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Istanbul Trip Produces New Turkish Recipes

Jul 3, 2011

This week, my family and I took a trip to Turkey to visit my paternal grandparents at their home in Istanbul. Though we only have about a week here each year, it's a very easy place to feel at home, with its gorgeous scenery along the Bosporus, fascinating melding of the Byzantine old world and a modern cosmopolitan bridge between East and West, and, of course, all the fabulous food.

Usually, our trips revolve around three essential activities: visiting with family, sating our appetites for Middle Eastern cuisine and bargaining like natives at the Kapali Carsi, the covered bazaar.

The first two activities are pretty self-evident, though we have some particular traditions. We like to gather the huge extended family at my great-aunt's home, whiling away the hours while picking fresh mulberries and cherries off the giant trees in her backyard. And though there are a number of wonderful inexpensive local restaurants serving authentic Turkish cuisine (imagine: affordable, healthy, delicious food in a major city!), we generally eat at home, allowing the older women to pass along their prized recipes to the younger generation.

As for the bargaining, I'll be sharing more on that -- and my tested techniques for securing the best deal -- next week. Suffice it to say that learning how to haggle properly is practically a rite of passage, one full of code and decorum that are both revered and dreaded if you are used to the Western shopping system of nonnegotiable prices.

For now, back to visiting with family and cooking. This being my first trip to Turkey since getting married last summer, there seemed to be extra emphasis on bringing my Turkish culinary skills up to speed. (Naturally, there was lots of accompanying chatter about the supposed aphrodisiac qualities of Turkish cooking.)

I've never been much for stiff, measured cooking, so the casual, comfortable cooking style of Turkish cuisine really appeals. In my entire weekend of cooking with my relatives, I never saw a single measuring cup or tablespoon. Everything went according to habit and taste, quality and completion being determined by the "eyeball" technique, which is tricky at first but becomes an invaluable asset.

As I head back to America, with a bundle of new recipes in my repertoire and fond memories of sharing this time and heritage with my grandmother and great-aunts, I'm confident that my new skills will come in handy on a daily basis, precisely because the emphasis is on creating food that your family will love and that you (and I) will love to make.

When I cook, I am almost always tight on time and unprepared, meaning I have to be flexible with my ingredients (basically, using whatever I might have on hand). But that is exactly how creative dishes come together! Learning a few traditional, easy tricks to have on hand in a pinch is essential, and it never hurts to know a few winning flavor combinations (rosemary and garlic, lemon and oregano, Aleppo pepper and mint).

But the most important thing I learned is that the best cooking is inspired and personal, rooted in treasured histories of someone else's rendition but ready to take on a new vision in your own kitchen.

So with that in mind, here is one of my favorite Turkish recipes, perfectly suitable for a first-timer or an experienced hand, with lots of flavor appeal for the whole family. As they say in Turkey, "Afyet olsun!"

BEGENDI (bay-EN'-dee)

Servings: 4

Roast 4 small- to medium-sized eggplants until skin is loose and can be peeled off easily, approximately 10 minutes on medium heat. Be sure to rotate every 2-3 minutes to grill all sides.

Peel the eggplants, and mash interior flesh in a bowl. Reserve.

Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil to medium heat, being sure not to boil, and lightly fry 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, whisking constantly until mixture thickens, approximately 6 minutes.

Stir in reserved eggplant.

Stir in 1/4 cup of milk and 3 tablespoons of finely grated low-moisture mozzarella or pecorino until melted.

Season with freshly cracked pepper and sea salt; go ahead and add rosemary, Aleppo pepper, chopped dates or anything else you might like if you're feeling adventurous.

Serve in place of mashed potatoes for a delicious, creamy side dish that packs the powerhouse nutrients of eggplants (a staple of Mediterranean cooking).

A traditional Turkish serving is to use begendi under a dish of sauteed peppers, tomatoes, garlic and onions with cubed chicken browned in a saucepan with olive oil.


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