spice it up! flavorful new cookbooks, with alexandra stafford
STANDING IN MY KITCHEN the other day I had a craving, specifically for sesame or peanut noodles. They are something I eat when I do takeout, or in a restaurant, because with such flavors we sometimes think we can’t do it at home, like a good curry or Middle Eastern food or Mexican—or those Chinese restaurant-style noodles.
How to spice it up in our home cooking? Alexandra Stafford of the Alexandra’s Kitchen website, alexandracooks.com, author of the “Bread, Toast, Crumbs” cookbook, is helping me get a little confidence about using spices to create some favorite take-out flavors at home. Together she and I have been digging for inspiration into the latest crop of cookbooks, which would also make great gifts to others who might need a flavor nudge.
Read along as you listen to the December 2, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
And we’ll have a double book giveaway: Over on Ali’s website, enter to win a copy of “Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking.” Here on mine, “Mastering Spice” by Lior Lev Sercarz is up for grabs. Details on entering at the bottom of the page.
spicing it up, with ali stafford
Alexandra Stafford: How are you?
Margaret Roach: O.K. Spice it up! [Laughter.]
Ali: I know, right?
Margaret: I know. I can’t believe it’s already a year since we did our last edition of the holiday gift cookbook roundup.
Ali: Is that possible? My gosh.
Margaret: I know. So we went browsing—just to tell people the process so far. We went browsing this fall together, and we’ve been emailing and chatting and whatever. We saw that there are lots of ethnic cookbooks of every possible flavor palette, more all the time, and so we thought, “Hey, why don’t we do that as sort of a narrow focus within all the cookbooks out there?” That’s what this year’s roundup is going to be.
Ali: I’m really excited about the few that we’ve selected to chat about, too. They’re just written by people who really, really know their stuff and they’ve made it really accessible.
‘mastering spice’ by lior lev sercarz
Margaret: Maybe we should start with the new book that sort of has the title that says it all, which is “Mastering Spice.” What do you think?
Ali: Yes, I think that’s a great place to start.
Margaret: O.K. So what do you think? [Laughter.]
Ali: I looked at it and I thought, “Gosh, do I really need a book all about spices and spice blends?” But when you dig into it, it’s so much more. He really cares about technique, so the recipes are really simple. But his whole philosophy is that you can change up the spices in countless ways and then you have something different, and something that you can’t get bored of.
I have yet to cook anything, but I’m really excited about his roasted vegetable recipe for a number of reasons. One, he lowers the heat. It’s a little bit lower than… I’m always roasting vegetables at like 450F convection until they’re nearly black. He turns the temperature way down, and they cook for about an hour. Part of this is so that the spices don’t burn during that hour of cooking.
But he also roasts them with little bit of olive oil and vinegar, and his spice mix is so interesting. There’s sumac, there’s fennel, smoky paprika, Aleppo pepper and cinnamon, which is something I would never think to add to roasted vegetables. But in winter, how many sheet pans of roasted root vegetables do you do? And by March, you can’t think you could roast another root. But if you have all these different spice blends, it’s like you could keep going.
Margaret: So “he” is Lior Lev Sercarz. I watched some of his videos and started reading the book and so forth. It turns out he got into spice—and he actually even sells spices—but he grew up in a kibbutz in the 1970s, where all the food was “brown and mushy,” he says. So he was, like, this was his protest- [Laughter.]
Ali: Right, totally.
Margaret: … to cope with that youth, is to have this passion for spice and mastering spice. And like you’re saying, it’s not the expected combinations. He says, “I use curry spices in dessert and cinnamon on meat. No one spice or blend belongs to one culture or place.”
So there’s almost like these template recipes, like you’re saying: roasted vegetables. Then he does them five or six ways so that if you can just figure out how to roast vegetables, or how to make “creamy carrot soup,” then he has that one with smoky paprika and cumin, or smoky cumin and chipotle, or basil-fennel-oregano, or turmeric and lime leaves. Like there are six different… If you just make creamy carrot soup, you don’t have to make the same one every time.
Ali: Yes, I thought that one actually looked delicious-
Margaret: It did.
Ali:... maybe because then he showed how you can turn that into a sauce, and coat it with pasta and top it with poppy seeds and it looks totally delicious. I have a recipe for a butternut squash sauce and I’ve never thought to do that with carrots, but it makes total sense.
