Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Turkish Cooking Class

I was recently lucky enough to travel to Istanbul, Turkey where the Mediterranean diet is a given and fresh ingredients are abundant. For the very reasonable price of 60 euros, I spent an afternoon (4 hours) preparing and then enjoying a four course Turkish meal. Our instructor was Mehmet, the charming, culinary school trained manager of the Sarnic Boutique Hotel. The group of 6 (3 Americans, 1 French, 1 Ukranian, 1 Brit) were given our recipes, went over them briefly and then were handed onions to chop. Mehmet did an fab job of modeling how to slice and dice each vegetable and explained in detail each step in the process and why it must be done that way.
We started the first course of lentil soup, by simply placing all of the lentils in a pot to boil along with a half of both an onion and lemon and left them alone.
Then we moved onto the stuffed egg plant dish. We began by dicing some onions and garlic to be used as a filling after the eggplant had been fried. Mehmet sautéed them together with some diced tomatoes that we first peeled into a rose garnish (an easy party-trick to impress your friends!), salt and sugar.
We then prepared the filling for our stuffed grape leaves: (yum!) ground beef or lamb, rice, tomato paste, mint, parsley, salt, pepper, olive oil, and a diced onion. We got our hands dirty working it all together and grabbed the grape leaves to stuff. Facing vine side up with the stem removed before we placed a little of the filling in a mini cigar shape at the base of the leaf, folded up both sides to create a smooth flat edge, and then rolled it up into that lovely little stuffed grape leaf shape. I suggest repeating that process while sitting at a kitchen table and gossiping like a grandmother like my friend Nicole and I did the weekend I got home.

Once we had our pile of stuffed grape leaves we placed some zucchini and squash at the bottom of a large pot (Mehmet explained this can be any veg, just something to block the direct heat from hitting the grape leaves.) On top of the random veg assortment goes a layer of flat grape leaves and then we started laying each stuffed grape leaf into the pot packing them in together as tight as possible to prevent them from unrolling while cooking. We put a layer of sliced lemon on top of that, pour a cup of water, tablespoon of olive oil and lemon juice mixture over the top so they stay moist, cover with a plate, toss a lid on top and turn up the heat. Once it was boiling hard, turned it to low-medium and let them stew for 45 minutes.

While those were stewing we peeled four sections of skin off of our long narrow eggplants, removed the bottom and all but the inner core of the stem. We removed one of the skinless sections for stuffing and then tossed them in a pot of oil for a 1 minute fry. That was followed by a hot pepper that got a 10 second swim in the oil and then set aside. We stuffed the eggplants with the delicious tomato onion mixture (after the liquid was drained) and then put the hot pepper on top before popping them in the oven for 20 minutes.
In a flash too fast to remember the details of, Mehmet added more water to the lentils and some chili pepper, salt, and sumac to turn them into soup. I was too focused on slicing my delicious perfect figs (yes I ate more than I prepared) open to stuff them with a walnut. Mehmet poured equal parts water and sugar into a flat saucepan with some bay leaves and lemon juice to turn into a simple syrup while we prepped our figs. He poured the now syrupy mixture over the figs and popped them in the oven for 15 minutes. We then went to the table and enjoyed the magnificent fruits of our labor. As they say in Turkish, Affiyet Olsun (Bon Appetit)!