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, October 30, 2011

Bicolor Roasted Beet Salad with Pistachios and Lemon

I've talked about roasting before. It is my go-to method of cooking any vegetable that cannot simply be sliced raw and tossed into a salad. Half an hour in a hot oven does wonders for even the most despited veggies. It gets rid of the water-logged texture you get with boiling and allows the natural sugars of the vegetables to brown and caramelize, giving them a delicious sweet-savory, nutty taste. Beets are great when roasted. In fact, a roasted beet salad with goat cheese is a staple on bistro menus. I found some golden beets at the market the other day and thought I'd do a twist on the bistro classic by introducing some Mediterranean flavors like lemon, toasted pistachios and mint. 

The stain left in my baking pan by the roasted beets. Isn't it pretty?
Golden beets taste exactly like the more common red beets, but unlike the latter, they won't stain your hands and clothing. Red beet juice is a powerful (very powerful!) dye so use gloves when cutting red beets and don't let wooden cutting boards or utensils come into contact with them. Using one red and one golden beet makes for a very pretty presentation but the taste will remain the same even if you use just gold or just red beets. Assemble the salad just before serving or the red beets will dye the golden ones.

You can roast the beets ahead of time and refrigerate them in an airtight container, which allows you to serve this salad at a moment's notice. Unpeeled, the cooked beets will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days. 
Roasted Beet Salad with Pistachios and Lemon
I like my salad dressing to be very zingy, which is why I use a 1:1 ratio of oil to lemon juice rather than the more common 2:1 or 3:1. Adjust the dressing to your taste if you find this too sharp. You can boil the beets until they can be easily pierced by a knife if you don't want to turn on your oven. Serves 4 as a light appetizer or side dish.

2 large beets, preferably one golden and one red
2 tbsp shelled pistachios
2 oz feta or fresh goat cheese
6-7 mint leaves
1 lemon
1 tsp honey
1 tsp Dijon mustard, plain or whole-grain
1/2 shallot, finely diced (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil

1. Drizzle the beets with a little olive oil, wrap them tightly in foil and put the foil package inside a baking dish. Roast in a 400F (200C) oven for 40-50 minutes, until a sharp knife goes easily through the beets (no need to open the package when checking), then cool.

2. While the beets are cooling, toast the pistachios in a dry pan over medium heat until slightly browned, 5-6 minutes, then cool and coarsely chop them. Stack the mint leaves and cut into thin strips with scissors. Grate the zest of the lemon, then squeeze one tablespoon of lemon juice.

3. Mix the minced shallot with the lemon juice and a little salt. Let rest for a few minutes. This takes away the bite of the shallot. Mix in the honey and mustard, then drizzle in the olive oil while whisking with a fork.

4. Wearing gloves, peel and slice the beets into 1/4 inch thick slices. Lay the slices in an overlapping manner on a plate. Drizzle the dressing all over the beets, grind some black pepper over the top, then sprinkle with the pistachios, mint and lemon. Mound the cheese in the middle of the plate and serve.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halloween alla Turca: Turkish Poached Pumpkin Dessert a.k.a. Kabak Tatlısı

With Halloween imminent, bright orange jack o'lanterns are hanging out on every stoop on my street, making ghoulish faces at the road. Of course, this puts me in the mood for some pumpkin. Halloween is not celebrated in Turkey. We do, however, celebrate the arrival of fall fruit such as pumpkin and quince with desserts that put the fruits front and center. One such preparation is "kabak tatlısı" which translates simply as "pumpkin dessert". It is, to my knowledge, the only pumpkin dish in all of Turkish cuisine. I decided to forgo a jack o'lantern this year and have a Halloween alla Turca instead by learning how to make this popular dish.

You'll be astonished at the ease of preparation of this dessert. It has just two main ingredients, and the only difficult part is peeling and cutting the pumpkin. Even this is not so hard if you have a sharp knife. You put the diced pumpkin into a pot, sprinkle on some sugar, turn on the heat, and wait. After a while, the pumpkin will release a surprising amount of water. Gently poaching the fruit in its own liquid concentrates its sweetness. At the end of 45 minutes, you will be left with glistening pieces of candied pumpkin. The flavor of the fruit comes through bright and clear in this dessert: A true taste of fall. 

Kabak tatlısı is always served sprinkled with finely chopped walnuts. In my family, we also like it with a bit of kaymak on the side. This is a thick, clotted cream which is a traditional accompaniment to many Turkish desserts. A lot of Middle Eastern markets carry kaymak; if you cannot find it, English double cream makes a decent substitute.

