Spice tales to fill Arabian nights

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.

The recipes incorporate jasmine and chamomile the way they would any herb or flavoring. No gimmicks, no decorative art. And Sortun's recipes are as seamless as her food.

Sortun's cookbook isn't always simple -- the recipes can be long and complex, though they're surprisingly easy thanks to her fluid directions -- and you might have to explore your neighborhood and beyond to find some of the ingredients. Or go online: Sortun's book includes two pages of Internet sources for her ingredients. But you have time. Think of it as a thousand and one nights' worth of cooking.

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Spoon lamb

Total time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, plus 20 minutes chilling time for sauce.

Servings: 4

Note: From "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean," by Ana Sortun. Pomegranate molasses is available at Surfas in Culver City, and New India Sweets & Spices and Monsieur Marcel in Los Angeles.

2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

4 (10- to 14-ounce) lamb shoulder chops, 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick

2 cups dry red wine, divided

1 tablespoon ground cumin

4 cloves garlic, peeled, split and mashed (about 4 teaspoons)

1 large carrot, peeled and sliced crosswise 3/4 -inch thick on the bias

1 large white onion, peeled and quartered

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

4 tablespoons butter ( 1/2 stick), cut into four equal pieces (optional)

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Heat a medium-large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and two of the lamb chops. Cook them for about 4 minutes on each side or until they are golden brown.

3. Remove the chops and set them aside in a roasting pan big enough to hold all four chops. Remove the skillet from the heat and carefully pour off any fat that has rendered and add one-fourth cup of the wine to the browning pan. Scrape up the sugars stuck to the bottom of the pan and strain the liquid through a strainer over the meat. Wipe the pan, clean and repeat

the browning process with the remaining two chops and 1 tablespoon oil and another one-fourth cup wine.

4. Sprinkle the cumin over the lamb chops. Add the garlic, carrot, the remaining 1 1/2 cups wine, and the onion to the pan and top it off with enough water so that the liquid reaches halfway up the chops. Cover twice with baking foil and seal tightly, or cover it with a lid that fits tightly. Braise the chops in the oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until the meat begins to fall apart with the poke of a fork.

5. Remove the lamb chops from the pan and strain the braising juices into a bowl. Reserve the carrots for garnish.

6. Refrigerate the braising liquid until the fat rises to the surface and can be easily skimmed off and discarded (about 20 minutes). Skim and pour the juices in a saucepan. Boil the liquid over medium-high heat for about 20 minutes or until reduced by half.

7. Stir in the pomegranate molasses and butter, if using. Season with salt and pepper and add the lemon juice.

8. Look at the lamb closely and with your fingers remove any little chunks of excess fat from around the edges of the chops.

9. Reheat the lamb and carrots in the sauce by simmering them over low heat for about 10 minutes. Turn the lamb to coat it nicely with the sauce after 5 minutes and serve.

Each serving: 730 calories; 44 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 45 grams fat; 19 grams saturated fat; 200 mg. cholesterol; 109 mg. sodium.

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Wilton's corn cakes with nasturtium butter

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4 to 8

Note: From "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean," by Ana Sortun

2 cups fresh sweet corn (about 4 to 6 ears)

1 medium white onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped scallions (about 4)

1/4 cup light brown sugar

3 whole eggs

3/4 cup flour

1 tablespoon heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

1 stick plus 1 tablespoon salted butter, at room temperature, divided

2 cups nasturtium blossoms, washed, dried and finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1. Using a food processor fitted with a metal blade, puree the corn, onion and scallions for 2 to 3 minutes, until the mixture is finely chopped and starts to become creamy.

2. Place the pureed corn cake batter in a medium mixing bowl and whisk in the light brown sugar and eggs. Stir in the flour and finally the cream. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

3. In a medium mixing bowl, use a whisk to combine 1 stick of the butter with the nasturtium blossoms and basil and season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper. Whip this mixture for a few minutes with the whisk until the flowers are well incorporated and the butter is light and fluffy and stained with bits of flowers.

4. In a large nonstick skillet or heavy cast-iron pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter, until it starts to brown. Add one-fourth cup of the corn cake batter at a time to form 4 corn cakes or however many your pan can fit. Lower the heat to medium and cook the cakes on one side until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip the cakes with a spatula and cook the other side for another 4 minutes.

5. Remove the cakes from the heat and place a tablespoon of nasturtium butter on each to melt over the hot cakes.

6. Make 4 more cakes with the remaining batter, repeating the same process with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Serve them immediately, warm or hot.

Each of 8 servings: 278 calories; 5 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 121 mg. cholesterol; 181 mg. sodium.

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Arabic coffee pot de creme

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, plus 1 hour steeping time and several hours chilling time

Servings: 8

Note: From "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean," by Ana Sortun. You will need eight (4-ounce) espresso cups or ramekins.

1 cup espresso beans

2 tablespoons whole green

cardamom

2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cups whole milk

6 egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons brewed espresso, cooled

1 1/2 tablespoons very finely ground espresso

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1. Crush the espresso beans and cardamom by placing them together in a thick plastic bag and lightly pounding them or crushing them with something heavy (a rolling pin or wooden mallet works well). The espresso beans should have the texture of coarsely chopped nuts, and the cardamom pods should split open.

2. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream, milk and crushed espresso and cardamom to a boil. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Cover the mixture and let the coffee and cardamom steep in the cream for about 1 hour.

3. Heat the oven to 300 degrees.

4. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until thoroughly combined. Strain the cream (which is now infused with cardamom and coffee) through a fine sieve into the yolks, while whisking.

5. When combined, strain again through the fine sieve to remove any pieces of cooked or lumpy yolk. Stir in the brewed espresso and espresso grounds.

6. Fill eight espresso cups or ramekins with the mixture, pouring almost to the top, and place the cups in a large oven-proof baking dish. Pour lukewarm water into the baking dish until it reaches halfway up the sides of the cups or ramekins. Using a small spoon, skim any fine bubbles that form on the top of each custard. This will ensure a smooth and creamy top.

7. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake for 50 to 55 minutes. Carefully remove the foil, because escaping steam can burn fingers. Test for doneness by shaking the pan gently; the cremes should be set around the edges and not quite firm in the center. Remove the cremes immediately from the pan and set them onto a baking sheet or tray, allowing them to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

8. Refrigerate the cremes for several hours to chill and set. Top with whipped cream beaten to soft peaks and serve.

Each serving: 606 calories; 7 grams protein; 31 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 51 grams fat; 30 grams saturated fat; 384 mg. cholesterol; 83 mg. sodium.

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