As I listened to Chef Ana Sortun at a recent Sofra cooking class, I was mesmerized. As she spoke about some of her favorite ingredients, it sounded less like a cooking class and more like a poetry reading.
Chef Ana says, leeks should be cooked “low and slow in extra virgin olive oil” and halloumi is a “brined cheese of sheep and goat’s milk that caramelizes when it is cooked and can be ﬂavored with dried spearmint, which has a warm, sweet taste.” Incorporating these and other high-quality ingredients into her dishes allows Chef Ana to present food that tastes like where it comes from.
The magic that happens in Chef Ana’s kitchen is echoed in the widespread acclaim that her restaurants Sofra, Oleana, and Sarma have received. In her new cookbook “Soframiz,” which translates to “our table” or “our hospitality,” Chef Ana and her co-author, pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick recreate the authentic ﬂavors of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, but present the dishes in a way that is relative to their experiences.
In celebration of the publication of “Soframiz,” we were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Chef Ana. Read our interview with her below to learn some of the secrets of her kitchen, what ingredients she splurges on, and discover a few recipes from the new cookbook!
Q&A with Chef Ana Sortun
Oldways: “Soframiz” is a collaboration between you and your longtime partner Maura Kilpatrick. How does that partnership come across in this new book?
Chef Ana Sortun: Maura and I have worked together for over 20 years. Maura has led our pastry team at all three establishments and oversees the training of the pastry team. Over the last 20 years we have grown and developed the businesses together, with a similar vision—broadening the experience of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine and bringing it into the mainstream. We both believe that spices separate this style of cuisine from the rest of the Mediterranean. Maura interprets Middle Eastern ﬂavors, making them lighter and less sweet and making them intriguing and approachable for the customer. Our relationship is deep-rooted and has made us challenge each other in very positive ways, like writing the book “Soframiz.”
OW: What was the most exciting or enjoyable part of putting together this new book? The most challenging?
AS: I really enjoyed the storytelling. We wanted to share our story and recipes from Sofra, like what brought us there to open it, what originally inspired us, what we’ve done to adapt and evolve into what it is today and most importantly, what we are cooking and baking there now.
The most challenging part was the nitty gritty editing and re-editing, testing and re-testing.
BONUS RECIPE! SYRIAN-STYLE LENTILS WITH CHARD
1½ cups brown or French green lentils (lentilles du Puy), picked through for stones
3 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1⁄2 cups sliced sweet onion, such as Ailsa Craig, Vidalia, or Walla Walla
1 tablespoon ﬁnely chopped garlic
10 chard leaves, stalks removed, sliced into thin ribbons (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons grape molasses or pomegranate molasses
¾ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves (about 1 bunch)
Freshly ground black pepper
In a saucepan, bring 6 cups water to a boil over high heat. Add the lentils, lower the heat, and simmer until just tender, about 20 minutes. Add 2 teaspoons of the salt and let the lentils stand oﬀ the heat for 5 minutes to absorb the salt. If the lentils cool down before they have time to absorb the salt, they will be salty on the outside and not seasoned throughout. Drain and spread them onto a baking sheet to cool.
Meanwhile, place a sauté pan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté on low heat until the onion starts to brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and chard leaves and cook until the chard wilts and is tender, about 3 minutes.
Combine the lentils in a large mixing bowl with the onion and chard mixture. Add the lemon juice, grape molasses, and remaining 6 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the cilantro and season with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper to taste.
Serve at room temperature or chilled. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
COOK’S NOTE Grape or pomegranate molasses is used in place of vinegar to bring bright acidity and tartness to this meze. Both molasses are made from sour fruit juice that is reduced with a little bit of salt to form a concentrated syrup that looks similar to aged balsamic vinegar. Combined with a little lemon juice and olive oil, it makes a delicious dressing.
OW: You have commented that good cooking starts with high quality ingredients. In my experience, some of the best quality ingredients like extra virgin olive oil may be more expensive than the alternatives. What are the must-have ingredients that you splurge on?
AS: I suppose costs for ingredients are all relative. You can buy a medium-priced olive oil like California Olive Ranch and it’s not going to break the bank for a lot of people … Good quality to me means—it’s a pure ingredient (there is nothing else in there that you cannot pronounce or wonder what the heck it’s doing in there), FRESH (not sitting around forever before you use it). Those are the two priorities. When you are buying ingredients in a regular grocery store, you have to look closely.