Ali: And back to the roasted vegetables, one of the variations is you can roast the vegetables with wedges of citrus, which is something I have not done, but which sounds so nice, especially in winter.
Margaret: Oh, the picture was beautiful, too. Yes.
Ali: I think his master root vegetable recipe has something like 5 pounds of vegetables and then you can use those vegetables in a frittata. So it’s just practical. They really look simple and practical and just something… I mean, he says this, and lots of people say this, but his goal is, “I hope you can kind of master the ideas and then never turn to this book again.” But you kind of get the sense that you could do that once you get his techniques down.
Margaret: Right, right. Maybe two, three years ago in 2016, I think it was, from him I got a book called… almost like an encyclopedic book, although it did have recipes called Mastering… No, wait a minute. It was called something else: “The Spice Companion: A Guide To The World of Spices.” It was like an encyclopedia. It told you everything about like where they come from and how they’re used and yes. So he’s done a number of books about combining spices and using spices and understanding spices and getting your confidence, as I said, because of that kibbutz upbringing. [Laughter.] Mushy brown food will do it to anybody.
Ali: Right, exactly.
Margaret: Yes. I think that’s a great one. I was really pleased. I know we both downloaded it.
Ali: Yes. It seems like a really good one. This one, too, has in the back in the glossary, there’s an index of spices and it tells you how to use them and what to use them with. So it sounds sort of like an abridged version of his first book.
Margaret: Yes. There were like variants on penne, and risotto. There were like chickpeas, different ways to… One of my favorite beans or whatever to eat, chickpeas. You could just turn it into so many different things, and I only have maybe like one or two ways that I do it. I like to put them just with my red sauce. I’ll have like brown rice or pasta and tomato sauce. I’ll put chickpeas in just for an extra something and with Parmesan and whatever. Or in like coconut curried spinach and then put them in there. But this had a whole bunch of other ways just to use that basic staple, the chickpea.
Ali: Yes. No, there’s a lot in this book and I think he does really try to help you not be intimidated by not thinking… Like he gives the example of a chipotle chili powder, which people think you would use it in chili, or Mexican dishes, but he’ll use it in something like shakshuka. So you shouldn’t be afraid to play around, and if there’s spices you like—it’s a spice after all; you’re looking for heat and smokiness.
Margaret: Yes, yes. And he says this is like a vegetable-heavy cookbook or a non-meat heavy cookbook, because at home that’s what he tends to cook. So it’s not marketed as a vegetarian cookbook per se. And there are like flat breads, and there are egg dishes and so forth. But it’s not super-heavy meat stuff, this particular cookbook.
Ali: No. Right.
Margaret: Yes. Well, O.K, so we’re voting thumbs up. [Laughter.]
Ali: Yes. Yes, definitely.
Margaret: I think that’s a good gift book, too. I really do.
‘maangchi’s big book of korean cooking’
Margaret: Yes. Yes, yes. So what else are you excited about?
Ali: Oh, gosh. Where next?
Margaret: What about our crazy world of Korean cooking? [Laughter.]
Ali: Oh. Oh, that. Yes, “Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking” (Amazon affiliate link). That would be a good one to talk about.
Margaret: She’s amazing. What a fun thing for us to sort of delve into together.
Ali: I know. She is hilarious, and I sort of feel like I’m only just discovering her. She has, I mean, an enormous following and I’ve been following her on Instagram, but I really hadn’t taken a deep dive into her videos until we started talking about these books.
Margaret: The YouTube channel is… And some of them are like 500,000 or a million views. The videos are fantastic, and they’re so fun and she’s so upbeat.
Ali: She’s so funny, yes. Yes. I’ve made one dish from her book, it’s the japchae. I actually watched the video recently and it made me really happy to see that in her new book, she has totally simplified the recipe. In her original version, she sort of sautes every…
First of all, japchae is like a very, very well-known Korean dish and very popular. She says actually if you make it for a party you will get a lot of attention and be very popular. [Laughter.] But it’s-
Margaret: O.K. Good to know. [Get Ali’s recipe for a vegetarian version of Maangchi’s japchae.]
