Mideast Meets Midwest: Oleana’s Black Walnut Baklava
The work of anthropologists has been described as “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” The same could be said of the best chefs—like Ana Sortun, the James Beard Award–winning chef and author of Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, the cookbook that is the source of the Black Walnut Baklava recipe on the next page.
At Oleana and Sofra, her restaurant and bakery/café (both in Cambridge, Massachusetts), Sortun makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange through a playful and seductive mix of local and “exotic” ingredients and traditions inspired by Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.
Black walnut baklava is a case in point, though, paradoxically, it is the baklava (a dessert of Middle Eastern origin) that is more familiar to many of us than our own native black walnuts—a nut you may never have tasted despite the trees being so prolific in Michiana that, come fall, you can’t go two blocks without finding their telltale green orbs.
I asked Sortun how black walnuts ended up in Oleana’s baklava, a dish typically made with pistachios in Turkey (where Sortun studied cooking after formal training in Paris). She explained that Oleana’s pastry team, led by award-winning pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick, were inspired to make the baklava with the indigenous nuts as an American “twist on something that is very Middle Eastern.”
And they liked the nuts’ unique umami taste—that musty, almost meaty complexity that English walnuts just don’t have. (The recipe includes both types of nuts because the intensity of black walnuts can be overpowering on their own.) Using local foods is essential to Sortun’s approach to cooking. Fresh ingredients are central to all styles of Mediterranean cooking, but Sortun had learned about the importance of local ingredients long before her first visit to Turkey.
When she was 19, Sortun went to culinary school in Paris. She recalls that if the curriculum included a dish with green beans and green beans were not in season, the chef would tear up the recipe. It was nothing, Sortun notes, like in the United States, where “we’re making green beans and if the beans come from Chile, they come from Chile.”
Today, Sortun doesn’t just buy fresh vegetables and fruits, her family grows them: Sortun’s husband is a farmer, and the family runs an organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program in addition to the restaurant and café.
The farm gives Sortun “a greater appreciation for what it takes” to cook with local food as well as the opportunity to write her menu around the farm’s produce. With the exception of lemons and other items that they can’t grow in the Boston area, much of the food at Oleana and Sofra comes from the family’s farm. (The family grows their own black walnuts, though not enough to keep the restaurant in baklava.)
As Sortun sees it, local food is “a very intertwined and essential part of what we do, just as much as the Turkish and Middle Eastern influences.”
Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean
By Ana Sortun
©2006, William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Ana Sortun’s Spice is as beautifully unconventional as her food. Rather than organizing the cookbook in traditional chapters (appetizers, main courses, desserts, etc.), Sortun structures the book by spices and herbs. Her idea was to help people learn Eastern Mediterranean seasonings flavor by flavor. She explains: “Instead of going out and buying all 25 spices, you can start with two or three”—maybe saffron, ginger and vanilla or coriander and cardamom—“and have five or six or seven different things to do with those two or three spices.”
Sortun’s structure is accessible, but the recipes are sophisticated. (Think creamy parsnip hummus with parsley or black kale malfati in chestnut soup.) Fans of Jerusalem, the recent bestseller by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi that has achieved near cult status for its mash-up of flavors from the Middle East and beyond, will find Spice required—and inspiring—reading.