Friday, September 22, 2006

A Twist on Eastern Mediterranean Food

I am so taken with Ana Sortun’s new cookbook, Spice. In some ways, I feel like this book was written just for me. The culinary focus is on the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily Turkey, but also incorporates the flavors of the Middle East. These are some of my favorite food regions because of the emphasis on healthy fare like legumes, grains and vegetables, the plethora of mezze, or casual finger food, and the emphasis on spices to add flavor and depth to a dish. As is evident by the title, spice is everything to Sortun who divides the recipes in the book based on the spice or blend of spices central to their flavor. For example there are chapters on “cumin, coriander and cardamom” and “curry powder, turmeric and fenugreek” that each include appetizers, spice mixes, main courses and sweets. I enjoyed this system because it helped me to think about when and why different spices might be used together and to see the rhyme and reason behind the origin of certain dishes and styles of cooking.

I was excited to discover this book because even though Sortun just won the James Beard Award for Best New Chef Northeast in 2005, I have been hearing about her restaurant, Oleanna in Cambridge, MA, for years. Boston is a wonderful restaurant city where I was lucky to live for seven years during and post-college. It turns out that Sortun was chef at Casablanca, a well established Mediterranean restaurant in Cambridge before opening Oleanna on her own. The owner of Casablanca sent her to his native Turkey where Sortun discovered that there were ways of reaching the heights of gastronomic elegance other than what she had learned in her classical French training. The New York Times did a great three part profile on Sortun with more on her background and a few recipes from the book. After reading the first part, I went straight to buy it. I also had another motive for rushing to get the book. For my birthday at the end of October, Mike is taking me to Boston for a long weekend. We are anxious to spend time in our old hometown and eat at our favorite places. Now that I have sampled Sortun’s amazing lentil kofte and parsnip hummus, I have decided that fitting in a dinner at Oleanna is an absolute must!

Of all the recipes in Spice that I flagged to try, there was no doubt that I would make Sortun’s humble Lentil Kofte first. Kofte is a mixture of bulgar and ground meat, lentils, squash or potatoes, formed into shapes, sometimes stuffed, and then fried, baked or eaten raw. I have most often seen it referred to as “kibbeh,” its Arabic name. I love kibbeh. The first time I had it was at a Mediterranean restaurant in Puerto Rico of all places, and now I’m hooked, sampling the wildly different versions of this dish at restaurants every chance I get. Perhaps I should have tried Claudia Roden’s more traditional bulgar and ground lamb kibbeh from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food first, but Sortun’s innovative version, accompanied by fresh pomegranate salsa, won out. In a way, Spice makes an excellent companion to the Roden book. It is interesting to compare Sortun’s bright, stylish dishes with Roden’s equally delicious but historically-minded and well-researched recipes that are meant to educate about the cuisine while preserving its traditions.

I will definitely try Roden’s kibbeh recipe soon, but Sortun’s kofte were so delicious and so different from anything else I have ever had. Light, but satisfying, very nutritious yet full of hearty flavor, they are a vegetarian dish to please the stomach as well as the eye, decked out with the colorful salsa, sparkling with pomegranate jewels. One curious thing about this recipe is that Sortun would have you serve these “raw,” as opposed to baking or frying them to create a crisp crust and hot center. As she writes in the headnotes, kofte are served all three ways, but I found that lightly frying them in a skillet with a thin coating of butter and olive oil produced the most irresistible results. Baking was nice too, but you can’t beat the brown, crispy edges of pan frying.

Spread the lentil mixture out on a baking sheet so it can cool, then form it into patties.

Pan frying produced the most crisp, golden crust, with a light, soft center.

Mike picked the seeds out by hand, and I don't think he damaged a single one.

Sortun's Parsnip Hummus takes a moment of getting used to because your tongue will be expecting the familiar flavor of chickpeas. The word, “hummus” in fact, means “chickpea” in Arabic. Once you adjust, you will not be able to stop scooping up this dip with toasted pita bread. The boiled and pureed parsnips create a similar consistency to chickpeas, but this root vegetable has a sugar-sweet, earthy flavor that is a total departure from the norm. I love how Sortun is creative enough to take perhaps the most recognizable dish from this cuisine and tweak it to utilize a vegetable that is traditional in New England cooking. Served with the thick, cumin-scented tahini dressing, all the other elements of traditional hummus remain intact, yet the finished product is a total surprise. I have a feeling that cooking out of this book will be as much of a treat as actually eating at Sortun’s restaurant!

The parsnip hummus and tahini sauce kind of looks like mashed potatoes and gravy, but the taste is amazing.

