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Spice tales to fill Arabian nights

Chef Ana Sortun is a Scheherazade of recipes. Her dishes explore a bazaar of bold flavors.

July 19, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Special to The Times

WE all have them, lurking in the forgotten recesses of our kitchens: old racks of even older spices. Unused herbs, overlooked seeds, bottles of colored dust, labels faded. But read Ana Sortun's debut cookbook, "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean," and those aromatic treasures will never again languish on your shelves.

It's a paean to Arabic gastronomy and the flavors that have long defined it: vibrant spices and herbs that can transform your cooking if you take them out of their tins and bottles and begin to understand them. And smell them. And taste them. And cook with them -- lots of them.

Sortun, the Seattle-raised chef and owner of Boston's acclaimed Oleana, applies classical French techniques -- she was trained at the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris -- to Arabic-Mediterranean dishes. At the restaurant, this means baking roulades of sole in fish fumet and the fennel-flavored liqueur raki, Turkey's version of ouzo.

But this is not fusion food, nor has Sortun forced any technique or tradition. Instead she has allowed the flavors of the regional food, and her tangible love of it, to determine her cooking -- and her cookbook. There's a spirit behind these recipes that has nothing to do with trends -- it's one that stretches back thousands of years, down through the spice routes and bazaars of Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. All the recipes in the book either have been or are now on the restaurant menu -- dishes that have been made -- and eaten -- again and again.

The chapters of her book are organized by spice, and once you get the idea, the organizational structure makes perfect sense: It's about exploration and flavor profiles.

Want an appetizer? Begin with a handful of Aleppo chiles or a bowl of sumac (a Turkish spice that has a tart, lemony flavor and is a gorgeous dark rust). Your muhammara, a classic eggplant sauce thickened with nuts and heavy with spices, will come alive as you discover the central flavors used to build it.

If there's any drawback to the book, it's the long lists of specialty ingredients: the herb blend za'tar, nigella seeds, pomegranate molasses, grano -- a whole durum wheat that's cooked like bulgur -- and buckets of Greek yogurt. But, like the cookbook itself, finding and using these ingredients is utterly worth the exploration. When you're done, you'll have a pantry that looks -- and smells -- like Istanbul's spice bazaar.

Storied dishes

THE recipes read like a cooking manual written by Scheherazade. Sortun directs you to toast spices, infuse creams and debone chicken while telling stories -- in prefaces and in asides -- of the women in Gaziantep from whom she learned how to cook Turkish food; how coriander grew in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; and how her husband, a farmer, proposed to her in a grove of blood orange trees.

One of Sortun's signature dishes at Oleana, spoon lamb, is so named because the braised meat becomes so tender that you can eat it with a spoon. The technique is classic, but Sortun reaches into her bag of spices, adding ground cumin (a lot of it: no delicate pinches or prim dustings in this book) before braising, and pomegranate molasses and lemon to finish. Instead of the mustiness of most lamb, it has a deep, almost caramelized flavor and a hint of the fruit from the pomegranate.

Or try the Arabic coffee pot de creme, another classic preparation with a Syrian twist. Bedouins traditionally pair coffee and cardamom: The farther out into the dessert they get, the more cardamom they put in their coffee. Sortun crushes espresso beans and whole green cardamom, then uses this heady mixture to steep the custard.

The custard is strained, but finely ground beans are put back in -- so that when the custards bake in their ramekins, the coffee grounds settle to the bottom the way they would in a good cup of Turkish coffee.

A handful of sumac

SORTUN'S other dishes run the gamut from mezes to kebabs. Beef kebabs are sirloin cubes marinated in olive oil and plenty of oregano before being grilled. But add an accompaniment of red onion pickled in a handful of sumac and a spoonful of garlicky parsley butter, and you have a dish that far exceeds the sum of its parts.

Cooking Sortun's recipes are as much fun as shopping for them: Her straightforward yet chatty instructions are clear and forthright.

For her starter of fried haloumi -- a dense, salty sheep's milk cheese from Cyprus -- she tells you how to cook with the unusual cheese, how to spice the dates with cumin, coriander and cardamom, and saute the pears -- and then, for an amazing last touch, how to flambe the entire pan with ouzo. It's an enormous pleasure to orchestrate. And to eat.

The list of dishes is as long as the night's stories. Swordfish wrapped in grape leaves with a nigella seed vinaigrette. Za'tar chicken stuffed with lemon confit. Corn cakes made with fresh corn and served with nasturtium butter -- Sortun has a whole chapter devoted to flowers as a flavoring principle.

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