Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Week Four: A Journey to Turkey

As I prepared for this week’s journey into Turkey, I considered what I already knew about the cuisine.  Interestingly, I endeavored to differentiate Turkish cuisine from what I considered general Middle Eastern cuisine.  I discovered that my struggle to make a distinction between the two was reasonable as Turkey actually influenced all Middle Eastern cuisine.  Its primary ascendance as a world cuisine stems from several basic tenets.  Turkey’s vast landmass opened it to neighboring countries’ influences, as well as a vast climatic and geographic variance.  During the time of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul hailed as a cosmopolitan city comprised of people from many backgrounds who brought their cultural customs into the mix of Turkish cuisine.  This convergence of cultures established the basis of today’s modern Turkish cuisine.

Turkish cuisine focuses on local, fresh ingredients combined to create simple, balanced cuisines.  Most dishes are not overly spiced.  Instead, they incorporate subtle spices and flavors to achieve a fine balance.  Most often, paprika is used to add any hint of spice to a dish.  The following list of ingredients comprises those commonly found in Turkish cuisine:  lamb, eggplant, tomatoes, spinach, peppers, onions, olives, grains, pistachios, walnuts, black pepper, garlic, mint, parsley, paprika, and olive oil.  Homemade food is prized, which may explain why this cuisine has endured over the years as generations of cooks have passed down family recipes.  Most meals begin with soup before the main course, and it is common practice to serve mezelar (appetizers) before dinner.

I determined that the nuances of Turkish cuisine would be best discovered by limiting this week’s menus to explicitly Turkish recipes.  I strived to honor the concept of simple, fresh ingredients as much as possible.  I opted for three menus this week. 

Monday Night Dinner Menu:  Batrik and Hunkar Begendi

After reviewing several recipes in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World, I chose this menu for a simple Monday night dinner.  I began with the Batrik, or Bulgur and Tomato Salad with Nuts.  The salad is a testament to the concept of simple, fresh ingredients creating an interesting result.  The bulgar is hydrated with tomato and lemon juices, so it takes on a fresh quality which lightens and brightens the flavors.  After the bulgar hydrates in the tomato and lemon juices, simply mix in pure chile powder, diced onion, shelled pistachios, and salt/pepper to taste. 

For the next dish, Hunkar Begendi, or Braised Lamb in Eggplant Puree, I departed from fresh and simple to a dish with deep, rich colors and flavors.  The name means “Sultan’s Delight,” and on Monday night, it was my delight.  This is delicious.  Because of the time required to braise the lamb, I’m not sure most people would want to prepare this on a weeknight, but the resulting dish is worth the wait.  It’s a simple concept actually. 
§  Braise boneless lamb (I used leg) chunks in onion, garlic, tomatoes, and water. 
§  Roast eggplant and peel it.  Place the pulp in lemon juice.
§  When the lamb is finished, make a béchamel sauce.  Squeeze the liquid from the eggplant and mash it.  Then, add it to the finished béchamel. 
The combination of the tangy lamb and tomato balanced by the creamy sweetness of the eggplant puree created a warm, homey meal that we enjoyed tremendously.

Saturday Afternoon Lunch Menu:  Carrot, Spinach, & Rice Stew and Chicken Salad with Turkish Tarator

Bittman writes about trying this Carrot, Spinach, & Rice Stew at a lunch counter in Istanbul.  The basis of the dish illustrates the idea of simple, fresh foods creating a surprisingly flavorful course.  Water, carrots, rice, fresh spinach, salt, pepper, and garlic make up the whole of the recipe.  No fats.  No proteins, not even stock.  I must say that the resulting soup is a light, refreshing dish full of flavor. 

The second course of my Turkish lunch is a bit of a stretch as far as authenticity goes.  I’m not sure that Chicken Salad can be considered Turkish cuisine; however the Turkish Tarator is absolutely authentic and the reasoning behind the slight departure.  Interestingly, Mark Bittman defines Turkish tarator as a mayonnaise substitute, but after further research, I’m not so sure that is completely accurate.  Most of the references I found to Turkish tarator sited it as a dipping sauce for fried fish.  In Bittman’s defense, I agree that it makes a great binder, and that was the brilliant part of using it in chicken salad.  The sauce is simple:  bread soaked in milk, walnuts, garlic, paprika, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.  I pureed it in the food processor and immediately grabbed a spoon to taste it.  Delicious!  I mixed it with shredded chicken.  Then, I slathered the sauce on the inside of a fresh pita and stuffed the pita with fresh cucumber slices and the simple chicken salad.  All in all, it was an interesting take on a classic Southern dish my husband and I adore.

Sunday Night Pide Party:  Muhammara, a Taste of Yeni Raki, Assorted Pides, and Homemade Turkish Delight
When I told my friend Sweet Pea that I was planning a week of Turkish cuisine, she immediately stated that I MUST make pides.  During her travels in Turkey, pide was a favorite street food for lunch or just a snack.  I decided to take her challenge to heart, and I invited her to a Sunday night pide party.  I thought it would give me a chance to make one of her favorite Turkish dishes, and she could actually provide me with feedback about how closely I came to creating authentic dishes.

We began the evening with a meze, Muhammara, aka Toasted Walnut, Roasted Red Pepper, and Cumin Dip.  In The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl, the editorial before the recipe states, “We think this Turkish spread is so delicious it deserves to be better known.”  That’s all I needed to convince me to try it!  They are right about this, too.  It was so good that I couldn’t keep myself out of it while I was working on making the rest of the night’s dinner.  The ingredients include garlic, salt, roasted red peppers, bread crumbs, walnuts, fresh lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.  We noshed on it with fresh pita bread, pita chips sprinkled with Za’atar seasoning, and thin slices of sujuk, which is spicy, Turkish beef salami. 

