At the Turkish Table
Oxmoor House cookbook editor Shaun Chavis will be a frequent guest blogger for Cooking Light. Below, a bit about her recent trip to Turkey--plus, a whole-grain dish recipe for this month's 12 Healthy Habits Challenge.
I'm just back from a culinary trip to Turkey, and I'm obsessed with the cuisine (like the isot peppers Tim Cebula just posted about). The Oldways Preservation Trust, a Boston-based food issues think tank, organized the trip. Our guides included chef Ana Sortun, a James Beard-award winner whose restaurants, Oleana and Sofra Bakery and Cafe, serve dishes inspired by the cuisines of the Levant. In Turkey, we were joined by Ayfer Unsal, a cookbook author and food writer who's taught American chefs about her native cuisine, and helped authors like Paula Wolfert bring Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking to American kitchens.
We spent three days eating in Gaziantep, a city in Southeast Turkey known for pistachios and amazing baklava (and some awesome home cooking). A day trip to Maraş gave us a chance to taste and stock up on peppers with rich nuances of flavor, and to enjoy dondurma, the Turkish ice cream that's so thick it's served with fork and knife. Our trip ended in Istanbul, a city that tantalizes you with its culinary traditions and creative explorations, which you can taste in everything from street food to fine dining fare.
Our meals in Turkey were large—generally at least 16 different dishes each—yet not so heavy that anyone ever left the table feeling like a food coma was imminent. I think it was due, in part, to the ingredients. Lunch and dinner always started with a generous assortment of meze, little dishes where vegetables, olives, yogurt, cheeses, beans, lentils, and whole grains star. The meze are so interesting, you're too busy nibbling and mmm-ing to realize you're getting your five-to-nine a day in, easily.
Turkish food is also about a balance of flavors that assert themselves without overwhelming your tastebuds. Typical ingredients include dried spearmint; sumac, a ground berry that is a plum-red color and lemony-tart; pomegranate molasses; Maraş pepper; and red pepper paste. (I also fell in love with the combo of tahini—in Turkey, the sesame seeds are hulled and double-roasted first, so their taste is richer—and grape pekmez, grape molasses. Together? A sophisticated PB&J-like saucy spread that's good on bread, great on a lot more.)
Try some of these flavors in a whole grains salad I fell in love with: kisir. This recipe is a version that Ayfer Unsal gave Ana Sortun in 1996, which Sortun's tweaked over the years. Find pepper paste, maraş pepper, and pomegranate molasses in a local Middle Eastern market, or source them online (try Amazon and Tulumba.com). Serve kisir on its own, in crisp lettuce cups, or in a hollowed-out tomato.
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons pepper paste
2 cups fine uncooked bulgur
1 finely chopped onion
1 small head of lettuce, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped parsley
6 thinly sliced green onions
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon maraş pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried spearmint
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
Salt to taste
1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and add tomato paste and red pepper paste. Simmer for 3 minutes.
2. Place bulgur in a large mixing bowl and pour the hot tomato paste mixture over it. Stir to combine and let sit until completely cooled.
3. Stir in finely chopped onion and next 7 ingredients (through dried spearmint). Add the olive oil and pomegranate molasses, and season with salt to taste.
4. Serve room temperature or cold.