köfte

beef kofte

in the last heat of summer, I spent three all-too-short days exploring the streets of istanbul. at that time, the skirmishes on turkey’s eastern border were alarming but distant, easily forgotten amongst the breathtaking beauty of istanbul’s mosques and palaces, in the dripping heat of late summer days and nights filled with delicious food, loud, bustling crowds, and music.

on the first night, we found ourselves in a back alley behind the galata tower, surrounded by jovial dinner parties; we ordered simply by observing what looked delicious on other tables – some pita and delicious dips, a lemony grilled whole fish, and köfte, or turkish meatballs – and lost ourselves in a smokey haze of music played on a turkish stringed instrument and raki, a heady anise-flavored liqueur.

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a myriad of lights in the grand bazaar.

predictably, we woke up rather late the next morning and rushed to begin our day. mosques and museums passed in a history-crammed, sensory-overloaded blur. we jostled our way through the blue mosque, took some hard-won pictures, escaped the stifling crowd within. we paused for a lunch of testy kebab at the excellent aloran cafe. we sped through ayasofya, taking in the gold-tiled basilica and each increasingly-ornate section of the palace, and did some hard bargaining in the grand bazaar.

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folded hands at ayasofya.

between the bustle and the beauty of the city and our breakneck desire to “see it all”, istanbul had left us breathless. on our final day, we found ourselves in the spice market, which was really more like a home goods market where one could find cute cupcake liners and of course, spices for great prices. we wound our way upwards through twisting alleys and steep stairways to the süleymaniye mosque, a quiet, expansive space surprisingly devoid of visitors.

by the entryway, some students proffered educational brochures about suleiman and about islam; they were very open to questions and I learned more from them in a few minutes than I had from the hours-long audio tour at ayasofya. I knew from conversations with my muslim friends at home that the central tenet to islam was peace. however, I was interested and surprised to read a passage about how women should be viewed as equals, an argument for women’s rights way ahead of its time. it forced me to reflect, amidst the shuffling of bare feet on carpet, on the prejudices I had unconsciously adapted against islam even as I thought I had maintained an open mind.

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our view from the café after the rain.

while chatting with the students, we got a recommendation for a nice rooftop cafe overlooking the golden horn. we made our way up a set of dark stairs, past the second floor pool hall/student lounge to an open rooftop cafe. around us, groups of people young and old sat, some in intense conversation, others bent over textbooks or just hanging out. we ordered turkish coffee, sat back, and just stared out in awe of the sprawling size of istanbul, a city whose asian side we had not even visited and whose western reaches remained unknown to us after three days of constant exploration.

a few months later, conflicts that had seemed so distant in the summer arrived in istanbul, first in smaller attacks, then in a suicide bombing incident in the plaza between ayasofya and the blue mosque. the humidity and heat of istanbul and of summer had faded, yet the kind faces and intelligent words of the istanbul university students I met sprang instantly into my mind. I know that the vibrancy of istanbul will return – the city is large and resilient. I pray that their shattered peace returns as well.

beef kofte 2

makes 4 servings

1 lb ground beef
1/4 cup grated onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp chopped chives
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp baking soda
olive oil
2/3 cup tahini paste
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 cup water
1 clove garlic, crushed (make sure there’s no green sprouts!)
1/4 tsp salt

yotam ottolenghi and sami tamimi. jerusalem: a cookbook. new york: ten speed press, 2012.
michael solomonov. zahav: a world of israeli cooking. new york: houghton mifflin harcourt, 2015.

1 combine beef, onion, parsley, garlic, chives, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, sugar, salt, black pepper, and baking soda in a large bowl. mix with your hands until well-blended. (when I’m feeling particularly lazy, I toss the un-minced onion, un-chopped parsley, un-chopped chives, un-minced garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, sugar, salt, salt, and black pepper in the food processor and grind it into a rough paste before mixing with the beef and baking soda. the koftë texture is not as varied, but the flavor is just as awesome.)
2 form meatballs about 2-in in diameter. refrigerate for ~1 hour.
3 whisk together tahini paste, lemon juice, water, garlic, and salt in a medium bowl, adding water as needed until it reaches a pourable consistency.
4 lightly coat a large frying pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat. space the koftës over the pan, making sure they don’t touch, and flatten slightly with spatula. cook for 3-4 minutes each side, until nicely browned. remove to a paper towel-lined plate, blot excess oil, and remove paper towel. spread tahini sauce around the plate and drizzle on köfte. garnish with parsley and serve immediately.

