learning to cook turkish food

My husband Eric and I recently attended a cooking demonstration at Formaggio Kitchen, where the guest chef was Ana Sortum - the acclaimed chef and owner of the Middle Eastern-inspired restaurants Oleana, Sarma and Sofra Bakery.

I was so inspired by Ana Sortum's story. She was classically trained as a chef in Paris, and during her early career, was head chef at an Italian restaurant in Harvard Square. But the owner of the Italian restaurant - on a suggestion by a Turkish friend and loyal customer - sent Ana to Turkey to learn the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire. Having never cooked Turkish food before, she learned new techniques and flavors and now travels regularly to the Middle East for inspiration and (of course) purchases at the local food markets.

Today, she runs three of the most delicious Middle Eastern-inspired food establishments in the greater Boston area and I couldn't wait to get back from class to try some of her dishes myself. They seemed at once exotic and far-flung in flavor, yet approachable and easy enough to try in a home kitchen.

We learned from Ana that Turkish cuisine is largely a continuation of the food traditions of the Ottoman Empire. The center of Ottoman cuisine was Istanbul, the capital, where the imperial court and wealthy citizens attempted to refine different elements of regional cuisines from across the empire. As a result, Turkish dishes now represent a combination of techniques and flavors from Greek, Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisines.

Olive oil is the major oil used to cook ingredients. The first dish she showcased in the class was braised celery root with quince and lentils. Commonly in Ottoman kitchens, olive oil was used to cook vegetables. The vegetables would braise for a long time in the olive oil over heat, and then were served at room temperatures so the flavors were at their peak. The recipe here for braised celery root is a variation on what she showed us in class. Celery root is an odd ingredient, and a bit tricky to find, but with some digging at Whole Foods, I found a couple and the outcome was outstanding.

Second, we learned about a variety of different spices and ingredients that we don't commonly use in the United States. The first was capers. Capers are the edible flower buds of a plant, commonly consumed in the form of pickled capers. They are more common in Mediterranean and Central Asian cooking but they add so much brightness and pop to a dish. Chef Sortum also had a heavy hand with a spice called sumac. Sumac has a tart, lemony flavor and is a dried, ground red spice if you look for it in the store (typically available in specialty stores; harder to find in your common supermarket). It's great on the cannellini bean puree I describe here, or on hummus or as a blend in ground meat.

I hope you enjoy these recipes and give them a try in your own home. I was incredibly inspired by this new cuisine full of fresh, bold flavors that we don't encounter often in New England.