Growing up, as I did with parents originally from India, spice was a constant presence in my childhood. Spices made it into every dish, imparting warmth, flavour and comfort. It has never left me as a constant influence to cooking in or eating out. When I was sent a copy of Natasha MacAller’s second cookbook, Spice Health Heroes to test out and review, I was immediately curious to see how a guide to spices, their health benefits with recipes would work as a concept.
Ayurvedic medicine in India is thousands of years old. Developed over many generations, based on folk wisdom and experimentation, slowly, some elements of this ancient body of knowledge are being subjected to scientific testing, and objective proof. I was astonished to read in the foreword by Dr Eleni Tsiompanou, that spices have recently been proven to have anti-depressant effects. Perfect for those of us beginning to feel the Winter blues after the clocks went back!
The book is divided up into sections depending on the broad type of spice used; immune boosting spices, cleansing spices, energy spices, warming spices, restorative spices and calming spices. The recipes themselves are hugely varied, ranging from snacks, canapes, informal meals, smoothies, salads, curries, stews, soups, puddings, pickles, chutneys, cakes, bakes and grills. The recipes come from Natasha along with an amazing roll call of culinary experts; April Bloomfield, Jose Andres, Cyrus Todiwala, Peter Gordon, Ann-Sophie Pic, Raghavan Iyer, Judy Joo and Francois Kwaku-Dongo, among others.
I made the Tonga chilli-lime chicken with mustard, ginger, garlic and cardamom, part of the “warming spice” section. A dish which can be doubled or tripled for a party or gathering, this marinaded chicken bake was based on the ingredients which can be found at a Tongan vanilla plantation Natasha visited.
The first steps were, to me, unusual. I’ve cooked with cardamom before, but never had to shell the green pods to collect the little black seeds. As you can see, it took quite a few pods to get half a teaspoon of the precious little seeds!
The seeds were then combined with whole coriander seeds and toasted in a dry pan, which in turn were bashed in a mortar and pestle with some garlic and ginger. This would be the starting point of the marinade.
Another unusual ingredient required preparation; pulped, juiced passion fruits.
Rice wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, vegetable oil (I used cold pressed extra virgin British rapeseed oil), coriander, lime juice, onion, chillis, brown sugar, nutmeg and salt were all prepared and measured out, ready to go into the food processor to make the marinade.
The aromatic and fresh marinade was a beautiful mild green.
Time for the chicken to go in, ready for 2 hours of marinading in the fridge. Obviously, I used a non-metallic bowl (which happened to have a handy lid).
Never marinade meat in anything acidic or citrus in a metallic container, or you will ruin the dish completely (everything will react). Before putting the chicken in the oven, you need to reserve the marinade, so I had to remember not to chuck all my hard work in the bin!
The chicken was baked at 180 degrees C for 25 minutes, and was browned all over. I left it to rest for 10 minutes, whilst reducing the marinade in a pan to make a sauce. (Obviously, it had to be heated until piping hot, or food poisoning would be inevitable. Marinades can only be heated up as sauces if they are heated up beyond 60-70 deg C all through.)
The finished dish had a touch of heat, with warming spice flavours from the coriander and cardamom which was gentle and never overpowering. The freshness of the lime and passion fruit made this feel like a little bit of sunshine on a plate. Having the sauce to drizzle over the chicken made a pleasant, fruity accompaniment, which I realise now could have been served as a dipping sauce (particularly if I make this again for a group of people).
The recipes sometimes have a list of ingredients which appears intimidating. Thankfully, the preparation and cooking techniques are those most home cooks can manage and do not require much in the way of specialist equipment. When needed, the ingredients are split up to show which part of the dish they are used for (eg marinades, dressings, sauces etc). The instructions are clear, easy to follow and step by step. Care has been taken that the instructions are accurate.
Natasha MacAller is enjoying a second career as a cookbook author, restaurant consultant and cooking teacher. Formerly a ballerina for the prestigious Joffrey Ballet and the Boston Ballet, Natasha now styles herself as “the Dancing Chef”. Her recipes, whilst aimed at food lovers and home cooking enthusiasts, they offer inspiration for those simply looking to pep up their everyday dinners and may have got into a cooking rut.
A guide on the history of the use of spice, advice on storage as well as a range of basic spice blends begin the book to get you feeling confident and ready to change your cooking habits. Each individual spice is described, with a clear account of their health benefits and use. This book is much more than just a cookbook. It is a helpful, informative and fascinating food reference book. One to keep on the kitchen cookbook rack or coffee table, to dip in and out of, rather than to put away.
Spice Health Heroes is published by Jacqui Small Books. It should be available at most large book shops and online.