A Q&A with Oldways favorite 'Spice Girl'
Ana Sortun is one of Oldways dearest friends and she is one busy woman. An award winning chef, cookbook author, owner of Oleana Restaurant and Sofra Bakery & Café, she recently introduced her own line of chef-inspired meal ingredients. Her passion for cooking and deep love of spices have taken her on travels around the world and, in some cases, Oldways is even lucky enough to have had Ana join us on our Culinarias.
In May, Ana worked with Oldways on an educational webinar. The webinar took attendees on a journey starting with the role of spices in history, leading to research that speaks to their amazing health benefits, and finally to the importance of using spices in cooking and the unique flavors they bring to traditional diets and cuisines around the world. And since May was National Mediterranean Diet Month, we focused mainly on the flavors in Mediterranean Cuisine. After the webinar we were so inspired by what Ana shared, we thought it was a great time to ask her to do a little Q & A so we could introduce others to our favorite "Spice Girl!"
OLDWAYS: For those who are not familiar with you or your restaurant can you describe your cooking?
ANA: Our inspirations come mostly from the Eastern Mediterranean. I am specifically partial to the cuisines of Turkey and their use of spice in a Mediterranean way. Spices are both flavorful and healthful and give dishes depth and richness without making them heavy. We love to create blends of spices and pair spices with lots of different vegetable preparations as well as meats or fish.
Our menu is heavy on meze, or small plates, so there is an opportunity to taste and to share many things.
OLDWAYS: With a cookbook named Spice, it's no surprise that herbs and spices are an important part of your cooking. Can you offer one or two suggestions for readers on ways to up their spice ante?
ANA: Spices play an important role in the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean and the cuisines of North Africa. One way to introduce spices to your everyday cooking is to choose one or two to start with (as well as a favorite blend that you've tried before). If you start with an earthy spice like cumin and combine it with a sweet spice like cinnamon, you arrive at a balanced and "new" flavor. Use that combination in a bean or beef dish..whether it's stewed like a chile or used as a dry rub for the grill.
OLDWAYS: In your book you talk about your culinary journeys - particularly your education in France and a life-changing trip to Turkey - that ultimately led you to where you are today. Can you talk to us about how culinary travel has influenced you?
ANA: I love to learn the rules before I break them. I learn by seeing, tasting, and talking to people about food. Most of my inspiration comes from travel and from the people that I've met along the way. If I am going to be creative and interpret a moussaka dish, I need to see as many moussaka dishes as possible before I make "my own" version. And of course I go to the heartland of moussaka to learn it!
OLDWAYS: Like many mothers, you have a lot to balance between family and business. And, being a chef, clearly food is a big part of your life. What are the most important food lessons parents can pass along to their children? Any advice for parents trying to introduce their children to new foods? What are a few of your daughter Siena's favorite things to eat?
ANA: Being prepared and having some food prep on hand is the key to eating better all week. I usually spend an hour or two on the weekend cooking and prepping some things to have on hand for the week. Kids love to eat and try new things. I find that parents expect them not to like things in some cases. Usually, if there isn’t a big deal made of it, Siena will try anything. AND it's always guaranteed that if she participates in making it, she will love it the most. Her favorite foods are tacos, edamame, sushi, and bean soups .
OLDWAYS: Tell us about your latest project.
ANA: Chef Sets is a great tool for eating healthy and cooking quickly. They are available locally, in the Boston area, at Whole foods in all Cambridge locations as well as our bakery Sofra and our farm stand, Siena Farms. What's inside each chef set box is very personal to me. The ingredients offer a way of cooking and eating that I believe in and some flavors that represent what we cook at the restaurant every day. The sets can turn three fresh ingredients into a dish that is balanced, deeply flavorful, satisfying, and nutritious. Each one takes about 20 minutes to make.
OLDWAYS: We know you must have some great tricks of the trade that made you think," Oh my gosh, how did I ever live without knowing this?" (Tricks such as heating a lemon for 20 seconds in the microwave to extract more juice.) Would you mind sharing one or two of your favorite tricks with our readers?
ANA: I love working with a blender. It creates the smoothest puree because the blades pull in (instead of push out like a food processor). I also believe that being organized and thinking of the meals the following day is key to eating healthier and TASTIER! I don’t know how I ever lived without the spice za'atar. It's my favorite. I use it on everything from warm olives to cheese, salads, and chicken. I can eat it by the spoonful.