31 May Spice: Flavors of the Mediterranean
by Ana Sortun
There is more to Mediterranean cuisine than the sunny flavors of Italian, Greek and Provençal cooking. Beyond basil and oregano, olives and olive oil, there is the heady scent of Arabic spices and culinary traditions of forgotten empires. In Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, James Beard Award-winning chef Ana Sortun offers readers and eaters a delicious guide to exploring this “other” Mediterranean cuisine.
A journey through Turkey inspired Sortun to open Oleana, her award-winning restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which specializes in preparing dishes heady with the Arabic flavors of North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Ottoman empire. This cuisine is both exotic and healthful, as it relies on the judicious use of spice blends and herbs, rather than fats and cream, to infuse dishes with richness and flavor. In Spice, Sortun opens up Oleana’s kitchen to share both sweet and savory recipes for many of her most popular dishes and invites home cooks to, as she puts it, discover spice.
Each recipe is beautifully introduced, often incorporating anecdotes from Sortun’s travels, discussing influences and sources of inspiration, as well as offering tips on ingredients, techniques and wine pairings. What is clearly evident is Sortun’s love for the foods of the eastern Mediterranean region, and her deep respect for its culinary traditions.
The recipes are arranged differently from those in most cookbooks. The book is divided into two sections: Spices, and Herbs and Other Key Mediterranean Flavors. Each section is further subdivided into chapters organized by spice or herb groupings, such as Three Seeds: Poppy, Nigella, and Sesame or Dried Herbs: Mint, Oregano, and Za’atar. Each grouping isn’t necessarily related, but the flavors within each complement one another and the spices or herbs can be used in a similar manner. While this makes for an interesting and highly informative read, specific recipes can be difficult to find.
The first recipe I tried was for Black Walnut Baklava, which is found in the section on Allspice, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg. The recipe calls for five ounces of black walnuts, which I’ve never seen before, and which Sortun admits are difficult to locate. She recommends them because they have a more floral taste than regular walnuts, and are similar to the special pistachios grown in Gaziantep, Turkey for exclusive use in baklava. She suggests ordering the walnuts online or else substituting pistachios; despite Sortun’s caveat that I would be cheating myself out of “the black walnut experience,” I did the latter. The baklava was still wonderful: sticky, buttery-rich, soaked in sweetly spiced syrup and brimming with nuts. (Now I wonder how much better it would have been with black walnuts.)
The baklava was one of the simpler recipes. Many of them, such as Seared Sea Scallops with Orange-Saffron Butter and Rice Cakes, Lamb Steaks with Turkish Spices and Moussaka or Salt-Cod Fritters with Red Wine and Sweet Peppers, are relatively more involved and require a long list of ingredients, some of which are not staples in the North American pantry. Although the resulting dishes are incredibly good, these complex recipes illustrate the matter at the heart of this beautiful cookbook: Making full use of this book and its intriguing recipes requires a significant commitment to exploring the cuisine of this part of the world.
For those genuinely interested in Arabic-influenced cuisine and willing to invest time and money in locating specific ingredients, this book is an absolute treasure. An extensive list of Resources at the back of the book will help you find what you need to do justice to the recipes. You can’t go wrong with Sortun as your guide; her wonderful recipes will open your senses to a whole new gastronomic experience. However, this book will likely appeal less to those with only a mild interest in this type of food; they may be happier saving their explorations of the Eastern Mediterranean for Sortun’s meals at Oleana.
Visually, Spice is a work of art. From the stunning photographs to the layout of the recipes, from the careful choice of typestyle and ink color to the use of parchment-like paper for the introduction and list of resources, this book is an aesthetic delight. Clearly a labor of love, this is a cookbook to be read and treasured, if not actually used to explore the wonders of the “other” Mediterranean cuisine.
Review by Tania Denesiuk
Tania Denesiuk is a cookbook reviewer for The Gilded Fork, and she writes, cooks and eats in Toronto, Canada. Her culinary adventures can be found at www.candiedquince.ca.