garlic potato purée

mash potato 2

in the modern age, “looks good enough to eat” takes on significant meaning – emphasis on the word “looks”.

the first cookbook I ever used was the dean and deluca cookbook, a paperback publication void of any pictures. as evidenced by its stained pages and creased binding, my family loved that cookbook. in it is the recipe for our usual holiday mashed potatoes, which we have used for the past decade.

presently, it is unheard of for a cookbook to have no pictures, and people rely heavily on how food looks as an indicator of how it tastes, especially when choosing recipes online. I admit to totally judging food by its appearance, but am also amused by the lengths to which some photographers go to make a dish look more attractive. there’s the small stuff – spritz salad with oil to give it that sheen, arrange the accoutrements ever-so-artistically atop a soup, twirl the pasta enticingly around a perfectly polished fork. then there’s the ridiculous – I recently tried a coq au vin recipe whose photograph promised a rich burgundy shade of stew. either those people dumped in a tablespoon or two of utterly unnecessary red food coloring or someone got a little overzealous adjusting the colors on photoshop. the dish itself tasted amazing, but came out rather brown (which, in retrospect, is the absolutely correct color for a wine-flavored chicken stew).

as I planned out the thanksgiving menu this year, I abandoned the traditional mashed potato recipe, seduced by the glossy pages of thomas keller’s ad hoc at home and the promise of consuming a premier chef’s (side) dish without having to sell an organ. as I plated the garlic potato purée (better known by its plebeian moniker, “mashed potatoes,”) and preparing to photograph them, one of my cousins asked what I was doing. “I’m creating more surfaces for shadows, to take a better photo,” I replied, while gently pressing creases into the swirls of mashed potato with a wooden spoon. (yes, it looked just as ridiculous as it sounds.) in my opinion, keller’s recipe is superior to dean and deluca’s – faster, involving less human labor, and with a more complex flavor profile thanks to the chives. but dean and deluca’s has this awesome punch of roasted garlic flavor – something that is impossible to capture in a photograph.

at dinner, the mashed potatoes were well-received. but then again, so was the stuffing, butt-ugly burnt edges be damned.

mash potato
makes 6 servings

1/4 cup peeled garlic cloves
1/2 cup canola oil
4 lb large yukon gold potatoes
kosher salt
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
5 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into 5 pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp minced chives

thomas keller. ad hoc at home. new york: artisan books, 2009.

1 cut off and discard root ends of garlic cloves. place cloves in a small saucepan and add enough oil to cover them by 1 inch.
2 set saucepan over low heat. cook the garlic gently; very small bubbles will come up through the oil, but should not break the surface. cook garlic for ~40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cloves are completely tender. remove the saucepan from heat and allow the garlic to cool in the oil.
3 meanwhile, place potatoes in a large pot and cover with 2 inches of cold water. season water with 1/4 cup salt and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
4 adjust heat as necessary to maintain very gentle simmer and cook for ~20 minutes, until tender enough to purée. drain potatoes in a colander and let them steam until cool enough to peel.
5 heat the cream over low heat in a heavy saucepan; keep warm.
6 in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add one-quarter of the potatoes, top with 1 pieces of butter and one-quarter of the garlic, and purée. repeat with remaining potatoes, butter, and garlic in 3 batches.
7 warm potatoes in saucepan over medium heat. as they heat, whip the cream into potatoes. season to taste with salt and pepper and fold in chives. transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the remaining chives, and top with a dollop of butter.

paella de pollo y setas

chicken paella 3

I have struggled to put my experience on the camino de santiago into words. it has somehow proved impossible to convey just how incredible it was – it seems that no one can quite understand how walking and talking and washing clothes and lukewarm to cold showers every day for weeks and weeks could somehow be an amazing experience. hell, when I distill it to the physical happenings of each day, even I question whether I’m viewing it in retrospect with rose-tinted shades. but the answer is always no, it is and probably always will be one of my most special memories.

when I first set out, I doubted I could do it. people told me that should I decide I had “had enough,” there was no shame in buying a ticket and returning to the states earlier. but through all the pain and all the moments where it seemed that another step would snap my legs or the weight of my backpack would split my shoulders, I kept walking. and walking. through forests of ferns taller than me, through days of cold rain that sapped the feeling out of my frozen fingers, through fields and fields of green-gold wheat, through mud so thick, it stuck to the soles of my shoes in misshapen lumps. every day, I could tangibly sense that I was getting stronger than I had ever felt before. I reveled in the feeling of walking, of knowing that there was a destination somewhere down the path and knowing that I would eventually reach it, that I eventually must reach it.