Ali: I know. She’s so funny. It’s made with the translucent glass noodles that are made with sweet potato starch, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to find it, but I went to my… She has this excellent shopping guide in the beginning with photos of everything. I went to my Asian market, I found them easily, and I made a vegetarian version so I didn’t have to saute the meat first.
So if you make a vegetarian version, you literally just… It’s like an un-stir fry. You just layer everything in a pan. You soak the noodles first, but you make the sauce, which is just a few ingredients stirred together. Layer the vegetables, the noodles, the sauce, your spinach. You cover the pan for 10 minutes and cook it and then you uncover it and it’s done.
Ali: It was amazing to not have to stir fry anything and the noodles are so… It really feels like something you would only… Like, I’ve had this at a Korean restaurant, and it’s often served as, I’m probably not saying it right, but the banchan, like the little dishes that are served with the meat or just as a side dish to any of the main courses. But it totally feels like something you wouldn’t be able to do at home because the noodles feel so exotic, but there’s really nothing to it. The dressing is sesame oil, soy sauce. It’s things that you have, and it’s really just if you can find those noodles, you can make those really traditional dish, and it’s so tasty.
Margaret: I mean she really speaks to the… She really got a lot of hand-me-down learning from other women and she’s traveled around to learn from other Korean cooks. It has this heartfelt, like this enthusiasm, that just makes you want to try all these dishes, at least I felt like I wanted to be a devotee right away. [Laughter.]
Ali: Yes, definitely. Yes, she says that she learned from, the women around her and that makes sense. It makes sense to me that’s why YouTube is sort of her medium of choice, because it really helps to see the techniques demonstrated.
Ali: But she also writes in the book that videos are great, but they don’t show the larger picture of how recipes fit together as a cuisine. I mean, this is that—this book is huge. It really does feel like a comprehensive guide to Korean cooking, and there are step-by-step photos for almost every single recipe. She traveled to a Buddhist temple in the mountains to meet and cook with a group of nuns in a monastery, and she dedicated a chapter to all of those recipes, which are vegan. So it’s really cool. Again, she’s just a character.
Margaret: She is. Like I love the “mountain style” of plating up the food, serving the food. It’s, literally, what it sounds like, like a mountain in the middle of the plate. Not this fussy restaurant-y kind of presentation, right?
Ali: Right. Right. Not the precious tiny amount of food on a small plate. She says she loves the mountain style plating, and she said it reflects their most important value, which is generosity, which I loved reading.
Margaret: Yes. No, totally. So it’s “Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking” and her name is M-A-A-N-G-C-H-I, if people are wondering what we’re saying. And it’s not like you have to have a thousand things in your pantry. I went to her website and she has sort of like a beginner’s pantry where… if you don’t want to get a million different ingredients. What are some of the quickies that you have to have, or that you come up again and again that you think for the Korean-style cooking?
Ali: I mean, at a minimalist, like soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, scallion, sesame seeds. I mean, I would start there. Then from there, find a recipe that you like and then maybe go get that extra bottle, like the… I’m not going to say it right, but the gochujang, which is like the Korean hot paste?
Ali: That’s pretty easy to find in regular grocery stores now. But I went out and searched for those noodles and actually you probably could order them on Amazon, but really that’s the minimalist Korean pantry you would not have to travel far and wide for.
‘sababa’ by adeena sussman
Margaret: Right. So where do you want to go next? [Laughter.]
Ali: Well, I’m sitting here eating a tahini blondie so maybe we should talk about “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Isreali Kitchen” by Adeena Sussman [affiliate link].
Margaret: A tahini blondie, O.K. All right.
Ali: Yes. So Adeena Sussman, I love her. She’s been working in food media for a long time and she’s coauthored 11 books, including both of Chrissy Teigen’s. So she’s just a very reliable, I feel, recipe writer and in general.
But in any case, this is her first book alone, and “Sababa” means everything is cool, everything is awesome and it’s really you just get a real picture, a real window into her world in Tel Aviv, and it’s a really beautiful book.
Her day sounds dreamy. She wakes up every day and goes to her market, which is the Shuk HaCarmel and that’s her shopping and the ocean breezes hitting her. It sounds like such an amazing life and you kind of… “Sababa” means everything is awesome and that’s how you feel as you’re flipping through the pages.
