Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, By Ana Sortun, Regan Books/HarperCollins, 400 pp., $34.95
I don't know about you, but sometimes I am troubled by the inequities of the spice rack. I'm always running out of oregano, while the fenugreek has sat untouched for longer than I care to admit. So when Ana Sortun, chef of Cambridge's Oleana, comes out with a book organized by spice families, explaining what you can do with each one, it seems like the answer to a minor kitchen prayer. ''Spice" groupings are thought-provoking: cumin, coriander, and cardamom; sumac, citrus, and fennel seed. It's refreshing to see a book organized by marriages of flavor, especially one done with such confidence and flair.
But the real question for restaurant chefs is this: Can they translate their idiom to the home kitchen? For too many, the answer is: not really. Some lean heavily on prep cooks and dishwashers, forgetting that in most homes the cook is the prep cook and dishwasher (the server, too). Others forget that most home cooks have just one oven, and probably no terrine molds. And very few recognize the time constraints most of us work under, given that their kitchens typically get about a four-hour run-up on dinner, while we count ourselves lucky to get just one (even understanding that we have far fewer people to serve). And don't get me started on hard-to-find ingredients.
''Spice" suffers mildly from these afflictions, as a trial of four of its simpler recipes attests.
Carrot salad is a staple of the Middle Eastern table, but a few missteps can leave it soggy and oversweet. Sortun's Jerusalem-style carrot salad with goat cheese crottin, however, is bright with acid and herbs -- lemon juice, vinegar, parsley, mint, and dill -- and a generous handful of toasted pine nuts keeps the texture varied. The sharp and funky contrast of fried goat cheese comes just short of overwhelming the carrots.
Halibut cooked in milk with cinnamon, fried almonds, and spinach sounds fascinatingly odd and original. Have milk, orange juice, cinnamon, garlic, and fish ever kept company before? As it turns out, the combination makes a pleasing sort of sense in the mouth, but also a major mess in the kitchen (fry the almonds! clean the greens! blanch the greens! simmer the sauce! blend the sauce! simmer again!) that, in the end, didn't seem worth it.
More adventurous is spicy fideos with chickpeas, vanilla, and saffron, with its spice base of ancho chilies, cocoa, and tomatoes. Fideos are merely fine angel-hair noodles, crushed and toasted; they thicken the chickpea and chard broth for a hearty one-dish meal. The yield -- a dish to serve 10 -- is an understatement. Halving the recipe and using my biggest skillet, I could scarcely accommodate the finished dish. Sortun finishes the fideos with lemon aioli, which you have to run around making (after cleaning the Cuisinart again) for just a few tablespoons of hard-to-detect flavor.
An unqualified success is Persian fried chicken. Yogurt marinade ensured a moist, flavorful interior (in much the same way as a buttermilk marinade). Using boned and skinned chicken thighs meant less oil to fry them. The herbed flour batter helped raise the flavor profile, too. This time, ''serves 4" was overly optimistic.
Sortun's combinations are compelling and elegant enough to make the price of innovation -- a splattered, oily, floury workspace covered with discarded pans, measuring cups, gadgets, and peelings -- seem pretty reasonable. Having to mail order some ingredients (chickpea flour, sumac, za'atar) isn't a problem with the Internet. Ultimately, specialty markets will catch up with demand. My copy of ''Spice" is likely to be used mainly for reading, inspiration, ideas, and special occasions. But when my son gets old enough to do the washing up -- well, the sky's the limit!