Lamb and Spices Take Center Stage at Boston’s Oleana

“About 16 years ago, I was invited to go to Turkey for the first time and study with a couple of women there,” said James Beard Award-winning chef Ana Sortun. “When I tasted and saw the food in Turkey, it changed the course for everything. It’s become a real passion and study of mine.”

The trip ultimately led to the opening of Oleana, a Top 25 restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., now in its 15th year, a clear indication of its long-standing success. “We cook Mediterranean food, but with a huge focus on Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Turkish.”

Known for its inventive cuisine, Oleana’s menu features dishes like octopus and potatoes bravas with smoked aioli and Turkish spices; Vermont quail kebob with Baharat spice, barberries, and pistachio; and duck with spring dug parsnips, walnut tabouleh, and smoked honey labne. But it seems Sortun is most excited right now about lamb. And spices.

On Spices

“They [spices] do a lot of things,” said Sortun. “First, they give things authenticity. They make them taste like where they come from, so, what makes something taste Turkish? What makes something taste Mexican? And, usually, it’s the way they’re blending and using the spices. They also produce cravings. So when you say, ‘I’m in the mood for Turkish food tonight,’ maybe you’re craving that mixture of dried mint, sumac, and Marash pepper. And they’re a perfect match for lamb.”

“Spices and lamb, to me, go naturally hand in hand. They really bring depth and richness to dishes without making them heavy,” she added.

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On Lamb

Oleana has been sourcing its American lamb from the same farmer, up in Vermont, for about 7 or 8 years. “For me, the farmer is really the hero,” she said. “What these lambs are fed and how they’re raised. We wanted lamb that tasted like the lamb in the Mediterranean does.”

The team at Oleana buys and uses the whole lamb, which is not only sustainable, but balances cost across the different cuts on the menu.

When it comes to selecting lamb cuts for the menu, Sortun said she loves the ones that “aren’t everybody’s favorite.” In chef speak, that means cuts besides the prime — in this case, lamb chops. She finds a lot of flavor in the shoulder and in the shanks. “Some of the braising cuts are really great,” she said.

Some of the lamb dishes on Oleana’s menu at the time of filming include a lamb and grape leaf tart with cumin, orange, orzo, and spicy feta; lamb shoulder with chickpea, fried artichokes, turmeric, and cilantro; and a moussaka (lamb and eggplant pie) with tahini, fava beans, and fried peas.

In the Kitchen

In this “Table 42” episode, brought to you by American Lamb, Sortun takes us into the kitchen to prepare three dishes.

Up first is her take on a Turkish ravioli, called Manti. The vehicle for the ravioli is called yufka, and is similar to pasta dough. It’s filled with braised shoulder of lamb, greens, sautéed onions, and a bit of spice mix called Baharat. The raviolis are pan-fried until crispy on both sides, and then served with garlicky yoghurt, and topped with a tomato brown butter, caramelized butter, and spices. “The key to this are [sic] the three spices together — sumac, Marash pepper, and dried spearmint.”

The second dish, a lamb and grape leaf “tart,” is essentially a grape leaf stuffed with ground lamb and spices like orange, cumin, and dried red chiles. “What binds the ground lamb mixture in the grape leaf tart, or pie, is orzo,” said Sortun. The dish is baked until it’s really crispy, and topped with a mixture of feta whipped with a roasted Hungarian hot wax pepper, and pickled fennel. The plate is finished with a bit of orange honey.

The third and final dish, called Sultan’s Delight, is a traditional Turkish dish. Eggplant is smoked and whipped with morning sauce and a bit of yoghurt, so it’s both smokey and creamy. Bits of skewered lamb are marinated in some Turkish spices and red pepper paste, and then grilled. For plating, lamb chunks are placed in the center of the creamy eggplant, and dark chocolatey chile goes on top, as well as fresh basil leaves, caramelized butter, and olive oil.