Margaret: Yes, I watched the video, the sort of book video kind of thing, and read some of the recipes and so forth as well. But in the video she goes to the market that you just talked about and she gets ingredients that we know dry, but she’ll get them fresh, and so like the za’atar and so forth. It’s just so beautiful and she seems so happy. So, like you said, it’s all good. Everything is cool. That’s what’s “Sababa” means. Yes. [Laughter.]
Ali: Yes, and she makes the recipes feel… So the recipe I started with was her basic tahini sauce, because she says it’s a recipe that’s like the one thing your fridge should never be without is tahini sauce. It was delicious. I made the basic recipe, which is essentially just taking a paste, garlic, ice water, a lot of fresh lemon and salt.
But she gives you five variations so you can puree it with tons of herbs, which I did, and so you get this green tahini sauce. Or you can puree it with turmeric, it would be bright yellow. You can puree it with roasted beets, it’ll be bright pink. This one is interesting—I want to do it next summer, for sure—where she chars eggplant and then use it as a burnt eggplant skin and purees that into the tahini sauce. So it’s a charcoal gray color and it’s really pretty.
Margaret: Oh, and it probably has a little bit of a smoky flavor, too.
Ali: Yes. But what I love, I really loved… So she gives suggestions with what to top it with and I made… it was roasted Brussels sprouts. I’m so sorry–so she does it stove top, but just basically cooks quartered Brussels sprouts, pretty high heat and then add… She has a honey harissa sauce that she has a recipe for. But I used just like a purchased harissa and a little bit of honey. It’s like I’ve cooked Brussels sprouts a million times, but I’ve never… Oh, and she also tosses them with smoked paprika. I’d never put these flavors with Brussels sprouts.
Margaret: I know, I know.
Ali: Yes. I’m going to do like a big batch of Brussels sprouts with the smoked paprika and the harissa and a little bit of honey and then spread with her herby green tahini sauce on a platter and heap the Brussels sprouts on top and make it more of like a side dish. She makes the recipes feel really accessible.
Margaret: No, I was going to say the smoked paprika has come up twice now already and we’re only on our third cookbook. So that’s just one that maybe we want to add to our pantry if we haven’t been using it.
Margaret: Because that comes up in different cuisines and really has a lot of versatility that we don’t necessarily, as home cooks, we don’t think about, but I think it does.
Ali: Definitely, yes. Yes. I mean, this book, Adeena gives research… One, there’s an extensive pantry where she shows how to make harissa and there’s even like an everything… What does she call it? I forget. Anyway, it’s all of the things, preserved lemons, the schug [Yemeni hot sauce]—I’m probably not saying it right—and her own za’atar blend, and Israeli everything spice.
But she also tells you where you can buy these things if you don’t want to make them from scratch. Even in things like pomegranate molasses, which is not that hard to find anymore, but she has a recipe for just taking pomegranate juice and reducing it with a little bit of honey and there you have it. The same thing, there’s this… I’ve seen this both in “Mastering Spice,” I forget what it’s called, but it’s like a Persian lime and it’s dry like a powdered.
Margaret: Oh, yes. Yes, the dried lime powder. Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Ali: Yes, and if you can’t find it or you don’t have time to order it, she says you can use fresh lime zest and lime juice, which is so nice to know.
Margaret: Right. So she gives you ways around having to have a million specialty items, you know? Yes.
Ali: Right, exactly.
Margaret: So that we can fit in one more, I want to say what’s the… on this one, some of the things you’d want to probably have, though, in the mini sort of pantry: the harissa, the tahini, maybe date syrup? What else? The za’atar?
Ali: Yes, I would say silan (the date syrup), and tahini, harissa, sumac, za’atar. That would probably be where I would start, yes, and then go from there.
Margaret: And spices make a great gift. I’ve given gift certificates to places like Kalustyan’s. We mentioned at the beginning with “Mastering Spice,” his store [called La Boite], which we can give, the online store. He has beautiful spice blends. That’s a great gift to give people, too, if you want to encourage. So maybe one of these types of cookbooks plus an interesting selection of some spices or gift certificate.
Ali: Yes, definitely. Or like a nice bottle of tahini, back to the tahini blondies.
