“Get in! Get in!”
An impatient, disembodied voice calls from above. I‘m standing in front of the elderly, caged elevator, hesitant about stepping into utter darkness.
“Get in! It’s all right!” calls the voice again.
I step into the elevator. A dim light glimmers on. I press the button. The cage ascends, slowly, with a lot of creaking.
Selin Rozanes is waiting in the doorway of her apartment. With short blond hair and a bright, assessing gaze behind amber-hued glasses, she has the jaunty, energetic air of a successful small business owner. Behind her there is a bowl of dried red peppers into which a blue glass evil eye has been tucked.
It is 10 AM in Nisantasi, Istanbul’s chicest neighborhood, and I’m here to cook lunch with Selin, a former travel agent who has turned a passion for cooking into a second career as a cooking instructor and guide to culinary destinations such as Safranbolu, a center of saffron culture in the 19th century, near the Black Sea coast of Anatolia, and Bodrum, a lively Aegean sailing town in a region renowned for its olives and olive oil.
For someone like me who knows little about Turkish food and next to nothing about its preparation, this is a class made in heaven.
It may also be the most civilized cooking class I’ve taken. First there is a little glass of chilled sour cherry juice to sip, and unhurried conversation in the comfortable living room that overlooks the busy Vali Konak Caddesi. Turkish cookbooks are piled in front of the plush sofa, while volumes on Istanbul’s art, architecture and history fill the adjoining shelves.
Selin and her husband, Can, a sailing instructor, reside in the same sprawling apartment in which she lived as a child—her grandfather built the building in the 1940’s—and it is a rare opportunity for a traveler to see how one family lives in Istanbul.
A chalkboard scrawled with today’s menu stands on the counter of the colorfully tiled teaching kitchen that opens to the dining room. We’ll be making five or six dishes, among them:
Green lentil soup (yesil mercimek corbasi); carrot salad with a garlic-infused yogurt dressing (yogurtlu havuc salatasi); green olive salad (zeytin salatasi); chard rolls stuffed with meat and rice (pazi dolmasi); bulgur pilaf with spices and tomato sauce (sehriyeli bulgur pilavi); and poached figs stuffed with walnuts and clotted cream (kaymakli cevizli incir).
“That’s a lot of food,” I say as I slip an apron over my head. “Yes, yes, it’s too much,” Selin replies. ‘Why don’t you invite your husband and your daughter to lunch at noon?”
It takes all of 30 seconds to persuade B and Serendipity to change their plans.
Meanwhile Selin is opening a bottle of nar eksisi, or pomegranate molasses. “Istanbul food is very subtly flavored. It’s not like Indian food,” she says. “But we do use spices. Some of the best come from Gazantiep in southeastern Turkey.”
A spoonful of dark, viscous liquid appears before me. “Taste!” she exclaims. The pomegranate molasses is delectable: sweet and fruity, intensely flavored with a powerfully acidic edge. Often in Turkish cooking it is used in place of—or in addition to—lemon juice. Fall is pomegranate season and the molasses, which comes from Antakya, also in southeastern Turkey, is made by boiling down the freshly pressed juice—so fresh and unfiltered that there are still seeds in it.
(Note to self: Must design checkable food suitcase with compartments for safely carrying home pomegranate molasses and other must-have ingredients.)
I pluck a plastic bag of dark flaky isot pepper, which I’d tasted at a restaurant a few days earlier, from my battered Longchamp bag. I love the smoky flavor of this pepper, but Selin sniffs dismissively. “No. It’s no good. This is too salty, too oily. You’ll be able to taste better isot at the spice market this afternoon,” she says, adding, “There are many kinds of dried red pepper in Turkey.”
Meanwhile Can has come in to help with the cooking. He smiles quietly to himself as he stirs the lentils for the soup. Selin’s recipe is simplicity itself: green lentils, chopped onion, cumin, salt and black pepper, simmered for 30 minutes, then pureed with an immersion blender.
“This is everyday, normal Turkish cooking,” she says. “The kind of food you can quickly make for your family or even for guests at the end of the day.”
