Sunday, January 27, 2008

Round Table Review: Discovering Where Flavor Was Born

A few weeks ago an email arrived in my inbox from my blogging twin, Sara of I Like To Cook asking me if I would be interested in taking part in a Cookbook Round-Up or as one of my partners in crime ended up calling it on the emails that flew fast and furious between the little group "That Cookbook Thing". Sara wanted Mike, Deborah, myself, and my other blogging twin sister Lisa to read through a cookbook that would arrive on our door steps, pick a few recipes out that the group would all cook together and then blog about it on the same day. Um, me not want to help Sara out and in the process add to the weight of my groaning cookbook shelves? Surely you jest!

A few weeks after receiving Sara's email, Andreas Viestad's lovely book, Where Flavor Was Born: Recipes and Culinary Travels Along the Indian Ocean Spice Route was waiting at my door when I got home for work. Without even taking my coat off, I sat down and ripped open the package to find a lovely note from the folks at the Lisa Ekus Group and a beautiful coffee table sized cookbook about the spices found around the Indian Ocean.

First, let me tell you how gorgeous this book is. I really mean it when I say it belongs on a coffee table. The photos by Mette Randem are stunning. Vibrant in color and composition they match the feel of a cookbook about spices and the food of the lands of spice. The stock of paper used in this book is that nice heavy stock that lends itself to hours of reading about the spices and where they come from and just losing one's self in the picture.

Second, I really like the way the book is laid out from a concept standpoint. There is a large colorful map showing all the major parts of the world where the spices discussed in the book come from. The table of contents is presented by spice versus type of dish, a nice way to find a variety of dishes made with a single spice. There is wonderful section up front that has a paragraph or two about the spices, their origin and their significance in the cooking of the Indian Ocean region.

After spending about a week reading through the book, we each submitted a long, long list of the recipes we all wanted to try. In the end we chose six recipes to make:

Yogurt Cucumber Soup with Coriander and Cumin, pg 43
Entrecote with Onion, Ginger and Tamarind, pg 210
Grilled Green Fish with Red Rice, pg 159
Stuffed Onions with Ginger and Lamb, pg 94
Bananas with Coconut and Cardamom, pg 125
Coconut Curry Cake, pg 147

Unfortunately, after a few days we all discovered that we each would have problems sourcing a few ingredients needed for the Grilled Green Fish with Red Rice so we switched that recipe out for what I think was the hands down winner of the bunch, Fish in Coconut Curry on page 138.

I've only recently began cooking dishes from this region of the world and I'm really fortunate because I live next door to a lovely family from India and I've been getting great lessons on how to cook the food from this part of the world the past few months. The family has been wonderful about sharing food with me. I bake a loaf of sourdough bread and take over, they make lamb korma and bring it over to me. I make cut out cookies with sprinkles and they make samosas and tamarind chutney. Like I said, a great neighbor relationship. (Not to mention they had the best decorated house on the block this Christmas!) Anyways, when I had a few questions about a few of the recipes we were making and where to source a few items, I baked a bundt cake and went next door! Over bundt cake and a perfect pot of Indian tea, Mrs. P and I walked through the recipes and she even gave me a ziplock baggie of green cardamom pods to use in the Fish in Coconut Curry, only asking that when I made the Coconut Curry Cake, I had to promise to return for tea.

So, armed with a few tricks from my neighbor, I dove head first into the world of Indian Ocean cooking (get it Mike! Head first....he, he) The first dish I made was the Bananas with Coconut and Cardamom. I was little disappointed in this dish. I thought the bananas got lost in the coconut milk and the cardamom. But the recipe was pretty straight forward and easy to follow. Which lulled me into a false sense of bravado.

Because the very next night I struggled mightily with the Stuffed Onions. I'm not sure but I think onions are much smaller over there than they are here because first I couldn't figure out how to deal with the onions. The directions on this are not very clear in the recipe and this wouldn't be the first time I had that problem with one of the recipes in Discovering Where Flavor Was Born. A good illustration or one of those fabulous photos of how to prep the onion would have been helpful here. Then I had a mess of onion left over that thankfully was put to good use in an onion tart or two or three. Then I was underwhelmed again with the result. It felt like a lot of hard work for a good but not terrific dish. I thought the lamb tasted like an after thought to the onion and the flavors of the spices were muted against the onion. Maybe it was my onion?

I knew as soon as I read the ingredients for the Coconut Curry Cake I was going to be in trouble. I am not a huge fan of self rising flour. I think that with the exception of good Southern Buttermilk Biscuits, self rising flour should not be used. The ratio of baking soda/baking powder to flour in a cup of self rising flour is too high for my tastes, literally. Self rising flour normally leaves a funny and dry taste in my mouth, which was exactly what I got with the cake. The cake was pretty bland and with that after affect of the self rising flour, I didn't like it at all. Neither did any of my co-workers. It was the first time that a baked good I have brought into work made it not only past 3pm but all the way to the end of the day with two pieces still left. Knowing that it was the self rising flour that caused this, I have since made the cake twice more substituting 2 tsp of baking powder and the flour amounts using AP flour called for in the recipe. I also kicked up the amounts of cardamom, star anise, and coconut called for. This time I had a great tasting cake that was moist and disappeared by noon after I convinced my co-workers I had made some changes. I asked Mrs. P when I took a cake over to them if her cake recipes called for self rising flour. She said yes in some cases so this difference of opinion about the taste of the cake may be owing to that. She did like my cake though...

The final dish I made was by far and away the best dish I've made from this cookbook and the very first curry I've ever made. The Fish in Coconut Curry was so flavorful and delicious.

The recipe was also one of the best written ones of the book that I tried. There were no hard to follow directions like in several others we made. I loved the broth and had enough left over I could pour it over rice the next day and take it into lunch, where heating it in the microwave had several of my co-workers standing around sniffing the air like a bunch of bassett hounds on the tail of an escaped convict. I loved the chunks of tomatos and the zing of the spices. I'm definitely keeping this recipe and my success with it has made me anxious to try a few more of these types of dishes from Discovering Where Flavor Was Born.

Unfortunately, time ran out on me before I could try the Yogurt Cucumber Soup with Coriander and Cumin and the Entrecote with Onion, Ginger and Tamarind (which makes me very sad because tamarind is one of my favorite spices from this part of the world). But, I'm going to at least make the steak when I get back from my blog break.

Thanks to Sara for asking me to participate and to Mike, Deborah, and Lisa for "chillin" on email with me. Thanks also to the folks at The Lisa Ekus Group for getting us these lovely cookbooks.

If you'd like the recipes we used for this Round Table Review, please visit Sara over at I Like To Cook!