on July 18, 2005
I am a backyard BBQ fanatic who has started competing at local BBQ competitions. Outside of heat, smoke and meat, the most important part of making good BBQ is in your seasonings. Whether it is making a rub, a baste, or sauce, it is important to balance the flavors and recognize what flavors are needed to take your recipe to the next level. This book has all of the information I need to do exactly that. This book gets a LOT of use and abuse in my house, and I have used it as a reference to help me blend/enhance flavors for SO many recipes. I can not recommend this book highly enough. If you want to know about the flavors, uses and pairings of spices, this book will take care of you. The thing I like most about this book is how for each spice it mentions what other spices are typically used with it. This is very helpful when trying to narrow the search for another flavor to add to your recipes.
`herbs & spices, the cook's reference' is the latest of eight different books on either herbs or spices by noted culinary editor and author, Jill Norman, one of the more influential disciples of the great English culinary writer, Elizabeth David, who contributed two books of her own to this subject.
I chose this book to review since I had a backlog of herb and spice books to review, and I wanted to start with one I could assume to be a standard against which all other books can be measured. The problem with starting with the standard is I'm assuming this role purely on the basis of the author's reputation in the field. I am happy to say that I find virtually nothing in this book to invalidate my holding it up as a standard against which other books on the subject may be judged.
For starters, Ms. Norman convinces us at the outset that the difference between an herb and a spice is vague enough around the world to require that we treat the two together, thereby eliminating any chance of leaving something out because it was not thought to be a spice or an herb. Part of this ambiguity is her statement that in the United States, a dried herb is considered a spice. Since Ms. Norman is an expert on the subject, I must assume that there is a faction in America that believes this. She states this to make it clear that her basis for distinguishing herbs from spices is based on the current British thinking on the subject. But, since she is covering both, the issue is academic in this book.
Much more interesting is Ms. Norman's separation of the various herbs and spices into a large number of categories based on flavor. Herbs are divided into `Fresh and mild herbs' featuring parsley, `Sweet Herbs' featuring lavender, `Citrus or tart herbs' featuring lemon balm, `Licorice or anise herbs' featuring dill and fennel, `Minty herbs' featuring mint, `Onion herbs' featuring garlic, `Bitter or astringent herbs' featuring celery, `Pungent and spicy herbs' featuring sage, thyme, and cilantro. This division alone is a great service, as it gives us a sound basis for substituting one herb for the other, as when we may need borage, and see that it's in the same class as parsley.
A deeper look at this lineup of herbs shows that Ms. Norman is covering a far broader range of species and varieties within species than most other books or sections of books on herbs. Most of us know of two or three varieties of basil. Ms. Norman shows us fourteen, divided between three groups, Genoese and purple basil (Ocimum basilicum), `other basils', and Asian basils. The inclusion of the scientific name is essential in a work like this. The most important need is when you wish to buy seeds to grow these plants, the scientific name is the only way you have to guarantee getting the species or variety you want. If you happen to see seeds for `Asian Basil', know that this could be any one of seven different species or varieties! Within sections such as those for the Asian basils, the pictures in this book really shine, as the pictures of these seven varieties are all on the same page, including stems and flowers in many cases, as many of the leaves from two different varieties are almost identical in appearance.
We are especially happy that Ms. Norman has drawn outside the lines in her including several plant species which border on what we think as teas (such as sassafras), salad greens (such as sorrel and celery), or root vegetable (such as horseradish and wasabi). The only lapse I can find in all the material on herbs is that the distinction between the Mediterranean bay is not clearly made from the New World plants often called `bay'.
Spices get an equally thorough treatment, being divided between `Nutty spices' such as sesame, `Sweet spices' such as vanilla, `Acidic and fruity spices' such as tamarind, `Citrus spices' such as lemon grass, `Licorice or anise spices' such as anise, `Warm and earthy spices such as saffron, `Bitter or astringent spices such as capers, `Pungent spices' such as chiles, ginger, mustard, and pepper. One of my fondest discoveries in this book is that not only are ginger and galangal shown to belong to two different biological genus, they are categorized as in two different taste classes. These two are commonly mistakenly lumped together.
The sections on chilis (genus capsicum) are as vividly colorful as all the others, with a surprise in that the heat in a chili species is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 rather than the better known (in the U.S. at least) Scoville scale.
The chapter in this book which makes it the only book you should need on herbs and spices is the one on recipes, featuring combinations for all the world famous herb and spice mixes, and lots you may never have heard of. The very best aspect of this section is that it provides not one recipe for things such as bouquet garni, but seven, for beef, pork, lamb, poultry, game, fish, and vegetables.
The very last chapter on general recipes could have easily been left out, as what comes before is more than enough to justify this as the only book you will need on herb and spice usage. One thing some readers may miss and the one thing that may justify a second book in you library dedicated to herbs and spices is one that deals with the history and geography of herb and spice origins. This book will not satisfy your curiosity over how New World Tomatoes joined up with their soul mates, Mediterranean basil.
An excellent book and a `must have' for a foodie library.
on August 31, 2007
The book is organized to make using it a dream. It is divided into three sections Herbs, Spices and Recipes.
The first two sections are organized identically; an introduction, categories/groupings of herbs or spices and a section on preparing herbs or spices. Herb groupings are Fresh and mild herbs, Sweet herbs Citrus or tart herbs, Licorice or anise herbs, Minty herbs, Oniony herbs, Bitter or astringent herbs, Pungent and spicy herbs. Spice groupings are Nutty spices, Sweet spices, Acidic and fruity spices, Citrus spices, Licorice or anise spices, Warm and earthy spices, Bitter or astringent spices, pungent spices.