Red Lentil Köfte
Adapted from Spice by Ana Sortun

After cooking the patties both ways, we preferred them pan fried. To bake, put them in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Sortun calls for finely ground bulgar which can be found at Not wanting to wait to receive my bulgar by mail, I ground dry, regular coarse bulgar in my spice grinder, and it worked very well.
Makes about 32 small patties

2 tblsp. butter
1 medium onion, minced
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 tblsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. paprika
pinch cayenne pepper
1 c. red lentils
4 c. hot water
1 c. finely ground bulgar
¼ c. extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
Additional butter and olive oil for frying

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, until softened. Add the tomato paste, paprika and cayenne and quickly stir to combine. Add the lentils, stirring to coat with the spices, then add the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer for 8 minutes. Add the bulgar and olive oil, stir and remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and the bulgar is softened.

Turn the lentil mixture out onto a rimmed baking sheet and spread it out to the edges. Let it rest until cool enough to handle. Take about 2 tablespoons of the mixture and form it into a little patty, roughly 1/2 inch thick, using your hands. Continue with the remaining lentil mixture. At this point, you can refrigerate the patties for 4-5 days or until ready to eat.

In a cast iron or nonstick skillet, heat a pat of butter and 1 tblspn. of olive oil together over medium heat. Add the patties to the skillet, making sure they are not touching. You will probably have to do this in batches, but they really are best straight from the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until the bottom side is browned. Flip and cook on the opposite for 2 minutes more, or until browned to your liking. Remove to a paper towel, then plate the kofte with the salsa and serve immediately.

Pomegranate Salsa
Adapted from Spice by Ana Sortun
Pomegranate molasses gives unique, tart flavor to the dressing, while the jewel-like seeds add an extra snap to the salsa. This tastes even better a day or two after you make it.

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 medium English cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and finely chopped
1 small green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
¼ c. parsley, chopped
seeds of 1 pomegranate
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ tblsp. lemon juice
1 tblsp. pomegranate molasses

In a large container, combine the onion, cucumber, bell pepper, tomatoes, parsley and pomegranate seeds. Season with salt and pepper. In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the olive oil, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses. Shake vigorously to emulsify. The salsa and the dressing may be stored in the refrigerator separately for up to 3 days. Just before serving, toss the salsa with the dressing.

These recipes made enough kofte and salsa for a few meals, and it just kept tasting better and better!


Joe said...

I used red lentils in a soup last night and it worked fairly well compared to the last couple of times we used them. I like how these are made into patties - looks good!

Ivonne said...

Beaufitul, Julie!

I heeded your previous recommendation for the book Mezes so I think I'm going to listen to you again regarding Sortun's book!

Anonymous said...

Turkish cuisine is something I've been very interested in lately, these recipes look great! Have you ever made "turkish delight" (aka Loukum)?


Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,
I don't know how I ended up surfing your blog, but I really liked it especially when I see Turkish food recipes. Your lentil kofte recipe surprised me. I'm from Turkey and we never fry or bake lentil koftes. As far as I know, lentils are either soaked in water or bolilded with bulgur, and that's the only cooking for lentil koftes. I never heard carrots in lentil kofte either. In stead, we add parsley and green onions and serve koftes with lettuce. You wrap koftes in lettuce or aragula. But, I must say I'll try frying them; I'm curious. Thanks for the idea.
You also refer to kibbeh (icli kofte) which is absolutely delicious; however, kibbeh and lentil kofte are completely two different kinds of meze. You never put ground meat in lentil kofte and lentils in kibbeh.

Julie said...

Ari--I have never made Turkish delights, but I'm not opposed to trying them some day.

Burcu--As I mentioned in my post, Ana Sortun says that kofte, in general, can be served raw, baked or fried; and in her original recipe, she does indeed call for these to be served raw. I personally preferred them fried, after trying them both ways. Sorry if I was not clear in my reference to the Lebanese dish, kibbeh. I was alluding to their similarities, but I agree with you that I have never seen lentil kofte that contains meat, or kibbeh that contains lentils. I'm glad you enjoyed reading my blog, and I would love it if you shared some of your Turkish recipes with me!

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,
I will definetely try frying lentil koftes the next time; though unusual, it sounds appealing.
You can find some of my ecipes at
under "traditional Turkish" category. Hope you like them.

J said...

hi julie, thanks so much for this - i recently bought ana sortun's spice and have flagged so many recipes i don't know where to start; now i do ;)

Julie said...

Wow! I'm adding this book to my Amazon wishlist -- it sounds amazing. And how wonderful that you will be getting a chance to eat at Oleanna which also sounds amazing.

Anonymous said...


i currently live in boston (allston/brighton area) and would absolutely LOVE to know where i can buy red lentils. i couldnt find it at super88 and forgot to ask someone at shaws. and that red lentil recipe sounds good! ill have to try it!


Julie said...

Thanks for reading the blog! I used to live on Quint Ave. in Allston, but have been away for a few years, so I'm not sure about the lentils. However, I found them in Florida in Whole Foods Market. I would try that or Bread & Circus. Also, Shaws does a really great job of stocking hard to find ingredients, so you might want to ask and see if they have it. Good luck!

Best Bars In Singapore said...

Wow, so chic. How much did it cost you?