By Elif Selvili
The phrases “Chinese food” and “Italian food” are likely to evoke instant palate recognition, complete with smells and tastes. However, when most people hear “Turkish food,” they don’t automatically know what to expect. Maybe that’s because there is no single ingredient or dish that fully defines the cuisine. Turkish cooking is best interpreted as going to the market, choosing what’s in season and preparing it in the simplest possible way. And as a cook who specializes in this wonderfully diverse cuisine, I am a little reluctant to admit it, but Turkish cooking takes no special skills—only a commitment of time and an appreciation for local, fresh produce.
When I put together this menu of Turkish summer recipes, I realized that, with the exception of the shrimp dish, all the recipes are vegan. The word vegan would probably have no meaning to a Turk; most of our summer recipes don’t include animal products—not because of intentional omission, substitution or restrictive diets, but simply because of common sense. Summer dishes are often served at room temperature, and might languish on a table for two or three hours, the typical length of a Turkish meal with friends. Keeping dishes vegan also makes them lighter and easier to digest on a hot summer day.
I picked two appetizers for this summer menu that can be prepared a day in advance—allowing the cook to relax on the day of the party. Yalanci dolma (fake dolma) is a summer staple and is cool and refreshing to the palate. It’s called a fake dolma because the real dolma includes ground meat, whereas this recipe uses rice, currants and pine nuts as a stuffing. Mercimek köftesi (red lentil patties) become tastier on the second day as the lentils and bulgur are infused with the herbs and spices to create a delicious combination that is light in calories but heavy in nutrition.
The shrimp dish is a specialty of the Aegean, where seafood is much more popular than meat. The sauce can be prepared in advance, allowing the flavors to intensify, and the pilav (cooked rice) recipe is one of the tastiest and the showiest ways to prepare rice. The eggplant for the pilav is traditionally fried, but I prefer to bake it in the oven to reduce the calories and the time spent in front of a hot, sizzling frying pan.
The idea of dessert without eggs, butter or milk might be hard to imagine, but here it is. A?ure is part of a fable that accounts for the unusual combination of nuts, fruits, grains and dried beans. As the story goes, upon finally spotting land, the survivors on Noah’s Ark threw all of their remaining provisions into a pot and made one last meal for the end of their journey. Traditionally, it includes various dried beans, such as navy and garbanzo, but I prefer to use dried fruits and nuts because finding a mushy dried bean in my dessert bowl is a little too disconcerting, even for me! Make it the day before to get all the flavors to blend and to check off another item on the to-do list.
The last word on this summer Turkish menu is that it’s ideal for people who shun recipes, hate running to the store for that one forgotten ingredient and don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen cooking while everyone else socializes on the patio. Substitute to your heart’s content, eyeball the measurements, have a sip of the cooking wine and don’t forget to brag that it’s not only good, but also good for you!
YALANCI DOLMA (GRAPE LEAVES STUFFED WITH PINE NUTS, CURRANTS AND RICE)
Serves 10 to 12
The name of this appetizer translates to fake dolma because it’s stuffed with rice instead of ground meat. Dolma means “filled” and can be used to describe any stuffed vegetable. Prepare up to a day in advance.
5 T. dried currants
3 T. olive oil
5 T. pine nuts
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 c. hot water
1 t. sugar
1 c. short grain rice
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ c. chopped flat leaf parsley
1 large jar of grape leaves
2 c. hot water
Juice of 1 large lemon
¼ c. olive oil
Soak the currants in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the pine nuts over low heat until golden. Add the onion and sauté until barely softened. Add the water and bring to a boil. Stir in the currants, sugar, rice, salt and pepper and cook over low heat until all of the water is absorbed. Add the parsley and set aside to cool to room temperature.
Carefully pull the grape leaves from the jar, then rinse and drain them in a colander. If any of the leaves still have their stems, trim them with scissors. Pick out the torn or irregular ones to use in lining the dish.
Line a large ovenproof dish with a layer of grape leaves (use the damaged or irregular leaves). On a nonstick work surface, arrange the grape leaves with the vein side up and the stem side closest to you. Place a tablespoon of filling near the stem side, then fold the left and right sides of the leaf over the filling. Gently roll the grape leaf away from you, taking care not to make it too tight. Place over the grape leaf lining in the dish, seam side down. When all of the filling is used, pour the hot water, lemon juice and olive oil over the dolmas. Cover the dolmas with the remaining leaves and place a heavy plate on top of the leaves. Bring just to a gentle boil over medium heat. Lower the heat and simmer until the dolmas are tender, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Arrange the dolmas on a serving platter and decorate with lemon slices.