Each individual herb or spice has a page that includes pictures, history, notes on flavor use how it is harvested, culinary uses, other spices/herbs it combines with. The pictures and information combine to make this a top notch reference.
Recipes section is divided into two main sub-sections Blending herbs and spices and Cooking with herbs and spices. There is also a bibliography, sources and an index.
The Recipes for herb blends is shorter than expected but nice and represent other cultures. The spice blends are from around the globe and a longer more comprehensive list there are also recipies for sauces and marinades. Both herb and spice blend Recipes include suggestions and notes on how to use them and the best food pairings.
Cooking with herbs and spices has a good range of Recipes and the author packs a lot into this small section; soups and light dishes, fish, meat (includes three chicken recipes), vegetables, pasta noodles & grains, desserts and drinks ( including ice cream, Pineapple ginger cooler, Mojito).
The bibliography gives a detailed and exhaustive list of sources should you need to do further research. The source section gives contact information on places to purchase herbs and spices it is also a long and detailed contact information many including, addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers and web sites, and e-mail if available.
If you are a beginner and want to learn more about how to use herbs and spices or if you are an experienced cook and want to expand your flavor palate this is a great reference for you.
on November 7, 2004
OK, I'll admit it -- I was a terrible cook. My meals were nutritious, sure -- but spices eluded me -- and so the food was only suitable for monks who have taken a vow of pleasurelessness.
This book changed my cooking forever. Not only is the book pregnant with spectacular images of spices from their natural to processed state, but very thoughtful information is provided on complimentary herbs and spices that would inspire any on-the-fly cooking adventurer! You will guard this book like it was your tax information once it's on your shelf. But it won't sit on your shelf very much -- Mine is on my coffee table. The book is impressive in it's scope and aesthetics. Get it!
on April 21, 2014
It is ok, but not what I was looking for. I was looking for more of a how spices and herbs blend for the book to explain what spices complement each other and which combinations to avoid. I was also looking for advice of good substitutes if you can't find the actual spice or herb. The organization of the book isn't well explained either, I cannot figure out what the page colors mean or if they mean anything at all. The book is very informative and I did gain a lot of knowledge but I do not keep it in the kitchen as a reference.
on August 22, 2007
This is a phenomenal addition to the world of culinary reference books. Every spice, herb, and seasoning component there is can be found in here each with clear color photos, tasting notes, and information on its history, culinary uses, buying and storing, parts of the plant used, and even harvesting tips.
I originally bought this book several years ago when I started growing my own herbs and vegetables so that I would better understand how to grow them and how to best utilize my crops. At that time, the book was very helpful by explaining how to strip, dry, or freeze herbs, how to make flavored vinegars and oils, and even how to make herb or spice butters. There's also a section on fresh and dried chili peppers that explains everything from roasting or toasting to freezing or grinding.
A few years after buying this book, I finally ventured off to culinary school, and found it to be one of my greatest tools for research papers. The back of the book also has a small recipe section for spice mixes, sauces, condiments and soups that helped me better understand the different combinations of seasonings based on regional cuisines.
I guess the only people I would not recommend this book to are those who don't have or care to have much in the line kitchen spices or the knowledge of possible food seasonings, and would much rather limit their time in the kitchen to quick family meals or semi homemade foods. If any of the above is true, there are many better books out there for you than this. Otherwise, what are you waiting for?
on February 2, 2009
I wish that "Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference" by Jill Norman had been the first book (on this subject) that I had purchased. I have several other books on herbs and spices which are now gathering dust on my bookshelf. I am going to donate them to my local library as I find Ms. Norman's book is the one that I turn to whenever I want to know more about a specific herb or spice. The book is well organized and beautifully illustrated.
on May 18, 2010
I personally like recipe books and cook companion guides that are visually appealing, functional, and thoughtfully written. This guide does it all. Great for referencing while you cook or simply just sittig down to read. A great buy. Especially useful for discovering proper spice pairing.
on January 25, 2015
The book is very informative and contains much useful information. However, even after reading it once, if I wanted to do a quick look up, I still had to read the whole content of each spice/herb again in order to find what I wanted. It would be easier to use it as a quick reference if the author would place each type of topic in the same format. For example: the "good with" information does not appear on every spice or herb. But if you didn't remember whether or not you had seen it in a particular spice, you will have to go through that spice again since the information might not be where you'd guess it should be. Another example, the "how to store" information can be found sometimes at the beginning of the chapter under bold letters and sometimes additional information for this can be found in the picture area (in two separate places) etc. Why couldn't the author present it in the same format?
on December 15, 2014
I realize that this book is billed as a reference, but I was hoping for some good recipes as I found in "The Spice Bible". This is a reference book only and for those who are interested in exotic herbs and spices.
There is a decent presentation of each herb or spice but most of the information is available elsewhere. Many of the herbs and spices are very difficult, if not impossible, to find unless you are living in a very big city (LA or NYC perhaps). Some are so exotic that even finding a recipe would be difficult. There are some "recipes" for spice mixes and vinegars but that it about it. Each page of information does not some uses for each herb/spice but it does not give much of a hint as to how much of the spice to use for a dish. I was hoping for much more. Because I love spices and herbs, I am keeping as a general reference book, but probably will not use all that much.