One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Food for the Turkish Soul: Börek with Potatoes and Feta Cheese

Most Turkish home cooking is deceptively simple. The ingredients are common and cheap but the skilled hands of our mothers and grandmothers elevate them in such a way that the end product is greater than the sum of its parts. Within the vast and varied breadth of Turkish cooking, one of the most cherished dishes is börek. At its core a basic dough of flour and water encasing a savory filling made from the humble potato, spinach or ground beef, börek is fried or baked so that the edges of the dough crisp up and the filling becomes meltingly tender. My favorite part, though, is the sprinkle of nigella seeds on top. You can omit them if you'd like, but to me, their haunting flavor and slight crunch is as essential as the filling and the dough. Nigella seeds can be found at spice stores, Middle Eastern markets and even at some Whole Foods.

Making a good börek requires skill and is thought to be one of the hallmarks of a good cook. If assembled as individual rolls, it also takes time and effort. It is therefore said that if somebody has made you börek, they must care for you a great deal! I learned to make this dish from my aunt, a lady so kind, loving and generous that I'm sure she would make börek for me every day if I asked. I've modified the assembly method so that the dish bakes as a single pie rather than individual rolls. This cuts the prep time down to under an hour. 

The key to a proper Turkish börek is to have the appropriate dough. We use a thin, supple dough called yufka. In Turkey, most people buy it in supermarkets, or freshly-made from a tiny neighborhood yufka shop, where it will invariably be sold by a cheerful boy of sixteen with a light dusting of flour over his impeccably white outfit. Outside of Turkey, one can find yufka in middle Eastern stores. It is sometimes sold under its North African names: warka or feuilles de brik. You can make it yourself if you are skilled with a rolling pin, but the store-bought kind works fine when moistened with a little milk and oil. Phyllo is too dry and brittle to make a good substitute. If your yufka is in large sheets, you will need to cut it into triangles which are about eight inches (20 cm) tall. 

Börek is great when hot but also good at room temperature and therefore makes a great party and potluck dish. Another advantage to it is that it can be made up to a day ahead of time. Assemble it, then refrigerate, tightly covered with plastic wrap. Bake right before serving. 

Börek can have many different fillings. One of my favorite variations keeps the potatoes but replaces the feta cheese with some sauteed onions and ground beef. You can also do an all-potato version spiced up with a combination of any of the following Indian spices sauteed in a spoonful of oil for a few minutes: Whole cumin, mustard seeds, caraway, fennel seeds, nigella, chopped curry leaves. Serves  6-8.

8-10 triangles of yufka
4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered 
2-3 oz (50 g) full-fat feta cheese, roughly crumbled
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 egg
4 tbsp milk 
6 tbsp vegetable oil
1 egg yolk
Nigella seeds, for decoration (optional)

1. Boil the potatoes in heavily salted water until very tender, 15-20 minutes. Drain.

2. Return the pot to the stove over medium-low heat. Mash the potatoes in the pot, then mix in the feta and cayenne. Season aggressively with black pepper. Taste and add more salt if needed - you want the filling to be pretty salty. Take off the heat and set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 375F (180C). Butter a round pie plate or 10 inch ovenproof skillet. Beat the egg in a bowl, then whisk in the oil and milk. 

4. Arrange the yufka triangles in the skillet or pie plate as shown in the picture: Put one triangle so that its flat end sits in the middle and the pointed end hangs off the edge. You want at least three inches of overhang as this portion will be folded back over to cover the filling. Repeat with the remaining triangles, overlapping them slightly. Brush the bottom and the sides generously with the milk mixture.

5. Distribute the potatoes evenly over the dough and drizzle on a little of the milk mixture. 

6. Starting with the triangle that was put in last, brush the end of each yufka triangle with the milk mixture (this makes it more supple and easier to work with) and fold it over the filling, pressing so that it lies flat. If any part of the yufka seems close to breaking or doesn't want to lie flat, you can brush with more milk and pinch the stubborn bits together. In the end the filling should be completely covered. 

7. Beat the egg yolk in a small bowl and dribble in just a few drops of water. Brush it all over the top of the börek and sprinkle on the nigella seeds.

8. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden.  

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