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a glance back down the camino.

there was a certainty, a rhythm to the days: I would awaken before sunrise, pack my life into my bag, munch on a granola bar, then set out. I would walk, alone or alongside others, sometimes with laughter and conversation, other times in silence. I would breathe in the smells of the early morning, feel the heat slowly radiate across the empty landscape before me, warming my numb limbs and face. I would bask in the friendliness of the locals (one of whom handed out whiskey-flavored candies, took my hands, and told me “forte!”) and in the companionship with people who ended up becoming confidantes and close friends, or whose names I never learned, but whose faces became familiar as we followed the same path towards santiago de compostela.

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a reveler surveys the festivities in león.

when my friends and I arrived in león, we fell in love. the old city of león is built of warm brown sandstone, which looked especially welcoming in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. as we lounged beneath umbrellas at a café in the cobblestoned square, we knew that we would stay for another day. we watched amazing kid-prodigy dance groups, ate delicious food, and chatted over cervezas and gin and tonics (served in huge goblets) until we could barely keep our eyes open. the city thrummed with people celebrating summer and life and who-knows-what-else in endless festivities all weekend.

two ugly stepsisters at the hilariously inexplicable “cinderella” festival.

before I came to spain, I always arrived in new places with a prepared agenda, then immediately set out to see everything that there was to see. but in león, we spent an entire afternoon in an alleyway outside a bar, and it was perfect. inside, vendors had set up some kind of fair with food, drink, and exotic trinkets. outside, local bands played as street artists sculpted and hurled paint on large canvases like some kind of performance art. I had the best paella I have ever eaten: a slow burn of savory mushroom and chicken flavors imbued in pliantly chewy grains of rice, no fancy seafood in sight. it is the paella of the spanish meseta, where endless fields of wheat form a rippling sea under the merciless sunlight, where the water tastes slightly of clay. for me, it is the paella of my camino experience, a dish best served up in a large pan to a crowd (and accompanied by wine, of course), a dish that celebrates the transcendent beauty of the ordinary.

Version 2
makes 4-6 servings

sofrito
10 ripe plum tomatoes (~20oz of tomatoes) or 14oz can of peeled plum tomatoes
1/2 cup spanish extra-virgin olive oil
2 small spanish onions, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pimentón (spanish sweet paprika)
1 bay leaf
paella
2 tbsp spanish extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 buffalo wings, cut into small pieces
1/2 pound flavorful mushrooms (I used shiitake and maitake)
3 oz green beans, cut into 1-in pieces
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped jamón serrano (I used proscuitto)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup sofrito
1 quart chicken stock
1 generous pinch saffron threads
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp salt
1 1/2 cups spanish bomba or arborio rice

josé andrés. tapas: a taste of spain in america. new york: clarkson potter/publishers, 2005.

sofrito|1 heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-low flame. add onions, sugar and salt. cook, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon, until onions become soft and tender and turn light brown, ~45 minutes. (if they get too dark, add 1/2 tbsp water to prevent burning.)
2 while onions simmer, cut tomatoes in half. using a grater over a mixing bowl, grate open faces of tomatoes until all the flesh is grated. discard skin.
3 add reserved tomato purée, pimenton, and bay leaf to onion mixture. cook for ~20 minutes over medium heat. the sofrito is ready when tomato has broken down and deepened in color, and the oil has separated from the sauce.
paella|1 heat olive oil in paella pan over high heat. add chicken and sauté until it is well-browned on all sides, ~8 minutes. remove and set aside.
2 add mushrooms to paella pan and sauté over medium heat until they are golden, ~3 minutes. add green beans and garlic and cook for another 3 minutes. return chicken to the pan, and add the ham.
3 return heat to high, pour in white wine, and cook until it is reduced by half, ~1 minute. add sofrito and cook for 3 minutes. pour in chicken stock and bring to a boil. crush saffron and add it to pan, along with bay leaf. season with salt. (you want it a little salty because when you add the rice, the flavor will balance out.)
4 add rice, taking care to spread it evenly around pan. cook for 5 minutes over high heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. (rice should be floating around the pan; if not, add 1/2 cup stock or water.)
5 reduce heat to low and cook at slow boil for 10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. (never put your finger or spoon in paella during this cooking, or the seal will break, liquid will escape, and the rice will cook unevenly!)
6 remove pan from heat, place lid on top, and let sit for 3 minutes. The stock should be absorbed by rice and there should be a nice shine on top of paella. serve immediately.