Margaret: Oh, my goodness, yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Ali: The tahini blondies are so interesting. I think the tahini, it kind of cuts the sweetness.
Margaret: Interesting. Yes. Yes, yes.
Ali: But there’s sesame seeds in it and cardamom. They’re so good.
‘the gaijin cookbook’ by ivan orkin and chris ying
Margaret: We have a couple-few minutes, what about “The Gaijin Cookbook”?
Ali: This is the one I’m really, really loving. It’s funny. This is the first year I’ve downloaded Kindle books. I’d never done it.
Margaret: For cookbooks, yes.
Ali: This one I think I’m going to have to purchase, because it feels like his soul, and I feel like the Kindle version isn’t doing it justice.
Margaret: And this is Ivan Orkin? I don’t know if that’s pronouncing… Ivan is correct and Chris Ying? Chris Ying?
Ali: Yes, Ivan Orkin. He wrote “Ivan Ramen,” which was about his ramen restaurant in Japan, but, yes. He wrote it with Chris Ying, who I think he also wrote his last book with, and it’s just beautifully written, like the story of the guy who’s been like drawn to Japan his whole life, but still feels like an outsider. The word gaijin means-
Margaret: Outsider, foreigner. Yes, yes.
Ali: Yes. So he says he’s lived in Japan for three decades, speaks Japanese, has opened two ramen shops, is raising three half-Japanese children and yet he’s still a gaijin.
But the goal of the book is to basically… He feels that Japanese food gets treated with this over-the-top reverence, and he wants to dispel the idea that all Japanese food is like precious and high-flying. He’s like, you know, Japanese families are just like any family. They’re busy, people are busy. They have picky kids, there are parties, there are potlucks, there are food for all of these occasions. A lot of the recipes are simple. He has some recipes that take a couple days like dan dan noodles and hand rolls. I think there’s like a tamaki party chapter or something like that.
This is one I thought was the best tip: He suggests buying frozen udon noodles because they’re so hard to find. So the last time I was at the Asian market I bought frozen noodles and I made his stir-fry udon noodles. It was so easy, but like so many of the recipes in the book have, it’s like soy sauce, mirin, sake. If you have those and a little sesame oil-
Margaret: Exactly. Exactly. Right.
Ali: … if you have those four things you can make so many recipes in the book.
But the part also that I’m loving about the book is that and I haven’t read all the passages, but he really reflects on what he’s learned from the Japanese culture as a whole. And they’re kind of funny because he talks about how he really had to learn sort of these.. Like he says “care for others, not getting other’s way, reading the air.” But he elaborates on all of them and they’re just funny stories.
Margaret: Right. Right. So it has an Eastern feeling to it, not just the recipe.
Ali: Yes, yes.
Margaret: So we’re down to the wire. We only have less than a minute, but, yes, so we need some miso, some soy sauce there again, which we’re going to use in a few of these different things. We noticed there were so many new Mexican cookbooks, for instance-
Ali: Oh, I know. Yes.
Margaret: … and we haven’t gotten to “Ama: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen” or any of the ones. We haven’t gotten to them, but there were like a whole bunch of new ones. So we’ll give some more suggestions. But, again, help people spice it up. Encourage people. Try one of these types of cookbooks and maybe some fun ingredients for a friend as a really nice, happy nudge for the holiday gift, right? [Laughter.]
Ali: Definitely. I think that would make such a nice gift.
Margaret: Yes. Well, thanks, Ali. I’ll talk to you soon, I hope.
Ali: O.K. Yes, definitely. Bye, Margaret.
Margaret: All right. We’ll keep downloading cookbooks together.
Ali: That’s perfect.
the books on amazon
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
2 ways to enter to win a cookbook
TWO WAYS TO WIN: I’ll buy one lucky reader a copy of “Mastering Spice,” by Lior Lev Sercarz. Ali of Alexandra’s Kitchen is giving away a copy of “Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking.” All you have to do: First comment in the box below, answering this question, then head over to Ali’s and paste your comment there, too. The question:
Is there a spicy recipe that you are confident with–and is there one you crave that you wish you knew how to make at home?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. We’ll pick random winners after entries close at midnight Tuesday, December 10, 2019. Good luck to all. Don’t forget: Once you comment here, click over to Ali’s, and put it there, too.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the December 2, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).