Book Review: Field Guide to Herbs and Spices

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Field Guide to Herbs and Spices: How to Identify, Select, and Use Virtually Every Seasoning at the Market, by Aliza Green.
• Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.

Early in Field Guide to Herbs and Spices, author Aliza Green makes this disclaimer: “The author and publisher cannot guarantee this guide addresses every possible herb and spice available worldwide.” They may have come close, however. This book covers hundreds of culinary herbs, spices and spice mixtures, and most likely includes whatever you will find at your local markets as well as in markets you may encounter while traveling.

Designed to be a portable guide for identifying, selecting and cooking with herbs and spices, this compact book fits easily in pocket or purse to take to the market, then back home again to use in the kitchen.

The book includes a 114-page herb section and a 177-page spice section. Entries are alphabetized and each listing is identical, making it easy to find information about identifying, selecting, storing and cooking with the listed seasonings. For each entry you will find the same information, such as

• Any additional names for herbs and spices. For example, oregano is also called wild marjoram. Names in other languages are also provided. Bergamot is taimatubana in Japanese and bergamota in Spanish.

• A physical description of each herb and spice. For example, sorrel leaves resemble elongated spinach, and are pale to dark green. The photo section of the book also helps with identification.
• Seasonal availability is noted, and tips are provided on how to locate some of the more exotic items.

• Selection, storage tips and notes of caution, when necessary.

• Serving suggestions and recipes for each item.

Field Guide to Herbs and Spices is a great book for cooks, but even if you never use any of the highlighted herbs and spices in the kitchen, you will still uncover some fascinating facts. I learned that savory is used to clean wine barrels, and tarragon once was believed to ward off serpents and dragons, as well as heal snake bites. The author includes a significant amount of research, making this a complete compendium of herbal information.

As informative as this book is, I could suggest two ways in which it could have been more helpful. First, I would have liked to see the name of the herb or spice at the top of each page, as in a dictionary. Also, symbols in the margins indicate growing season, cooking equipment required for the recipes, etc., but the key to the icons is in the photo section, which I found cumbersome. A more logical place would be with the reference material in the back of the book.

All in all, this book is well written, useful and convenient. Take advantage of its portability to learn something new about herbs and spices anywhere you go.

Linda M. Davis raises herbs at her Los Angeles home, and reviews books for several consumer and association publications.