Happy Halloween to you all!

Turkish Poached Pumpkin Dessert
This recipe comes from my good friend Zeynep. Don't use the huge jack o'lantern pumpkins for this, as they are usually tasteless and tough. Small sugar pumpkins are a better choice. Serves 6-8.

1 small sugar pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1x2 inch pieces (you need about 5 cups of chopped fruit)
1.5 cups (300 g) sugar
1 cup walnuts, pulsed 4-5 times in the food processor until very coarsely ground
Kaymak to serve (optional)

1. Put the pumpkin into a heavy-bottomed pot. Sprinkle on the sugar. Don't stir as you want some of the sugar to remain on top. Put the pot on medium-low heat. 

2. After a few minutes, you will see that the pumpkin has released some water. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.

3. After 30 minutes, taste a piece. It won't be cooked yet, but you need to check for sweetness. Pumpkins have varying levels of sugar, so if the dessert is not sweet enough to your taste, gently stir in a few more tablespoons of sugar. Cover and continue cooking for another 10-15 minutes, until the pumpkin is tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer the pumpkin to a serving dish, leaving behind any liquid that may still be in the pot, and let cool completely.

4. Serve with a generous sprinkling of walnuts and a dollop of kaymak on the side. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Georgia on My Mind: Circassian Chicken a.k.a. Çerkez Tavuğu

Georgia the country that is, and not the US state. One of the first people I met after arriving in the States for grad school was a girl from Georgia called Thea. We hit it off immediately and she remains a dear friend to this day. Being of a generous heart, Thea invited a bunch of us to dinner soon after our first semester started. Among the dishes she cooked was a chicken dish so delicious that it became renowned and had me begging her to make it all the time. Strangely enough, it also tasted very, very familiar. It wasn't until much later that I realized she was making a version of a dish that is very popular in Turkey as well: Circassian Chicken, or in Turkish, çerkez tavuğu. It consists of poached chicken in a garlicky sauce made from walnuts and vinegar. Thea's dish was very soupy whereas ours has a thick sauce with the consistency of porridge, but the flavors were the same. Now, my patriotism kicked in when I first came to this realization, and I thought that the Georgians must have simply learnt of this dish from Turks during Ottoman times, when we ruled over them, but further research reveals that the opposite is true. It originated in Georgia, where walnuts are a hallmark of the cuisine. In fact, the provenance of the dish is obvious even from its name, "Çerkez" being the Turkish designation for a region which encompasses parts of modern-day Georgia.

The Ottoman empire ruled over vast swaths of land in its heyday. The sultans were always embroiled in some war or other to enlarge their territory and when victorious, returned from the newly conquered lands with wives, servants and soldiers to add to their court. Each of these people brought with them native dishes that entered the Ottoman culinary repertoire, so that over the years, Ottoman cuisine became a melting pot of influences ranging from Eastern European to African and Arabian. Circassian Chicken no doubt arrived in Turkey this way, then was subjected to elaborate reworkings in the huge kitchens of the sultan's Istanbul home, Topkapı Palace, before trickling down into the households of ordinary Turks. The Topkapı Palace had a veritable battalion of cooks whose only job was to prepare sumptuous feasts for the royal court, therefore the recipes that have come to us from them are usually elaborate and time consuming to prepare. Circassian Chicken is no exception but the explosive flavor and exquisite texture are well worth the time. The combination of garlic and ground walnuts with the silky chicken and the sharp vinegar is unexpected but one you won't soon forget. It is also a make ahead dish, as the flavors benefit from a day of melding together in the fridge.

Circassian Chicken
A drizzle of paprika cooked in oil is the traditional finishing touch for this dish. If you want to be hardcore, you can obtain the oil by putting the blended walnut-bread mixture in a cheesecloth and squeezing hard to extract the oil from the walnuts, but I'll leave this finicky step to the palace cooks. I use olive oil. Walnut oil, if you have it, will give the best flavor. This makes a lot - enough to serve 8-10 people as an appetizer. If you want to halve the recipe, just poach a bone-in, skin-on chicken breast. Serve cold or at room temperature, with bread.

1 whole chicken, 3-4 lb (1.5-2 kg)
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 small carrot, washed but not peeled, halved
Few sprigs of parsley (optional)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups walnuts
White bread, crust removed and torn into pieces, approximately 1.5 cups
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vinegar (you can use red or white wine vinegar or even regular distilled vinegar)
1 tbsp olive oil, walnut oil or butter
1/4 tsp hot or mild paprika

1. Put the first four ingredients in a pot big enough to hold the chicken. Pour in just enough cold water to cover the chicken completely.

