Sunday, January 27, 2008

Round Table Review: Where Flavor Was Born

A while ago, the hostess of one of my favorite food blog events - Sara, aka the Goddess of Weekend Cookbook Challenge - contacted me and asked if I'd like to take part in a round-table review. Due to my extreme good manners, I managed not to reach across the Internets and kiss a total stranger at the offer. A cookbook? That I get to try for free? And cook from while talking to other cooks about the same recipes? Hi, I'm Deborah. Do you need a first-born child as collateral? I might be able to cough one up for you.

{Enter stage left}:

Where Flavor Was Born: Recipes and Culinary Travels Along the Indian Ocean Spice Route.

From the first time I picked up the book, I was in love. The pictures? XXX rated food porn. In suuuch a good way. The book is part cookbook, part travelogue, part food picture diary that I wondered if Mr. Andreas Viestad's looking for a personal assistant for his next book. To, uh, personnally assist him in the eating, travelling and writing. And stuff. But mostly the eating. And the travelling. And the eating.

Mr. Viestad spent time travelling around the Indian Ocean, exploring the spices and cultures in all their similarities and differences. Lucky for us, he wrote about it. Also lucky for us, there was a hell of a photographer along. Do you see the cover up there? Rest assured, that's only the tip of the iceberg.

He's also an incredibly personal writer - most of the recipes tell you where he first encountered the dish, stories about who taught him how to make it, and which version inspired his written recipes. The book is arranged by spice - there are sections on cinnamon, cumin, paprika, cardamom, tamarind, etc, which really appealed to me. It almost encourages you to do a study of the spice, moving from one recipe to another to see how it plays with the other flavorings in a dish.

So we, the humble food bloggers (otherwise known as Sara, Mike, Mary and Lis), set out to work our way through this book. We came up with a list of six recipes that we wanted to try. The list had a little tweaking later on, but the final list was:

  • Yogurt Cucumber Soup with Coriander and Cumin
  • Entrecote with Onion, Ginger and Tamarind
  • Fish in Coconut Curry
  • Stuffed Onions with Ginger and Lamb
  • Bananas with Coconut and Cardamom
  • Coconut Curry Cake
In typical "Jump in feet first without checking the depth of the water" fashion, I decided to make the stuffed onions and the bananas for a couple that we invited over for dinner. Luckily, they're also foodies and were just as drawn to the book - and the hilarity of me trying to stuff these onions - as the rest of my fellow cookbook bloggers. The lamb recipe made more than enough mix to stuff the onions (I made some little meatballs from the leftover mixture). And hollowing the onions and then poking the stuffing back into them was an adventure - and a housekeeper's nightmare - by itself. This recipe could have used a little more "how-to" in that onion department. The flavors, though, exploded when we tasted the finished product. There's a lot going on in this dish - the onions are cooked in tumeric, then the stuffing has cumin, fresh ginger, ground ginger, dried apricots and - yum! - ground lamb. But all of these ingredients played together very nicely for my guests, and we were all impressed with how well these turned out.

The bananas in coconut milk were so easy to make, that The Professor has actually made them on two more nights. By himself! The fresh cloves and cardamom that steep in the coconunt milk make the house smell yummy. And The Professor has learned how to make one more thing in the kitchen without asking me how to turn the stove on. Double Victory!

Sensing I was on a roll, I tackled the steak and onions next. The recipe calls for a walloping SIX onions to go with two 8 oz steaks. I began to suspect that perhaps onions are a tad smaller around the Indian Ocean? Or there's just a lot of people that smell fairly strongly of onions. Not being so open-minded where my breath is concerned, I cut that number in half and only made three. Tamarind paste is a brand spanking new item in my pantry - and I only used a couple of tablespoons, so I'm going to have to find some more recipes soon - and I was more than a little nervous about it. I shouldn't have been. The onions outshone the steak (although I'll never complain about juicy red meat, in case you ever need that piece of information. Hint Hint).

My favorite recipe by far was one that did not contain red meat! If you had told me last month that I would have picked fish over lamb or steak, I would have asked you what restaurant I went to, because I? Me, right here? Can't do anything more interesting with a piece of fish than put it in a bunch of bread crumbs and serve it with a sprig of parsely. But the Fish in Coconut Curry (I used Mahi) was almost too easy. And the sauce that was left made incredible leftovers over rice the next day.

The coconut cake universally underwhelmed us in coconut flavor. I used fresh ground whole spices - which I think made a big difference, from our varoius opinions - and the spice comination of cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, nutmeg and ginger was a star. The cake was very light, and fairly spicy. But there was no coconut flavor, so I think I'll be tweaking this recipe in the future.

There are quite a few recipes in Where Flavor Was Born that I'll be getting to soon, but I'll keep a few things in mind - the size of onions for one! For another, that there isn't enough tutorial-information for newbie flavor explorers (like moi). But I learned a lot about my spices from this book, and the pictures....well, the Best Friend and I would call them food porn. You're free to also, if you like.


Sara said...

Fantastic post Deborah! I'm glad you enjoyed yourself and the food. Thanks for being part of this!

Ember Case said...

These look incredible! Feel free to experiment on - er, with - me any time.

breadchick said...

Lovely post Deborah. I really enjoyed cooking with you on this round table and loved the email back and forth. Can't wait to try the steak when I get back home now!

Mike said...

Deborah, have you seen Andreas? Just asking, because you may want the personal assistant job for more than just the eating. Thanks for the great post - it was a lot of fun doing this together. I'm also glad someone else did the lamb and liked it as much as I did!

Lis said...

Terrific review, Deborah!

It was really nice meeting you through this project.. or should I call it a giggle-fest? :)