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In Her New Cookbook, Ana Sortun Unveils Mediterranean Secrets of Spice

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There are a handful of seductive food shops and restaurants in Cambridge which we’d love to have within walking distance of our own neighborhood: Formaggio Kitchen, of course, for its fascinating array of artisan cheeses and super-knowledgeable staff; Christina’s Spices, where we always discover tantalizing new seasonings from far corners of the globe (current passions include Tasmanian pepper and smoked Mexican black salt); and then there’s Oleana.

Praised for its innovative Arab-rooted Mediterranean cuisine, Oleana regularly makes Boston Top 10 Restaurant lists. In 2005 chef Ana Sortun was named Best Chef Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. But Oleana still feels more like a lively neighborhood bistro than a showcase for a star chef—and therein lies its magic. Pierced metal lanterns, wide planked wooden floors, stylish copper-rimmed tables, and walls the color of thick cream create a modern exotic vibe, which perfectly suits a menu inspired by cuisines of Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East. Just a few weeks ago, we sampled the vegetarian tasting menu: It began with a sweet-tart carrot puree with Egyptian spices, segued to lentils braised in white wine with fried fiddleheads and tangy romesco sauce, and finished with a flourish of rich ricotta dumplings, meaty porcini mushrooms and braised spring lettuces. Well, actually it finished with a tiny square of intensely rich dark chocolate marquise sprinkled with fleur de sel. It was great.

Some of these recipes can be found in Sortun’s new cookbook, Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. But when we talked with her by phone last week, she said her goal was never just to write an Oleana cookbook. “I really want to teach people how to be more comfortable with spices,” she said. “People are scared of or overwhelmed by spices. They don’t know what to do with them. So I’ve tried to introduce a different way of thinking about spices. I want to show people how to use them in a lighter Mediterranean way–to enrich foods without having to add fat.”

Sortun hasn’t organized her cookbook in the conventional “meat, fish, vegetables” manner. In the introduction, she writes: “People ask me so many questions about spices and herbs—their usage alone and in combination. What can I do with coriander? What spices go well with lamb? What can I do with all the mint in my garden?”

In answer, she has grouped spices and herbs, some familiar, some not, into families that complement each other. Each chapter focuses on one cluster—say, cumin, coriander and cardamom, or mint, organo and za’atar (a summer savory-like herb)–with recipes that highlight innovative ways to use each spice, either on its own or in combination. This was not an easy sell. “People usually don’t say, ‘I feel like having cumin tonight,’” she laughed.

 Chef Ana Sortun in the kitchen at Oleana on a busy night.

Chef Ana Sortun in the kitchen at Oleana on a busy night.

We asked the chef why cumin and coriander are so often combined—and why she added cardamom to the mix. “Cumin is a warm, earthy, brown spice,“ she explained. “Coriander is bright with citrus notes. Cardamom is extremely fragrant and pepper-like. Each is wonderful, but when you blend them, they balance each other out.” You can follow this line of thought in recipes like Chickpea Crepes scented with cumin, Seared Salmon with Egyptian Garlic and Coriander Sauce, and Arabic Coffee Pot de Crème, a riff on the custom of pouring coffee over cardamom pods stuffed in the spout of the pot.

An embarrassing confession: Just as we were reading Spice, a bag of carrots well past their prime surfaced from the depths of the refrigerator. The very first recipe in the book is for Carrot Puree and Egyptian Spice Mix with Nuts and Olive Oil, so we pulled out the paring knife and started peeling. An hour later, an extraordinary transformation had occurred. The carrots were simmered till tender, coarsely mashed with olive oil, white wine vinegar and spoonfuls of harissa, a peppery Middle Eastern condiment, then seasoned with cumin and ginger. We served the puree with pieces of torn baguette, olive oil for dipping and dukkah, a complex Egyptian spice and nut blend, which includes coriander and cumin, as well as almonds, sesame seeds and coconut. The levels of flavor in this seemingly simple dish were astonishing: It was by turns sweet, tart, peppery, earthy, nutty. One of Oleana’s most popular prêt-a-manger dishes, for us it made a delicious light supper with a green salad and a glass of wine.

Some of Sortun’s combinations, like vanilla, saffron and ginger, are frankly surprising. “Again, it’s a matter of balance,” she said. “Saffron is a warm, earthy, brown, almost dirty spice. Vanilla is sweet and aromatic; ginger is spicy and peppery. In Moroccan cooking they often use combinations like this. They love that sweet-savory-spicy thing. Typically you find this in broths or in dishes like bisteeya. At Oleana we do a sweet potato bisteeya with saffon and ginger.”

The way Sortun uses spices owes much to her exploration of traditional Turkish cuisine, as well as that of countries like Greece, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. “What sets the eastern Mediterranean apart is the very light and subtle use of spice,” she explained. “It is very sophisticated because of the influence of the Ottoman Empire which was really decadent. The food can be very complicated, but it is not as heavily spiced as in Indian cooking. Ottoman chefs left their stamp on dishes like borek, kofte or ground meat kabobs, the bulgur-based kibbehs, raviolis with yoghurt and many other vegetable dishes. You see different variations running throughout the Mediterranean.”

One of the pleasures of Spice is reading about Sortun’s adventures as she travels around the Mediterranean in the company of great cooks. We meet people like Ayfer Unsal, a journalist and author of Turkish cookbooks, who organizes a stunning feast in the town of Gaziantep. All the women bring their specialties, such as kofte or kibbe, “some with lamb, others with potato and pumpkin, salads dressed with sweet-tart pomegranate molasses, fresh and intriguing vegetables spiked with the spice and herb combinations that are now staples” in her kitchen. She takes us to her favorite restaurants, such as Cupia in Athens where chefs char eggplant over a wood fire, then mix the creamy flesh with a garlicky mayonnaise and toasted pine nuts. Back home, Sortun crossed that dish with a Turkish preparation known as Sultan’s Delight to create her own version, Smoky Eggplant Puree with Pine Nuts and Urfa Pepper.

“Travel is far and away the biggest influence on me,” she told us. “When I went to Turkey for the first time I had genies and magic carpets in mind. When I got there it changed everything I ever thought about the country and food.” In fact, the Seattle-born chef seems to have spent much of her life exploring kitchens on the other side of the globe. After working in restaurants from age 14, she attended La Varenne in Paris. cooked in Italy, Spain and the south of France, then returned to Boston where she became chef at Casablanca in Harvard Square. During that time she took that first eye-opening trip to Turkey and since then, has returned two to three times year to the countries which have inspired her. “I’m a big believer in knowing the rules before you break them,” she said. “I have go back again and again before I can get creative.”

Some of the herb and spice mixtures in her cookbook will be unfamiliar to readers—Sortun gives recipes for Moroccan Ras Al Hanout, Egyptian Dukkah, and Jordanian Za’atar, among others—but to make it really easy, she has also created a signature spice collection that can be purchased with the cookbook through Oleana. There is one stack of five blends, and another of hard-to-find single spices such as Aleppo and urfa chilies, sumac and rigani, a fragrant Greek oregano grown on the slopes of Mount Olympus.

Now, you have no excuse for not making Crispy Chicken with Lemon and Za’atar or any of the other more than 100 recipes in this intriguing book.

Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean can be purchased on the web at www.ecookbooks.com. To buy the cookbook and spice stacks, contact Oleana, 134 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, MA 02139. Telephone: 617-661-0505. Web: www.oleanarestaurant.com.

To see Ana Sortun’s recipe for Carrot Puree and Egyptian Spice Mix with Nuts and Olive Oil, please go here.

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