Insider Tips from a Spice Expert


Last night I attended an amazing cooking class at Sofra Bakery and Cafe taught by Executive Chef, Ana Sortun. Ana is a master at blending and layering spices (she literally wrote the book on it). She artfully incorporates spices in ways that you would never expect at her restaurant Oleana which happens to be my favorite restaurant. You taste one of her Middle Eastern/Mediterranean-inspired dishes and you sit there trying to figure out what you just tasted. Was it cumin? Cinnamon? I’m never sure how some of the flavor combinations work the way that they do …they just do. 

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Cassie Piuma for a Boston Magazine blog post I was doing, who at the time was Chef de Cuisine at Oleana. We discussed the bountiful health benefits of spices as well as creative ways to incorporate more into your diet. So, if you aren’t up to date on all of the health reasons you should use A LOT of spices, make sure to read this article or check out my latest newsletter devoted to the super-spice, turmeric. In some parts of the world, including Morocco, spices and herbs are used to treat pretty much everything. They are powerful. 

So, last night I felt like I got an insider’s look into the way in which Ana Sortun creates her magic and I gleaned some tips & tricks that I’m going to share with you! Get ready for some delicious inspiration!

1. Toss the Crushed Red Pepper Flakes and replace them with dried Aleppo chilies for superior flavor (hints of fruit and cumin with a slightly salty, vinegary taste) and moderate heat. Aleppo chili pepper comes from southern Turkey, near the Syrian town of Aleppo, which is considered one of the culinary meccas of the Mediterranean. 

2. Red Pepper paste is Where. It’s. At. Ana advises to use half red pepper paste and half tomato paste pretty much whenever a recipe calls for tomato paste. The two together provide “umami” (aka smooth, savoriness). When I went shopping today at Sevan’s Bakery in Watertown, MA (the best place to go for Middleastern/Armenian/International foods including spices), Ana’s recommendation was affirmed by the most adorable, older Armenian woman who told me exactly what she thought I ought to make with the bulgur and red pepper paste in my arms (THAT recipe coming soon!).

3. Allspice should ALWAYS be paired with another spice. It needs to be balanced otherwise, it is overpowering.

4. “Baharat” = spice or spice blend that can range from 5 spices to 15 spices. There are summer baharats and winter baharats; it all depends on whether you want to create a warming, hearty flavor or something lighter. Ana spoke of her favorite spice blender who infuses a bit of “magic” in each baharat. I love that 🙂

5. Substitute dried spearmint for oregano in tomato sauces: I’ve never done this nor would I have ever thought of it but can’t wait to try because I make and use lots of tomato sauce.

6. Only buy whole cumin seeds; avoid pre-ground cumin: Apparently, if you by pre-ground cumin, it is likely that there will be twigs, dirt, etc. ground in with that cumin. Crushing your own cumin using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle (that’s what I usually use), ensures that you are getting only cumin and thus, not diluting the flavor with twigs. Makes sense to me.

7. Start using Sumac. Ana spoke passionately about sumac. It is clear that this is a favorite spice of hers. It has a bright, lemony taste. In fact, there are those that will make “lemonade” using sumac when lemons are out of season. I couldn’t call upon the health benefits of sumac when she asked me (darnit! That was my moment to shine!) but like just about all spices, it is a potent antioxidant. It also has antifungal, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory properties to it. In the Middle East, sumac berry juice is used to treat an upset stomach and is a mild diuretic. I also have read that mixing a bit of sumac with water makes a nice produce cleaner due to its anti-microbial properties. It is particularly helpful at killing salmonella bacteria.

and last but not least, the big take-home point of the workshop:

8. Spice makes dishes taste rich without all of the butter, cream and sugar. That means easier digestion and more room for flavor!

If you are local to Boston and ever have the opportunity to do a cooking class with Ana or any of the talented chefs she works with, I highly recommend it. We had multiple courses with wine pairings and learned so much. They, understandably, always fill up but if you can get a spot in one…DO IT!

I would love to hear about the ways you incorporate spices into your diet. Do you have an traditional uses from spices that stem from your own heritage?

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  1. Rebecca @ Strength and Sunshine on February 25, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    I must try dried spearmint! I’ll make some in my dehydrator since I’ve never seen it to buy!

  2. Jessica @ Nutritioulicious on February 25, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    What an awesome experience to partake in a cooking class with a chef you love! So many great tidbits here. I love using spices in my cooking, and I use ground cumin often, so that tip is especially interesting to me. Guess it’s time to get a spice grinder!

  3. Lezlie on July 31, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    I can’t really stand all the chilis on my meal. A little chili and I would need a full glass of milk. But I’m trying so hard this days to eat chilis and spices because my boyfriend love spices and tons of chili on his plate. I have to cook meals on our date with different spices and learn different recipes right now. This post will help me a lot on our next date. Thank you for posting these, feels like I need to go to the grocery to find all these spices.

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