Savoring Spices and Herbs

by Julie Sahni

William Morrow and Company, 1996. 300 pages, 250 + recipe.

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"As I stood staring out (at the Indian Ocean), my senses saturated, I started thinking about the day I would reutrn home, carrying memories from yet another land of spices and herbs and a newly felt awareness of their enriching influence on food and on my understanding of it." (from the introduction)

Ginger Ragout of Lamb

Lima Bean Spread with Cumin Vinaigrette

Iced Pear Soup with Mint Pineapple-Basil Ice

Glazed Carrots with Cloves Chilled Carrot

Soup with Mace Savory

Millet Cake with Rosemary

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I was a total illiterate in the language of herbs and spices when I first learned to cook. Every seasoning was a revelationto me. I discovered the potent punch of cumin; I fell in love with basil; I learned the difference between thyme and tarragon. (Because my teachers were cookbooks rather than cooks, it was years before someone gently pointed out to me that "cumin" was not pronounced "comin' " and that "basil" was not pronounced like "Basil", as in Rathbone.

After years of cooking, my relationship with herbs, which had begun as a peak experience, had fallen into a rut. But I didn't realize this until I picked up Julie Sahni's Savoring Spices and Herbs. It was like falling in love again. Sahni's dishes opened my eyes and palate to new dimensions of familiar seasonings. Take basil: I had always treated it as pasta's soul mate. I tried her Pineapple Ice with Basil because I had to find out how those two "mismatched" flavors would work together. The result (delicious, sophisticated, slightly mysterious) had dinner guests raving, "What's in this?" Sahni also changed my attitude toward rosemary, an herb I had always treated warily like a colorful but volatile friend whom you're hesitant about inviting to dinner parties because you're not sure whether they'll liven up the evening or wreck it. Sahni understands how to bring out rosemary's best side. In the Savory Millet Cake with Rosemary, its presence gave a light, refreshing herbiness to this substantial meat-less loaf. My family eyed this dish suspiciously ("It sounds like hippie food", my daughter said) but ate it heartily right through second helpings. The recipes in this book are so good it comes as a shock when I run across a dull one (a rare occurrence) such as the Tuna and Grape Salad in Celery Seed-Curry Dressing.

Sahni is a woman who understands seasonings. She never clutters the taste of a dish with too many disparate flavors.  And like a good teacher, she makes you want to know more. The first part of the book is an excellent tutorial on the subject. Two sections under the headings "Everyday" and "Uncommon" Spices and Herbs offer brief but insightful profiles that helped fill in the (many) gaps in my knowledge. I finally know the difference between anise and fennel (anise is stronger and sweeter). I never quite knew what to do with marjoram, but now that I can think of it as a "milder form of oregano" I can see its possibilities. She notes happy pairings of seasoning and food and gives herbs' and spices' shelf life. Sahni mentions seasonings' medicinal and historical uses (caraway quells hard-to-digest foods; nutmeg was ancient Asia's Prozac).

I haven't even begun exploring the seasonings in her "Uncommon" category like espazote and ajowan, nor have I made any of the book's twenty recipes for special spice and her blends, which include Curry Powder, Smoked Chili Oil, and Sweet-and-Hot Wasabi Sauce. But I'm glad those adventures are there in the pages waiting for me whenever I'm ready.