As is customary, I served Raki with our meze.  I read that it is the national drink of Turkey.  As it turns out, it is actually the basis for the more familiar Greek ouzo.  It is unsweetened, anise-flavored liquor that may be consumed as is, with a splash of water, or alongside a glass of water.  Even more interesting, this clear liquid becomes cloudy when mixed with water.  I must say that I did not like this drink at all…now, I also gag if I accidentally eat a black jelly bean, so I knew it probably would not suit my taste.  That’s the fun of this project though.  Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I don’t.  The important factor here is that now I know!

Pide is basically Turkish pizza.  The dough includes the same ingredients as regular pizza dough.  It is shaped like a canoe, and the key difference in pide and pizza lies in the flavors of the toppings.  Another type of Turkish pizza is lahmacun.  The only key difference that I found in lahmacun and pide is the shape of the pie as lahmacun is round.  I did also read that Lahmacun is generally not cooked to a crisp like pide, and sometimes lahmacun is rolled up similar to New York style pizza. 

Before I detail the various toppings I created for our pides, I will note that I simply made one recipe of regular pizza dough using my food processor like I always do.  I divided the dough into four balls.  Each pide was made from one ball of dough.  Later when I discuss the lahmacun, I divided one of my four dough balls into three small ones to roll out for individual sized lahmacun.  I baked the pides in a 475 º F oven on a pizza stone for about 15 minutes.

Peter Sommer Travels is a Turkish travel website with an entire webpage dedicated to pide.  I used three of the recipes on this site to make my toppings:  Lamb Pide, Sujuk Pide, and Cheesy Pide (peynirli).

First, we tried the Sujuk Pide.  As I only needed enough topping for one pide, I opted for the following balance of ingredients:  6 slices Sujuk, 6 slices of Roma Tomato (I didn’t peel it like the recipe states), 1½ ounces shredded Turkish Kasar cheese, and 2 long slices of cubanelle pepper.  The standout in this pide is definitely the Sujuk.  It was interesting how much its flavor changed when baked in the oven.  Basically, this pide is fancy pepperoni pizza at its finest.

Second, we tried the Lamb Pide.  The fact that the lamb cooks in red wine for over an hour intrigued me.  I expected a rich, deep flavorful topping, and I was not disappointed.  Sweet Pea immediately announced that this tasted like Turkey.  (Yes!  I did it!)  Here’s the breakdown of my ingredients for this single pide: ¾ cup diced white onion, ¼ lb of ground lamb, 1/3 cup red wine, ¾ tsp minced garlic, ¾ tsp cumin, and ¾ tsp paprika.

Third, we tried the Cheesy Pide.  The webpage with these recipes included mozzarella cheese, but I had seen other recipes calling for Turkish Kasar cheese.  It felt like the more authentic ingredient. I wasn’t sure if I could even find it, but thankfully, Daily Bread Marketplace was well stocked on this and many other unique ingredients I needed for this week’s menus (sujuk, pomegranate molasses, rose water).  For this individual pide, I used the following ingredients:  ½ cup diced white onion, ¼ cup chopped Roma tomato, ½ tsp minced garlic, 1½ oz Kasar cheese, 1½ oz crumbled feta cheese, and 8 Kalamata olives halved.  The most exciting part of this pide was the strong pungent flavor of the Kasar cheese melted into the fresh flavors of tomato, onion, and garlic.  The brininess of the black olives and the saltiness of the feta cheese provided a perfect balance to the pie.  As much as I am surprised to admit it (because I just knew one of the lamb toppings would be my favorite), I liked this version the best. 

Lahmacun served as the final flatbread of the evening.  I used Mark Bittman’s recipe from The Best Recipes in the World for this topping.  What inspired me to try this lamb topping was its use of fresh ingredients.  As I read the recipe, I could taste my idea of Turkey.  For my three individual Lahmacun, I used these ingredients:  ½ cup diced white onion, ½ tsp minced garlic, ¼ lb ground lamb, 1½ tsp paprika, salt/pepper, 1 tbsp pine nuts, ¼ cup chopped Roma tomato, 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, 2 tbsp chopped fresh mint, and ¾ tsp fresh lemon juice.  Bittman notes that it is traditional to serve an egg on top.  Out of our group of three, I am the only one who opted to add the egg, and I am confident that I made the best choice.  Sweet Pea noted that this one tasted even more like Turkey than the other lamb, and I must agree that it tasted like my “idea’ of Turkey.  The flavors melded perfectly, and my runny egg on top made it even better!

Last, but certainly not least, I served homemade Turkish Delight as an after-dinner sweet.  For this recipe, I opted to go straight to the experts.  I find that candy recipes online and even those in general cookbooks never include enough details for the actual science of candy-making.  I have learned to approach candy-making as chemistry lab, not a cooking class.  Preciseness is the key to being successful with such ventures.

I followed a recipe from Peter Greweling’s Chocolates and Confections in the At Home with The Culinary Institute of America cookbook series.  I made a version with rose water flavoring and pistachio inclusion.  Honestly, the hardest part of the process was whisking the candy for forty minutes while I waited for it to become clear.  (Whisking something with the consistency of melted taffy for over forty minutes can make one delusional.  I found myself thinking about an old college professor who defined dénouement as a cigarette after sex.  I decided to redefine it as the way I would feel when I didn’t have to whisk that damn candy anymore.)  Fortunately, the end product was a success.  It set up properly.  I didn’t use too much rosewater.  It looked pretty!

All in all, I had a long week in Turkey, and I enjoyed it all.  Even better, I have leftover Kasar cheese and sujuk in the refrigerator to snack on.  Now, what in the world am I going to do with that bottle of Raki?

1 comment:

  1. I think the Lamb Pide sounds the BEST ! When are you bringing some to work ?? =P