`Spice, Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean' by New England chef, Ana Sortum is, behind its façade of being a text on spices and herbs, is really a restaurant cookbook, but done in such an imaginative way that one immediately forgives this little subterfuge. All the recipes are from Ms. Sortum's current restaurant, Oleana or from her previous postings, before starting out on her own and almost immediately winning the James Beard award for best chef in the Northeast.
One thing which immediately impresses me about Ms. Sortum, even before reading any recipes, is that she gives ample acknowledgments to four of the leading writers on Mediterranean cuisine, Paula Wolfert, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Clifford Wright, and Claudia Roden. She has amply repaid all her gratitude to these sages by giving us a book whereby the casual foodie can really appreciate important tastes of the Eastern Mediterranean without wading through, for example, Clifford Wright's monumental study of Mediterranean cuisine.
A second thing which impresses me early in my reading is that the author, assisted by ghost writer Nicole Chaison, cites Internet sources for important ingredients directly in the text, rather than having you flip to the back of the book. A minor note worth pointing out is that this is the first cookbook in which I have seen our beloved [...] as a source for cited foodstuffs.
A last bit of ephemera to note is that this is an exceptionally well designed book. While there are few color photographs, the warm tans and browns of the fonts, paper, and sidebars, with the old-fashioned ornamentation is the kind of care I usually see from only from Alfred A. Knopf cookbooks. Congrats to Harper Collins for the great window dressing which makes reading the book just a bit more satisfying.
By far the most interesting thing which sets this book apart from all other restaurant books I have reviewed is that the recipe chapters are organized by collections of spices, grouping together in a chapter those spices which often appear together in Eastern Mediterranean cooking. While most of these spices and herbs are pretty familiar to those of us who routinely work the French, Italian, and Spanish cuisines, there are several which are never found in Western European cooking, or in Far Eastern cooking either. The most important of these are Sumac, Aleppo pepper, Urfa, Nigella seeds, Fenugreek, Za'atar, and Jasmine.
The twelve (12) groups of three, four, five, or six flavors are divided into six spice combinations and six `herbs and other flavors. The seven (7) spice combinations are:
Cumin, coriander, and cardamom
Saffron, Ginger, and Vanilla
Sumac, Ditrus, and Fennel Seed
Allspice, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg
Aleppo Chile, Urfa, and Paprika
Poppy seeds, Nigella seeds, and Sesame seeds
Curry Powder, Turmeric, and Fenugreek
The five (5) other flavor combinations are:
Dried Mint, Oregano, and Za'atar
Fresh Parsley, Mint, Dill, and Sweet Basil
Oregano, Summer Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme
Flowers: Nasturtium, Orange Blossom, Rose, Chamomile, Lavender, and Jasmine
Nuts, Yogurt, and Cheese
The grouping that may be most familiar to us is the third, the family of `cookie spices', allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg; however, the author does not limit herself to recipes familiar to us. Most of the recipes even in this chapter are savory rather than sweet. But even the sweet recipes are pure Eastern Mediterranean, such as baklava.
In addition to the featured spices, there are several other distinctly Eastern Mediterranean ingredients used, such as tamarind, pomegranate molasses, Grano, Yufka dough, Greek yogurt, and Basturma. Even when Ms. Sortum colors outside the lines a bit and gives us a western Mediterranean dish, the Moroccan Bisteeya, she calls for genuine ethnic makings, in this case, brik pastry (Oddly, Paula Wolfert says brik is a Tunisian and not a Moroccan dish) but the author assures us the dish can quite successfully be made with phyllo dough sheets.
Speaking of the Bisteeya recipe, this is the only case where the author (or her design and illustration team) has made a misstep. I only consider pictures in a cookbook really important when they are presented to illustrate a technique, and here, the pictures must agree perfectly with the text. Yet, where Ms Sortum calls for a pie plate in her text, the picture shows the procedure being done with a straight-sided cake pan and not a sloping sided pie dish. My biggest problem with this is that I suspect the author actually uses the cake pans when the dish is made at her restaurant.
Otherwise, the descriptions of the recipes are really superior. In fact, sometimes, as a reasonably knowledgeable amateur cook, I feel the procedures are actually just a bit too detailed, and detailed in the direction of using restaurant kitchen techniques. For example, cooked potatoes are `mashed' for potato dough in the food processor, where I believe the home cook would do just as well with their potato master or even better, and a potato ricer. To be sure, the processor is probably used because other ingredients are mixed in later, but I see no special need for the heavy-duty equipment here.
There are a few other little quirks here and there, such as the recipe for aioli that uses bland canola oil rather than the very Mediterranean olive oil (I will forgive Ms. Sortum here, because aioli is a Provincial preparation and the Larousse Gastronomique does NOT specify olive oil. The defining ingredient is the garlic. On the other side of the coin, the author gives us the great gift of lemon aioli, a very Mediterranean notion indeed!
The recipes are a great mix of main course dishes, sauces, condiments, side dishes, appetizers, and desserts. This is a great source for cooking, but its even greater pleasure starts off as a great foodie read, light, but very illuminating.
Very Highly recommended for all!