Books & Tools

Many chefs use the Krups Fast Touch for dry spices. Actually a coffee grinder, it costs about $20. The 200-watt motor and stainless steel blades will pulverize most spices in 30 to 40 seconds. You should crush cinnamon in a mortar and pestle first, though, or it won’t grind to a fine powder. The downside is that the Krups only holds about 5 tablespoons; barely enough for a week’s supply of garam masala, yet sufficient for all but the hungriest Indian cooking devotee.

Sometimes it’s simpler to do things the old-fashioned way. You can peel fresh gingerroot by scraping it with a sharp-edged spoon. To reduce garlic to a smooth paste, crush it in a mortar and pestle with a large pinch of salt. To crush whole peppercorns, I often put them in a twist of parchment paper and lightly hit them with a hammer, or with the bottom of a small cast iron frying pan.

One modern tool I cannot live without is my microplane, actually the original wood rasp made in Canada by Lee Valley Tools. It became a kitchen icon when the owner’s wife discovered how easily it zested oranges; now it comes with a rectangular box that fits underneath to catch whatever you’re grating. It takes just 25 seconds to grate a 1-inch piece of ginger. No plastic; should last a lifetime or more.

I’m always on the lookout for unusual kitchen tools when I travel. In the Marrakech medina I found a man who carved things out of soft lemon wood. I came home with a couple of ladles, a pair of wooden scissors I use as tongs, and six small spoons for harira – the lamb and lentil soup eaten to break the fast during Ramadan. The moral: If you love it, don’t worry about carrying it home. There’s always a corner in your suitcase. (This does not work with lust-inducing furniture or uber-heavy cookware, as I discovered years ago lugging a giant cast iron wok home from Singapore’s Chinatown.)

For one pot cooking, it’s hard to beat the Moroccan tagine. It’s a traditional clay pot with a conical top that draws up the cooking vapors and then bathes the food with tasty steam as it simmers. You can use it to make classic Moroccan stews, also called tagines, like Chicken with Green Olives and Preserved Lemons. Old pots, which have absorbed the flavors of a thousand meals are prized possessions, handed down from mother to daughter. For cooking, only use a plain terracotta tagine. The more decorative ones are just for serving.

I collect mortars and pestles. Right now I have eight, including a heavy granite one from Thailand which is fantastic for pounding tough ingredients like galingale for green curry paste. I adore the billot-mortier I found at Olivier Roellinger’s shop in Paris: a tres chic black marble mortar and pestle that sits in a heavy wood chopping block. But I dream of the one that got away: a gigantic stone mortar and pestle that sat on the floor of a kitchen in Goa. It would have taken an elephant to move it and a Rockefeller to ship it. Still…

I am a book junkie. I have about 600 books on spices and food, split between my office and the library downstairs. We just installed a Putnam Rolling Ladder; now I can reach M.F.K. Fisher’s books on the top shelf. The ladders are made to order in an old factory in Tribeca, just as they have been for over 100 years. Ours is 9-feet tall with ebony-stained oak and old-style chrome wheels. Stephen Colbert has a much taller ladder in his library, but he has a lot more books than we do. Of course our ladder is a lot prettier.

Besides Ian Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible, every spice-loving cook should have copies of Harold Magee’s On Food and Cooking, and The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dorneburg. (Why is it that publishers like to refer to reference books as “bibles”?) The former is a fantastic source of info on flavor and aroma, including the chemical constituents that create the characteristic taste and smell of herbs and spices. The latter is an “encyclopedia” of flavors that go well together, covering hundreds of ingredients and tips from chefs. If you’re wondering how to use that whole nutmeg lurking in the back of your cupboard, look it up. Soon you’ll be swooning over potatoes with grated nutmeg, rosemary, thyme and sea salt.

If you’re new to Indian cuisine, there’s no better primer than Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. It’s a comprehensive course in the subject, with easy-to-follow, illustrated explanations of ingredients, cookware and techniques. Fantastic recipes include velvety Rogan Josh, or Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce, scented with ginger, coriander seed, cumin and cardamom. That’s only one of the many reasons this 1980 cookbook is now in its 58th printing.

I am a sucker for off-beat cookbooks like Delights from the Garden of Eden, by Nawal Nasrallah, a former professor of English Literature in Baghdad. It’s a labor of love, a self-published history of Iraqi cuisine with recipes and photos, written after she and her family fled Sadam-Hussein’s regime in 1990. The book offers fascinating recipes for Iraqi sweets, many descended from ancient and medieval dishes; Mesopotamian-era Mahallabi al-Timman, or rice pudding with rosewater and cardamom, would be a pleasing dessert for anyone who loves exotic flavors today. Nawal steered me to Cortas brand rosewater, distilled in Lebanon, but available on the internet.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, especially Plenty, are packed with simple but vibrant recipes. He and his partner, Sammi Tamimi, both grew up in Jerusalem—one’s Israeli, the other’s Arab—and their gorgeous sense of spice is on full display in their new cookbook, Jerusalem. I just made Roast Chicken with Clementines, Fennel and Arak—you can substitute Pernod for the anise-scented Middle Eastern liqueur—it’s an easy and unexpectedly delicious way to cook the ubiquitous bird. On my London next list: Nopi, their new Soho brasserie.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Milton, is a great read. The subtitle—The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History—only hints at the bloody conflict waged by the Dutch East India Company and the British Crown over Run, a tiny island in the Indonesian archipelago that’s now all but forgotten. The lust for money and spice was at the root of it all: In 1616, one pound of nutmeg grown on Run could be sold in London for 3,200 percent profit. Think competing drug cartels in the 17th century and you’ll get the gist.