2. Turn the heat to medium-low and let the water come to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Don't let the water boil - bubbles should not be breaking the surface. After 30 minutes, turn off the heat but keep the pot covered and leave the bird in the hot water for another 30 minutes.

3. Take the chicken out of the pot. Discard the onion, carrot and parsley but not the poaching water as you'll be using it to make your sauce. Cut into the chicken's thigh and breast to make sure that the juices aren't pink. If they are pink, simmer the chicken for a bit longer until it is completely cooked. Once cooked, put the chicken in a bowl of iced water to halt the cooking and let it cool for a bit.

4. Once the chicken is cool, take off its skin and discard it. Using your hands, take as much meat off the bones as you can and shred it.

5. In a food processor, grind the walnuts, bread and garlic until the mixture has the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Transfer this mixture to a large skillet.

6. To make the sauce, add a ladle-ful of the chicken poaching liquid to the skillet and stir until it is absorbed by the bread-walnut mixture. Repeat this step until the sauce has the consistency of porridge. I usually end up using about 2.5-3 cups of liquid. Stir in the salt and vinegar.

7. Mix in the shredded chicken. Taste and add more salt if needed. Refrigerate until serving time.

8. To serve, put the chicken mixture on a wide plate. Heat 1 tbsp oil or butter over medium-low heat in a small skillet and cook the paprika for a minute or two, then drizzle this over the chicken. Serve with bread.

Note: If you have any remaining poaching liquid after making the sauce, don't throw it away. You can use it in any soup that calls for chicken stock. It can also be frozen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Greek Salad

I had the chance to spend a day on a Greek island this summer. While a day might sound short, it was ample time to fall in love with the beauty of the place and also to have one of the best meals of my life at a fish restaurant by the water. We ordered no less than ten or twelve dishes for the table and I was amazed by every single one of them. From the crispy, paper-thin slices of fried eggplant and the tender char-grilled octopus to the tiny shrimp and feta casserole and the crusty bread dipped in fragrant olive oil and oregano, each dish was simple but expertly prepared to showcase the freshness and quality of the ingredients. Since my return from that trip, I've managed to pester my Greek friends to cook for me and realized that Greeks and I are very much alike in at least one thing: We are ridiculously passionate about food and happy to spend hours discussing it! I am armed with tons of notes from these discussions and meals, so look for some more Greek recipes here soon.

One of the dishes that stood out the most during that meal was the Greek salad. It was a delicious marriage of sun-warmed vegetables with salty, creamy feta and the dried oregano in it blew me away with its strong aroma. Here in the US, we are so used to the stale jarred dried herbs from the supermarket that a taste of the real thing was a revelation and a powerful reminder at the same time.  I ate the whole salad, sopped up every last drop of the dressing, and barely kept myself from licking the bowl.

Us Turks are no strangers to the chopped tomato/cucumber/green pepper salad (we have çoban salatası and gavurdağı salatası, to name but two) but the Greek version is pretty different: The vegetables in the salad I had were roughly chopped as opposed to the very small pieces we'd have, and they were sprinkled with dried oregano whereas we would use fresh parsley or mint. Oh, and of course, the Greeks have that feta fetish...

I reverse-engineered this recipe from the salad I had in Greece and Wikipedia confirms that I have the correct ingredients, so I am certain that this is an authentic version. The keys to this salad are to get the best quality ingredients. Try to find smaller cucumbers rather than the arm-length, woody grocery store ones. Most important of all, make sure your dried oregano is not stale. Its flavor absolutely makes the salad. The oregano in your supermarket's spice section has probably been sitting there in its plastic jar for months if not years and will have lost most of its potency. I use oregano which my mom and aunt pick and dry when they go to Turkey's west coast, where the air is always fragrant with herbs growing wild on the earth. Failing a Mediterranean source, buy your oregano from specialty spice shops with high turnover and ask to smell a sample before purchasing. You can also dry a big bunch of fresh oregano yourself in the oven. Here's how.

Greek Salad
I don't season the salad with salt. Instead, I just make sure that each bite of vegetable is accompanied by a bite of olive or feta cheese. Don't use pitted olives. Leave the cheese in one piece on the top instead of crumbling it into the salad. Serve with crusty bread to soak up the dressing. Serves 2-3 as a side dish. 

1 medium tomato, chopped into 10-12 pieces
1 small cucumbers, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
1/2 small red or white onion, cut into rings
1/2 small green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into rings
10 oil-cured black olives, preferably Kalamata
Large pinch of dried oregano
2-3 oz feta cheese, preferably Greek
3/4 tbsp red wine vinegar
1.5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Toss the first six ingredients with the vinegar in a shallow bowl or soup plate. 

