There is so little magic in the world these days. But listen – why am I discussing magic of any sort when, in fact, I should really be discussing Nik Sharma’s new book Season? In some ways his book is magic — while anyone can cook and teach themselves how to cook I think what Sharma does in his book is really something magical when it comes to the introduction of how to use seasoning to achieve truly delicious food and how he tells a story through food. I think his background in science as well as his personal history lends itself to a new culinary alchemy — the kitchen magic that can happen to a home cook when a new dish is created or a “new” ingredient discovered. What he has created is certainly flavourful —balanced between art, precision, and food.
The alchemy is found within his text — “To a budding cook and scientist, it was a fully stocked lab” he explains when he’s discussing how he first became interested in cooking. Through both Sharma’s own experimentation and observation of his grandmother, mother, and father he has developed an innate understanding of how to create a depth of aromas and tastes. For someone like me who learned to cook in a similar fashion — through the observation of my mother and through my own trial-and-error — I find his book to be an invaluable resource on building flavour by using items like whole or ground spice, and fresh ingredients such as herbs or chiles.
I may have learned how to cook but not how to effectively use seasoning — why, when, and how much. In fact the only seasoning that was really used in our home when I was a kid was garlic powder and steak spice. But the more I’ve cooked (especially from this book) the more I’ve discovered there is a huge world outside of my childhood experiences. In addition my young daughter who has been cooking from Sharma’s book along with me is being exposed to new flavours as well. The food education from his book will be something that she builds on as she cooks more and more throughout her life. What I appreciate about his recipes is that there is an economy in the ingredients he uses. The recipes are accessible and I think this is why I keep coming back to try more and more of his recipes.
As a home cook I found that the most important parts of the cookbook are the sections: Flavour Glossary, The Whys of Seasoning, The Hows of Seasoning, and Staples. These sections are important for learning about things like the different families of flavours or how to make the best use of each ingredient (toasting, tempering, grinding, etc). Throughout the other chapters — Small Bites, Salads + Soups, Grains + Vegetables, Seafood, Eggs + Poultry, Meat, Sweets, and Sips — there are a wealth of really tasty and beautiful recipes based on Sharma’s experiences growing up in India and then living in America. As those who frequent my site know I belong to a vegetarian family and I’ve found Season to have a great selection of vegetarian recipes to choose from. Many recipes are vegan-suitable with small substitutions needed to replace eggs or dairy (I was even able to make his Turkey-Mushroom Hand Pies by substituting lentils for meat). In his introduction he urges us to “consider [Season] a guide to bringing new flavours from different culinary traditions into [our] own kitchen, and making them work for [us].”
Even though I do cook a lot and use many different ingredients there were many ingredients in Season that were new to me — tamarind paste, tomato powder, ground anardana, and jaggery. At first I wondered whether taking the easy way (either subbing or omitting ingredients) would be acceptable? After some deliberation I decided to seek out sources for these ingredients because the book, is after all, about learning and experimenting with flavours and ingredients. When I realized that even the small amount of tomato powder in his Savory Granola could make a noticeable difference to the flavour — I started to see how by using different ingredients you could really emphasize or highlight other key ingredients or favours (it also made me want to experiment with the powder by adding it to other sauces, dressings, and dishes).
I have now tried making his Spicy Chocolate Chip-Hazelnut Cookies twice! At first I felt defeated when I went on a search to find jaggery. I had looked in most of my usual places but came up with nothing. But after a bit more research into different stores within Halifax I found a real gem of a shop nestled into an industrial park/box-store area of Bayers Lake. It was in the Dhaba Sweets and Spice Shoppe that I found what I was looking for — helpful staff that pointed me in the right direction and who kindly advised me on which type of jaggery would be suitable for my need. This is what Sharma’s book has done — lead me to expanding my culinary community while introducing me to new ingredients. Back to the cookies — while muscovado sugar can be substituted for jaggery; each creates a final product with subtle differences in both texture and flavour. I was happy to have it in my pantry when I baked up a bundtified version of his Date and Tamarind Loaf. I’ve found the jaggery offers a more earthy (almost mineral-y) taste that really brings out the rich favours of ingredients such as: dates, tamarind, or chocolate.
Last fall I discovered one of my top-5 favourite recipes of all time within the pages of Bake from Scratch magazine — Sharma’s Sweet Potato Bebinca (influenced by his Grandmother Lucy’s recipe and his Goan heritage). I won’t own up to how many times I’ve made it but it’s safe to say that the recipe is slowly being indelibly inscribed on my memory. This lightly sweet and custard-y dessert is (in my mind) perfect in both flavour and texture. Akin to a traditional pumpkin pie (without the crust) the sweet potato, ghee, jaggery, coconut milk, freshly ground nutmeg and a hint of turmeric create something apart from the ubiquitous pumpkin pie. The resulting dessert is delicate and satisfying (here’s a tip — the Vanilla Bean Crème Fraîche along with the Spiced Maple-Vinegar Syrup from his recipe for broiled peaches tastes quite exquisite served with the Bebinca). I was really happy to see it’s inclusion in Season.
There are dishes recognizable to me such as the Bean and Lentil Soup and the Margherita Naan Pizza where Sharma has taken a familiar recipe and put his own twist on it — cocoa and spices to the chili-like soup and unconventional flavours like nigella seeds and coriander to the pizza while omitting the traditional fresh basil component. Even a dish of roasted baby carrots is given its own unique treatment by seasoning them with sesame, chili, and nori. What he does here is show the home cook that personal influences and experimentation lead to delicious results and that adding flavour to recipes need not be complicated. I keep thinking of flavours being balanced and having depth — in my mind the meals I’ve made from Season seem like magic.
Season is such a special book — full of gorgeous photography and delicious food. After making almost twenty recipes from Season I feel like I have a greater understanding of flavour — seeing how similar or contrasting flavours work to provide depth and counterbalance. I have added many recipes to my weekly rotation and I’ve even taken kitchen staples like his Kefir Crème Fraîche and used it in other recipes from other cookbooks (I was really pleased to learn how to make my own Crème Fraîche). I’ve been posting what I’ve made to my Instagram feed using the custom hashtag #shipshapeseason and to a dedicated post on my Facebook page.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Raincoast Books and Chronicle Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
A special thanks to Lindsay Cameron Wilson for her invaluable advice!