Okay, poultry week is officially over. It’s time to move on to more serious business.
Last Wednesday, I went to a cookbook signing and demonstration by Ana Sortun (James Beard Award-winning chef of Oleana in Cambridge) at the CSCA. Her book, Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, is a fascinating introduction to the herbs, spices, and cooking techniques of Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors.
What’s unusual about this cookbook is that the recipes are arranged by spice rather than by course. She introduces you to three spices in the same general flavor family, like Aleppo, Urfa, and paprika (all chiles), and provides recipes that use those spices. That way, if you’re fresh out of Aleppo and have to buy a whole container just for a couple of teaspoons, you don’t have to look far to use up the rest. Assuming you like it. And you will.
Many of the spices covered are fairly common (cumin, oregano, nutmeg), but the way in which she uses them is not. Fried haloumi cheese with pear and spiced dates; roasted beets with toasted orange aioli and pine nuts; squash kibbeh with brown butter and spiced feta. I have one word. Yum.
Other spices she showcases are still shrouded in a bit of mystery in this part of the world. Take her recipe for chicken lamejun with roasted peaches, pistachio, and sumac. If you’re starting to feel itchy all over, it’s not the same sumac. This one is made from the berries of one of the non-poisonous varieties. It’s subtle and lemony, without the pesky rash.
She brought in samples of sumac to taste, as well as za’atar (a wild herb that reminded me of marjoram) and fenugreek leaves (maple syrup in a surprising leaf form). Sortun predicts that za’atar will be the next big thing in spice, with traces of it showing up on plates by Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. There have also been murmurs that Frito-Lay is hard at work on their next ad campaign for Doritos with a Hint of Za’atar (how can we make this Arabic word seem less threatening? I know, it rhymes with guitar!).
To stock your spice cabinet, Sortun recommends Sevan Bakery in Watertown and Christina’s Spice Shop in Cambridge. I would also add the Syrian Grocery in the South End. But outside the city, you can’t beat mail order: www.kalustyans.com.
So, here’s what you’ve been waiting for: a sneak peek. This recipe for whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers is tried and true (she gave it to me years ago for another story and, since then, I’ve made it approximately 453 times). It features in the cookbook, except smoked paprika has been substituted for smoked black pepper because it’s easier to find. I’m keeping the original, though, because I couldn’t make it any other way.
Whipped Feta with Sweet and Hot Peppers
3 red bell peppers, roasted*, peeled and seeded
2 cups French sheep’s milk feta
1 tsp. Aleppo chiles
½ cup olive oil
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. Urfa chiles
½ tsp. smoked black pepper
In a food processor, puree the roasted peppers and add the rest of the ingredients until it’s smooth and creamy. Pour into a bowl and chill for at least a half hour. Sprinkle with more Aleppo and Urfa chiles. Serve with cucumber or pita.
*To roast the red peppers, preheat the oven to 400˚F. On baking pan, roast the peppers for about 8 minutes or until they collapse. Put them in a bowl covered with plastic and let steam for 5 minutes. Peel off the skin. You can also cook the peppers over the flame of your gas burner. Char on each side, about 3-4 minutes. Let steam in bowl for 5 minutes and then peel. Alternatively, you can set fire to them in your backyard. When the flames subside, they’re done.)
Source: Ana Sortun (except for the backyard bonfire part. That was me). Used with permission.