2. Lay the feta over the top and drizzle the whole thing with the olive oil. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ode to Carrot: Carrot Salad with Garlic Yogurt and Walnuts

If there was ever a list made of my favorite vegetables, then the top rank would belong without a doubt to the humble carrot. My mother says that I used to nibble on carrots like a rabbit when I was a baby and even if there is nothing else to eat in the house, I'm happy with a couple of grated carrots and a little vinaigrette. They are a true workhorse in my kitchen, delicious in everything from soups and salads to stir-fries and carrot cakes. Their bright orange color always cheers me up. They contain tons of vitamin A which is great for your eyesight. Oh, just stop reading this post now and eat a carrot!

I've chosen to highlight a simple Turkish recipe today: "yoğurtlu havuç salatası" which translates as carrot salad with yogurt. Consisting of grated carrots slowly cooked in fragrant olive oil with garlic and mixed with walnuts and yogurt, it's a homey recipe that I usually prepare to use up extra yogurt before it goes bad. Similar preparations can be found on tables all across Turkey. I learnt my version from my mom and that, more than anything else, makes this comfort food at its finest. 

Carrot Salad with Garlic Yogurt and Walnuts
Don't worry if you hate the mushy texture of well-cooked carrots. This recipe avoids the sin of cooking them to death. Whole milk yogurt will give the richest taste but even non-fat will do in a pinch. Whatever you do, do not use the packages of pre-shredded carrots from the grocery store. Those have been sitting there for days losing moisture, not to mention the fact that they are grated too thick to give the correct texture. Serves 4 as a side dish.

5-6 medium carrots
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (I like it very garlicky so I use 3.)
3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1-1.5 cups plain whole milk yogurt (The amount of yogurt should be approximately equal to the volume of the cooked carrots)
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

1. Peel the carrots and grate them using the biggest holes on your grater. 

2. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium-low heat for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Don't let the garlic color.

3. Add the carrots and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until a bit wilted and reduced in volume, but still with a slightly toothsome texture. This should take 10 to 12 minutes.

4. While the carrots are cooling a bit, whisk the yogurt in a bowl until it has no lumps. Mix in the carrots and walnuts and chill until completely cool before serving. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Smoked Chowder

Much as it pains me to say this, summer is well and truly over. We have had a great few days of Indian summer in Boston, but with five straight days of rain on the forecast, it looks like even those are on their way out. To comfort myself in the face of grey skies and cold weather, I tried my hand at a chowder recipe from this month's issue of Bon Appetit. A chowder is a thick, cream-based soup most often made with seafood, potatoes or corn. The only chowder I've ever tried is the famous New England clam chowder, and the most renowned version of the latter is served at the venerated New England restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods. It is delicious but way too rich in my opinion to be anything more than an occasional indulgence. This recipe, however, is thickened with mashed potatoes rather than cream - in fact, with less than one tablespoon of cream per serving, it is deceptively light yet still decadent and filling. Instead of clams, a smoked fish fillet is used and adds a haunting smoky backbone to the soup. A smattering of snipped chives provides a nice oniony finish. 

Smoked Chowder
Adapted from here. The original recipe calls for smoked haddock. I substituted a smoked bluefish filet with excellent results and think you can make the soup with any smoked fish (except for the thinly-sliced smoked salmon available everywhere!) Serve with oyster crackers for an authentic New England experience. Serves 4.

A boneless smoked fish filet (8-9 oz / 250 gr)
1 tbsp butter or olive oil
1 leek, white part only, cut in half length-wise, each half cut into 1/4 inch thick half moons
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/3 inch cubes
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
3 tbsp (50 ml) heavy cream
A few chive stalks

1) Put the fish filet in a small pot with 3 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. 

2) Transfer the fish to a plate but don't discard the water. Discard the skin of the fish and shred the flesh. 

3) Heat the olive oil or butter over medium heat in a pot. Cook the leek until soft, about 5 minutes. 

4) Add the diced potatoes and thyme sprigs and strain the fish-poaching water into the pot. Season the soup with salt. Simmer until the potatoes are cooked, 12-16 minutes. 

5) With a slotted spoon, transfer about half the potatoes to a plate and mash them with a fork. Return the potatoes to the pot and simmer for a few more minutes.

6) Take the pot off the heat. Stir in the cream and the fish. Ladle into bowls. With a pair of scissors, snip the chives over the bowls.