Dhruv Baker won Masterchef a few years ago.
Now, normally at this point, I’d start reeling off a whole series of snide, unhelpful and generally smart arse comments about TV chefs, etc, etc, but I remember Baker coming across as a nice chap, and his food was astonishingly good, so much so that the relish with which I tore open the package that contained this book took me a little by surprise.
Spice: Layers of Flavour is a collection of Baker’s recipes strung together by the common theme of, yes, you guessed it, spice.
It’s a loose theme, but that’s not a problem, because that looseness brings with it range, and this is a book packed full of the sort of things I actually want to cook.
That’s quite an important point … I read a lot of cookbooks, and many of them are very good indeed, and some are not so good, but there are few that I actually want to cook more than a couple of recipes from. That isn’t to say that these are bad books – they aren’t – they just don’t hit that particular nerve that sends me scrabbling around for bits of scrap paper to mark pages and to make lists of ingredients to hunt down.
This book did exactly that.
I sat reading it over breakfast one morning, making mental notes about this recipe, that recipe. That night, I knocked together a chicken curry from it, having earlier quizzed the fishmongers in Kirkgate Market in Leeds about the availability of razor clams (plentiful, all the time, if you’re interested) for a lovely little recipe that involves steaming them in wine and then drenching them in spiced cream. There’s a recipe for a chocolate and cinnamon torte that I’m going to make tomorrow for when my sister arrives.
There’s another interesting angle to Spice: Layers of Flavour … it has a little mission to challenge people to be more adventurous with those dusty jars of spices sat at the back of a forgotten cupboard. Actually, it quite strongly recommends throwing those particular dusty, forgotten jars away and buying new ones that aren’t stale, and then using them properly and plentifully.
There are plenty of hints here about adding particular spices to what might be otherwise seen as ‘standard’ fare, to change the nature and complexion of the dish completely. This is food that reinvents itself with every mouthful. Baker likens spices to the “additional sections of (an) orchestra, enhancing and enriching the original piece of music to make it more complex”.
Many of the recipes in Spice: Layers of Flavour have one foot in the Indian sub-continent, which is hardly surprising as that’s where Baker grew up, having been born in Mexico, and given the incontestable fact that people from that part of the world know a thing or two about using spices properly. But this is a crass over-generalisation – Spice: Layers of Flavour is packed with ideas from around the world, because people everywhere use spices in different ways, and Baker does a superb job of revealing the strengths and subtle layers that wise use of spices can give to many, many dishes. There are lots of ideas here, lots of things to try.
You see, this is one of those cookbooks that just quietly invades your life. Before you know it, you’re cooking recipe after recipe from it.
Books that do this are the very best type of cookbook.