MERCiMEK KÖFTESi (RED LENTIL BALLS)
Serves 10 to 12
Low fat, high fiber and vegan. Prepare up to a day in advance.
2 T. olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 T. tomato paste, plus water to measure 3 c. total
1½ c. red lentils
¾ c. bulgur (cracked wheat)
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 c. chopped parsley
1 T. mild dried red pepper (paprika, smoked paprika or a blend with paprika and red pepper)
1 T. ground cumin
2 T. dried mint
1 lemon, juiced
Salt, to taste
Lemon wedges, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or pot. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the tomato paste mixture, lentils and salt, and stir well to keep the lentils from sticking to each other. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Add the bulgur, then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the lentils are very soft. Mix in the green onions, and turn off the heat.
Add the parsley, spices and lemon juice. Taste and add more salt or spices to taste. Stir well and allow to cool, covered, to room temperature. Shape the mixture into patties or balls, garnish with lemon wedges and refrigerate for half an hour before serving.
EGE USULÜ FIRINDA KARiDES (AEGEAN-STYLE SHRIMP)
¼ c. olive oil
5 shallots (or 1 mild onion), chopped
4 green onions, sliced
5 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 28 oz. can of peeled whole tomatoes, sliced and drained, juice reserved
1 t. dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1 T. paprika
2 t. red pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 c. dry white wine
½ c. parsley, chopped
24 large shrimp, peeled and washed (about 1½ lb.)
¾ c. crumbled feta cheese
In a large, flat pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the shallots, green onions and garlic for a few minutes, until slightly softened. Add the tomatoes, two-thirds of the reserved juice, and all the dry spices and herbs, then simmer gently for about 10 minutes.
Heat the broiler. Add the wine and the parsley to the pan and simmer for about 5 more minutes, until the mixture is hot. Stir in the shrimp, top with the feta and place under the broiler for about 5 to 8 minutes, until the feta is slightly melted and browned. Take care not to overcook the shrimp. Serve immediately.
A?URE (NOAH'S PUDDING)
¾ c. wheat berries
1 T. uncooked rice
12 c. water
Grated zest of 1 orange
½ c. golden raisins
1 c. sugar
Pinch of salt
15 dried apricots, cut into slices
10 dried figs, cut into quarters
Garnish (in any combination):
Chopped blanched almonds or almond slivers
Cover the wheat berries and rice in water and soak overnight (this process can be sped up by using hot water). Drain and rinse.
Place the wheat berries and the rice in a large pot with the water. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot, leaving a little room for the steam to escape. Cook until the wheat berries are tender, about 60 to 75 minutes. Add the orange zest, raisins, sugar and salt. Mix well and cook another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in the apricots and figs, continue to stir occasionally and cook for another 15 minutes before turning off the heat.
Pour into a large decorative bowl or divide into individual dessert bowls and allow to cool before placing in the refrigerator overnight. Decorate with cinnamon, nuts, currants and pomegranate seeds. Nuts can be left out or doubled in quantity to suit individual tastes.
PATLICANLI PiLAV (RICE WITH EGGPLANTS)
This rice can be prepared ahead of time and served warm or at room temperature.
4 Japanese eggplants (long variety)
Salt for purging the eggplant
½ c. olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 T. butter or olive oil
3 bay leaves
4 c. water or chicken stock
1½ t. salt
2 c. basmati rice
Heat the oven to 400°.
Peel ½-inch strips of the eggplants lengthwise, giving them a striped look. Slice the eggplants lengthwise, about ¼-inch thick. Take care to make the slices the same thickness to ensure even cooking. Place the eggplant slices in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Allow to sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse well and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Brush the eggplant slices on both sides with olive oil and place in a heavy-duty baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake for 10 to 15 minutes on each side, until the eggplant slices are soft and golden brown. Line the bottom and sides of an ovenproof bowl with the eggplant strips in a pattern that radiates from the center—like a star or an asterisk—and set aside.
Place the butter or olive oil, bay leaves, water or chicken stock and salt in a medium-size heavy-duty pot and bring to a boil. Add the rice and wait until the liquid resumes boiling, then turn down the heat to the lowest setting. Cook until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is fully cooked—about 20 minutes.
Turn off the heat and let the pilav rest for about 10 minutes before transferring into the bowl lined with eggplant slices. Tamp down very gently to allow the rice to take the shape of the bowl. If any of the eggplant slices are longer than the sides of the bowl, fold the ends over the top of the rice. Cover with a kitchen towel to keep warm and allow the rice to rest for another 10 minutes.
Remove the towel, place a large serving platter on top of the bowl and invert the bowl to unmold the rice with the eggplant decorating the top. Serve warm or at room temperature.