Welcome to Chef Faves, an Eater Boston series where local chefs share their current favorite dishes, ingredients and more. Here's Ana Sortun of Oleana, Sarma, and Sofra.
[Photo: Ana Sortun (center)/Katie Chudy]
What's your current favorite dish in Boston?
I have a place that I go to all the time, and it's in Sudbury. It's called Oishii Too, and it's from the brother of Oishii. He has a crispy rice salad on the menu that is hands down my favorite dish in all of the Boston area. You just can't beat it. It's amazing, and it's what specifically comes to mind as being a real show-stopper. I also adore the lobster roll at Neptune Oyster. You know, there are just certain things I crave. The chocolate and foie gras at O Ya is unforgettable; you can't find that experience anywhere, and I certainly can't eat that every day, but it's a truly remarkable dish.
One of my favorite places to eat, not for any particular dish — I love what John [daSilva] is doing at Spoke. I think in the space that he has, which is mind blowing what he can do in that space, but just what he is doing is some serious cooking with his heart and soul and I feel like it's sometimes off the radar but it's one of my favorite places to go. I just feel so comfortable there and he's really going to set off and do something incredible.
What's your current favorite ingredient to use?
Brown butter and spices. Those two lend a lot to a dish without making it too heavy. And then spices, of course. I mean, we would be completely handicapped without spices, and we just couldn't do what we do without them. I think one of my favorites, for single spices, is dried spearmint, which I think is underutilized. Most people think of it as tea to drink, but I think it has this warm, sweet flavor, and I think of it sort of like oregano. Like if you take your favorite tomato sauce and swap out the oregano for dried spearmint, it's a great way to introduce yourself to that flavor. It's pretty remarkable. Sumac is another favorite for its lemony and sort of raisin quality that it has. Also, the chilies that come from Turkey, like Urfa, just do so much, and you just need to add so little, so you get a big bang for your buck on those.
Where's your favorite place to go for food inspiration?
Turkey. There's a smaller town in Turkey that I really enjoy going to, Gaziantep. It's in East Turkey. And then Istanbul, which is the bigger city where you get to see a little bit of everything. I try to go at least once a year, and hands down that's where I get my inspiration. This past year I went twice.
What is one of your favorite food memories?
I think it would be when I was first invited to Turkey. I was invited to study with these two women; one was in this small town in southeast Turkey. When I arrived, it was my first visit to the country, and I knew nothing about it at all. I sort of had genies and flying carpets in mind. This woman who invited me is a food journalist, and she held this huge potluck and invited her friends to cook. They put on this huge welcome potluck for me in a park, and these women, who were amazing cooks, all brought something that was in their repertoire that they felt was significant and special to them, their home, and their families. You know, something very rich and practiced. Their favorite dish, in other words. It was this huge potluck, and I tasted close to 30 things. I had never tasted anything like this in my life, and it was all very new.
When I get really excited about food, I just get so excited that I can't really sit down and enjoy it. I'm more curious and enthusiastic, and that day was a big turning point for me. I really took away how rich in flavor that food was, but it wasn't heavy. I had gone through and tasted every one of them, and I still felt really great. I didn't feel over-satiated, just very inspired to try to learn something new. For cooking, it becomes much more of an act of balancing when you're using the spices. It's just so easy to add butter or cream or something very heavy to achieve flavor and make something taste good, but it's actually much more difficult to get flavor and create some sort of light feeling afterwards. It was a turning point for me, and it was one of the most unforgettable meals for me in my life, not just because I learned something but also because the food was just that memorable. When you think about it, these women really prepared something that they had practiced so much that it was truly remarkable.
What are your favorite dishes currently on the menu, and what are you most looking forward to doing in the near future?
At Oleana, I am in love with the quail dish. To me it represents who we are and what we do as far as taking something very familiar and throwing in a taste that is so Turkish and Middle Eastern yet still so easy to understand. It's not ethnic food at that point because it feels familiar, but some of the ingredients that we are using are a little unusual. It just has a taste to it that is very balanced, and I love that dish. I also love our warm buttered hummus wrapped with basturma. I love doing all different types of hummuses here because I find that usually people's minds are with the hummus that you buy in the grocery store, and there's this whole other world of it. I love introducing people to that and that whole perspective.
At Sarma, I can't get enough of the chickpea fritters that we do with spicy walnut. That blows my mind. It's vegan, and that blows my mind that it is, because it's not something that you think would be. You would think it's not good for you, but it is.
At Sofra, I know this sounds crazy, but there is nothing in town like Maura's chocolate chunk cookie. It's something that is so perfect every single time. After all these years of chocolate chunk cookies, it's still perfect, and I'm really proud of the baking that she does over there. And on the savory side, there are really great flatbreads that I just adore.
What is your favorite thing to cook at home in your (limited) spare time?
I do cook at home a lot for my family and for myself, and I always have things on hand that I can just grab and go in case I have meetings before I come here. I actually never did this, and maybe it's because of my daughter — because I want her to grow up not eating just chicken fingers. One of my favorite things to cook at home are tacos. To me, that's a great meal. You've got protein, and you can get tons of vegetables in there. You can do almost all vegetables with just enough meat to hold it all together. It's a brilliant, quick, and easy meal. We do a lot of veggies, and then we season it with meat, and then we add spices like cumin, cinnamon, oregano, and paprika. The cumin and cinnamon are a great combination, especially for kids.
I also love a yogurt broth that I make. That's what I make when I'm craving comfort. It's just like a chicken broth that is thickened with a yogurt liaison — just egg and yogurt — and then I use dried mint, sumac, and pepper on it, and it's like the Greek avgolemono. Sometimes I float these little pastas or rice in it so it's a nice base. I'm a big soup person, especially this time of year. And then in the summertime we just cook veggies. Lots of veggies from the farm. These are just the easy things that we make often, but then on the weekends I'll build a lot of steps that I take, like cooking a bunch of grains or sauteing some vegetables, so we can spoon them into a salad. There's a ton of little steps.
My daughter is like any other kid; if it were up to her she'd just eat sugar all day, but she loves sushi and loves going out to restaurants. Her favorite is also Oishii Too, and she eats pretty well. We usually don't make a big deal about things, like if she tries an oyster, we don't say, "I can't believe you like that!" We just ignore it, and she just joins in on things. She also helps to do the kids' menu here. Every time we want to change it, we talk to her and some other kids, and then they tell us what they'd like. Sometimes we have to change it just slightly, but they have sort of a collaborative effort going on, and they have gotten really into it. Now they've started telling me when it's time to change the menu. It's not your average mac & cheese and chicken fingers on the menu; it's real dishes.