Priorities to me are: (1) local meats that have not been packed with brine or slime to preserve them. People often forget that frozen meat is often fresher than fresh; (2) very little from out of a can; (3) organic whenever possible, but not exclusively; (4) decent olive, grape seed oil, or real butter to cook with.
OW: The book notes that two of your favorite herbs are dried spearmint and oregano. Why do you enjoy cooking with these dried herbs in particular?
AS: I always use fresh herbs instead of dried in most cases. Herbs change their ﬂavor when they dry and sometimes can get too assertive. There are only a few herbs that I believe dry well and have a place on our spice shelf: za’atar, oregano, and mint.
Za’atar is a wild herb that grows in the mountains throughout the eastern Mediterranean. It’s very similar to the ﬂavor of summer savory but it’s related to thyme … Za’atar tastes and smells of its own species and is wonderful dried and you can eat it by the spoonful. Za’atar (the herb) is often blended with sesame seeds and sumac to make the blend, also called za’atar (confusing because it has a double meaning). Mint (spearmint) is a lovely warm and sweet ﬂavor that can be used like oregano in tomato sauces or soups … Dried oregano is a keeper, preferably wild oregano, known as rigani from the mountains of Greece.
OW: You introduced me to Maras pepper, which you describe as “brightly ﬂavored…with a bittersweet, slow, mild heat.” It’s clear that your readers and guests learn a lot from you. What’s something surprising you have learned about cooking from your guests?
AS: I learn something everyday. I’ve learned from guests that when you set out to cook something really special and delicious, it doesn’t have to be deep-fried, with tons of butter or tons of cream to satisfy or satiate. In my repertoire, the spices are responsible for the depth and the richness. Guests want to feel good after they eat but are also looking for ﬂavor above all.
BONUS RECIPE! GREEN APPLE FATTOUSH
SERVES 4 TO 6
2 1⁄2 cups pita cut into 1⁄2-inch squares (approximately two 6-inch pitas, preferably whole grain)
10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 head romaine lettuce, outer bruised leaves removed
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (see page 240)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh spearmint leaves
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh ﬂat-leaf parsley leaves
2 Persian cucumbers or 1⁄2 English cucumber, split in half, seeded and diced small (about 1 cup)
1 cup chopped green apple, core removed
6 radishes, sliced thin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sumac
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Place the pita squares in a large mixing bowl and coat them with 6 tablespoons of the olive oil, using your hands to almost knead the oil into them. The olive oil must saturate the pita so that they crisp in the oven instead of toast. Sprinkle with 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt and spread onto a baking sheet. Toast until they are crisp and golden, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Cut the core and the top one-third from the head of romaine and trim oﬀ any bruised or damaged leaves. Slice the romaine into thin ribbons. Transfer to a large salad bowl.
Make a dressing by whisking together the pomegranate molasses and lemon juice. Whisk in the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil slowly, to form an emulsion (it’s okay if it separates, but it will coat the salad leaves better if it emulsiﬁes). Add the mint, parsley, cucumber, apple, and radishes to the romaine and season with the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Toss well to coat everything with dressing.
Sprinkle the salad with sumac and serve immediately.
OW: In your cooking class, you spoke about some shortcuts that may compromise certain ﬂavors in a dish such as using canned beans instead of dried. What are some shortcuts that you use in your cooking?
AS: I use shortcuts at home and when I have to. I don’t necessarily enjoy taking shortcuts (unless I’m trying to get somewhere in a car, bike or by foot). Preparations are shortcuts to me … like blanching greens, chopping garlic, peeling a bunch of onions and carrots, etc.. I deﬁnitely buy some of the frozen phyllo and puﬀ pastry for home and I will buy Whole Foods chicken broth, too.
OW: The book describes how when Sofra ﬁrst opened, many guests were perplexed about some of your dishes with foreign names like Gozleme and Labne. Your response was to hire a Hospitality Manager to guide guests through the dining experience. Has your communications with guests evolved?
AS: We are constantly trying to get some more face time with customers at Sofra. The division of the counter makes it easier for us to stay behind it and interact less frequently with guests. Our managers are constantly trying to achieve more relations with customers to help them ﬁnd ingredients or learn about more spices, etc.
It’s something that was very successful in the beginning and we really want to bring that position back in a diﬀerent way. The stress for the customer has changed from not knowing what they want and what anything is to more speciﬁc questions and not being able to get it quick enough.
OW: What’s the next culinary destination on your bucket list?
AS: Israel and India
Emilia Petrucci, Oldways media intern and nutrition communications student at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
Photography credit: Kristin Teig