But the clock is ticking and we haven’t even begun the other dishes. Suddenly the pace picks up. Now Can is dropping big handfuls of chard leaves into boiling water to soften them, while I find my hands in a bowl of ground meat, working raw rice, parsley, dill and a fragrant Ottoman spice blend into what will be the stuffing for the chard rolls.
“What’s in the spice mix? “I ask. Selin just smiles and picks up a knife.
She lays out one chard leaf and cuts away the tough central rib. “Make sure the shiny side is on the bottom, “ she says, demonstrating how to stuff the leaf with a scant two to three teaspoons of the meat and herb mixture and roll it into a small, tightly wrapped dolma. After making 15 or 20 rolls, I begin to get the hang of it.
Or maybe not. “I think the other side of the leaf should be out,” says Can. I’ve put the shiny side in, instead of out. “Don’t worry,” laughs Selin. “It will be delicious.”
The rolls go into a special cast iron pot, weighed down with a plate, where they are simmered in water mixed with a vibrant homemade red pepper paste—also from Antakya—over medium heat for almost an hour. There’s meat and rice mixture left over, so we lop off the tops of 7 or 8 sweet red and green peppers and stuff them too. Selin shows me how to plug the opening with a chunk of tomato.
Meanwhile Can is sautéing shredded carrots, while I chop green Halhali olives from Hatay, a southern province bordering Syria and the Mediterranean. The crunchy, slightly sour olives–a rare strain the size of a fingernail– will go into a delicious salad of tomato, scallions, parsley and crushed walnuts, dressed with pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and olive oil. The carrots, seasoned with a pinch of dolma spices–cinnamon, nutmeg and clove–get a spoonful of tahini or sesame paste–Selin’s “secret” addition–whisked into the traditional yogurt dressing.
Now the spices are flying into a pilaf of coarse bulgur. The grains are bigger than any I’ve ever seen and come mixed with toasted vermicelli. I chop tomato, onion and garlic, stir in some of that delicious red pepper paste, and spoonfuls—I’m sure we’re adding more than the conservative amounts in the recipe—of cumin, black pepper and sumac, a lemony-tasting, dark purple fruit widely used as a “souring agent” in Middle Eastern cooking. There’s dried mint as well and its aroma floods my senses.
Ten minutes to go and the Selin is showing me how to stuff dried Turkish apricots that have been simmered in water with sugar and lemon until the fruit is soft and the liquid is syrupy. I fill each apricot with a spoonful of kaymak, the unspeakably rich Turkish clotted cream and a fat walnut, then sprinkle it with chopped green pistachios.
I set the table.
The doorbell rings. B and Serendipity have arrived on the stroke of noon. Yoyo, the family’s energetic Jack Russell terrier (a.k.a. “the terrorist) races aroun, barking madly. After more cherry juice and lively conversation, we repair to Selin’s big dining room table. It is set with blue and white china, white linens and her good silver.
“Eat! Eat!” she exclaims. And we do.
Everything is delicious. The pureed lentil soup, drizzled with a spoonful of melted butter whisked with flaky red pepper, is unexpectedly sumptuous. The chard rolls, simmered in the spicy broth, are delicately flavored and the Antakya pepper paste lends a burnished glow to the meat and rice stuffing. We dive into the olive salad, reveling in its salty, tangy flavors, then into the sweetly spiced carrot salad, with its addictive tahini-laced yogurt dressing.
It’s a stellar meal, but if I had to choose a favorite dish, it would be the bulgur pilaf: none of us can get enough of its nutty texture and gorgeous flavors.
And I’m not forgetting the to-die-for apricots. There’s one for each of us, which is just as well—though I could have eaten four—since Selin has just produced a huge box of Syrian sweets. “I picked these up in Antakya,” she says, opening the lid. “It’s just three hours away from Aleppo, where pistachios grow.”
It’s a treasure chest of nutty delights, an encyclopedia, if you will, of sweet nut-filled confectionery: cashew fingers, pine nut triangles, pistachio baklava and more.
There’s a certain point, in Turkey, when you know you’ve eaten too much, but all the signals that say, “Enough!” just sputter and die. You’re more than replete, but the food is so good that you happily keep stuffing it into your mouth.
“Eat!” says Selin. And once again, we do.
To contact Selin Rozanes, see her website at www.turkishflavors.com