs, Spices, and Other Flavorings

by Alice Arndt

Haworth Herbal Press, 265 pp., $24.95 (paper); $59.95 hardback

My favorite image for cooking, one that my friends are probably tired of hearing, is that of alchemy -- the magical application of air, fire, and water to the fruits of the earth, tempered by human imagination and invention, to create something that is different and greater than the sum of the parts. Well, Alice Arndt's Seasoning Savvy has given me a new element to add to my alchemical metaphor -- the concept of applied flavoring from the immeasurable wealth of herbs and spices available around the world.

Sabor. Ono. Sapore. Tagam. Saveur. It all means flavor and that's what this book is about. Not in the least a cookbook, certainly not a coffeetable book, this is a reference and guidebook, designed to be a faithful companion, not only to the cook, but to any cookbook on the shelf. The information contained herein is universally applicable, explaining how best to use seasonings to flavor food.

There are many excellent herb and spice books on the market, but I haven't found a comparable work of scholarship and erudition that is coupled with such infinitely practical application. This is an accessible and fascinating treatment of how the world makes food taste better, and how to apply this knowledge in your own kitchen.

Alice Arndt lives right here in Austin and is working on a Ph.D. in history at UT, specializing in culinary history. She is a writer, lecturer, and cooking teacher (and former mathematics professor!). Her enduring interest in food developed into a consuming passion during her 16 years of living abroad in Germany, Holland, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. As she immersed herself in the ways of her adopted countries, she became increasingly convinced of how food is fundamental to a culture's definition, and of the importance of food in influencing history and cultural development all over the world. As a subset of food, herbs, and spices -- the flavorings -- "have had a significant, sometimes tumultuous, effect on the course of history," she writes.

Seasoning Savvy is divided into four parts, beginning with the general and graduating to the specific. The introductory section encompasses such fundamental information as the difference between herbs and spices, the use of the terms "seasoning" and "flavoring," and the meaning of condiments. It explains how we physically experience flavor -- on our tongues, in our olfactory cells, and in our heads and hearts.

Following is a section, "Culinary Practice," which provides vastly useful general information about the optimal ways to buy, store, and process herbs and spices, with additional topics on leavenings, acids, and teas.

The bulk of the book is the alphabetical "Individual Seasonings," a compendium of rich discussions about 87 specific flavorings -- from the familiar, like cinnamon, thyme, and paprika -- to those perhaps less known to American palates, such as asafetida, mastic, salep, and grain of paradise. Any of the essays on chocolate, vanilla, mustard, pepper, or saffron alone is worth the price of the book.

For each flavoring, Arndt provides a gold mine of information, beginning with the scientific plant names and the common names in a variety of languages. (For example, depending on where in the world you are, sesame is known as til, ajonjil, gingelly, and jinjelan.) There is discussion of the culinary traditions that use the flavoring and for what purposes, what foods the flavoring works well with, how the substance tastes, and how to process, apply, and maximize it. There are extensive cross-references, both in the text and in the prolific index, between those flavorings that complement one another, as well as to other flavorings you can substitute.

While there are not actual recipes for finished dishes using the flavorings, there is much information about processing the raw materials for additional uses, such as how to conquer a coconut, pickle garlic, prepare scented-geranium sugar, or preserve lemons in salt.

The book's final section is "Flavor Combinations," which identifies 36 traditional blends of flavorings that are fundamental to various cuisines around the world. It's all here, from Chinese five-spice to Jamaican jerk to French fines herbes to Indian garam masala. If you ever wondered what flavors constitute crab boil or curry powder, you can find the answers here.

"Flavorful food is a joy and a pleasure that needs no excuse or justification." All I can add is, Amen, Alice Arndt, seguro que hell, yes. Thanks for telling us how.

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Seasoning Savvy: How to Cook With Herbs, Spices, and Other Flavorings, Alice Arndt

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