This attractive, lively book is written by an enthusiast. In 1997, Ana Sortun, then a chef of the Casablanca restaurant, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was sent by Sari Abul-Jubein, the establishment's owner, to Gaziantep, in southeastern Turkey, to expand her culinary horizons and pick up ideas for the restaurant. (A few decades ago, as a student, I frequented the Casablanca, but I have absolutely no memory of anything I consumed there except a series of blinding drinks. Abul-Jubein had obviously addressed this by the time Sortun showed up for work.) Now chef-owner of Oleana, near Boston's Inman Square, Sortun describes that trip to Gaziantep as "a revelation." In Turkey she discovered many-course meals with food enlivened by spices rather than by butter and cream.
Sortun's interest in her adopted cuisine is deep, and her book would be a welcome gift this holiday season for a cook ready to try new things. Spice is innovative in organization as well as content: Rather than grouping recipes by course (starters, soups, entrées, and so on), each chapter in Part One concentrates on a congenial trio of spices, used singly or in combination. The stars include cumin, coriander, and cardamom; vanilla, saffron, and ginger; curry powder, turmeric, and fenugreek. The less-familiar purply lemon-scented sumac is paired here with citrus zest and fennel seed and sprinkled over an endive and apple salad. Here too is that traditional wintry pair, allspice and cinnamon, which appear in a sumptuous persimmon pudding cake with maple sugar crème brûlée. One of the pleasures of this book is watching a creative cook rework a favorite cuisine with local products. Among the artful recipes is one for short ribs in which the braising liquid is tweaked with tamarind paste, and one for cranberry beans stewed with tomato and cinnamon, to be served with warm goat cheese or accompanied by rice and yogurt.
Part Two considers herbs like oregano, mint, basil, and summer savory. Next summer, I plan to try the corn cakes with nasturtium butter. More ambitious cooks might turn to a jewel-like recipe for rhubarb rose jam with quail, which won a "battle of the sexes" cooking contest in Boston, and calls for chopped lemon confit and dried rose petals.
The book is filled with evocative photographs by Susie Cushner and with Sortun's personal reflections on her many culinary friendships: Fewer pages of chat would have left room for more of her intriguing recipes.
SPICE: FLAVORS OF THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN
by Ana Sortun (ReganBooks; $34.95)