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.

blueberry lemon madeleines

lemon blueberry madeleine 3

for years, paris was my favorite city I’d never visited.

then (as these things always go) the opportunity to visit paris for three days was suddenly thrust upon me. when I arrived in paris, I had unexpected difficulty contacting my friend. I ended up having my first meal in france with a kind older lady I had met on the train (who probably took pity on the pathetic american tourist with shoddy language skills and a dead phone). after that somewhat disastrous first night, I overcame my embarrassment about how much french I had forgotten and had lovely conversations with shopkeepers and chocolatiers and random people in the stairwell. a shopgirl suggested I wander through saint-germain, where I sampled chocolates and perused the excellent summer sales.

my friend and I also visited versailles, did one of those boat tours up and down the seine, and took silly pictures of the ornate hairstyles on sculptures in the musée d’orsay. to be a tourist these days is viewed as a bad thing, but really, what is so wrong about exploring the hallmarks of a country’s culture – celebrating its art, its history, and paying homage to its heroes?

paris diptych
gothic arches and stern visages at musée d’orsay and notre dame.

I was lucky to somewhat have it both ways – I spoke enough of the language to navigate stores and cafés where the staff only spoke french. through smalltalk with friendly parisians, I found that the negative stereotype of the french as snobby simply did not hold true, and learned about some of their favorite parts of the city. but I also do not believe in “how to not be a tourist” – to pretend to be a local is to put on airs and be exactly that snob that locals (and everyone, really) dislike. on foreign soil, I’ve found that best way to enjoy it all is to be myself, admittedly cheesy and over-excitable personality and all.

so do all the mainstream activities that you want, and don’t disdainfully avoid the famous landmarks (they’re famous for a reason). visiting a new city is not about finding that hidden café or unknown designer boutique and bragging about it later – to be a “local” is not that superficial. learn some phrases (maybe fall in love with a new language) and share some anecdotes, explore some smaller streets and engage the different people that you meet. visit a place in the way you want, not how some supposedly enlightened travel expert, or some article called “eat like the locals” or “where the locals actually hang out” said to.

these are trite words that I have heard uttered many times, especially this past summer, but triteness does not make them any less true: “it is your journey – don’t let others tell you how to live it.”

p.s. I’ve attempted madeleines before with decent results, but this recipe is addictive. intense citrus flavor, juicy blueberries, a crisp exterior with a fluffy, cakey interior…I ate four in one sitting and I’m not ashamed.

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yep. that classic musée d’orsay clock shot.

places I loved
le temps des cerises | a lovely quaint café in the bastille arrondissement with delicious, authentic bistro fare.
michel chaudin | probably the best chocolate I’ve ever had. perfect size, perfect texture, somewhat conventional flavors all perfectly executed.
richart | small (expensive!) chocolates in intriguing flavors – the herbal ones are especially interesting. (and the macarons are delicious as well.)
dalloyau | I wandered in and ended up splurging on the opera cake, some kind of raspberry tart, and a peanut pastry. they were all awesome.
maje | maje’s stock store on rue du cherche-midi carries edgy, funky styles from previous seasons for a fraction of the price.
what for | I bought the coolest shoes I will ever own here. it’s usually pretty pricey, but during the big summer sale, most items were around 50€.
carrefour | oh man, I love this place. if you’ve never heard of carrefour, it’s a cavernous megamarket with fresh produce, solid selection of prepared foods, surprisingly cute shoes – and some of them even have (decent) conveyor belt sushi.

lemon blueberry madeleine diptychmakes 12 madeleines

80g (2.75oz) butter, very soft
100g (3.25oz) caster sugar (I used regular white sugar)
2 eggs
zest from 2 lemons
pinch of kosher salt
100g (3.25oz) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
24 blueberries

fanny zanotti. paris pastry club. london: hardie grant books, 2014.

1 cream butter with a tablespoon of sugar. whisk the remaining sugar with eggs, lemon zest, and pinch of salt in a separate bowl until light and fluffy.
2 gently fold in flour and baking powder until just combined.
3 scoop out a third of the batter into the butter and mix vigorously. transfer into the remaining batter and fold in very gently.
4 scrape the batter into a plastic piping bag (or a strong plastic bag) and chill for minimum 3 hours, maximum 3 days. (I refrigerated overnight.)
5 preheat oven to 430ºF. butter and flour a madeleine pan.
6 snip a 1/2-in hole from the tip of the piping bag and pipe batter three-quarters of the way up the prepared molds. stick two blueberries in each madeleine. reduce oven temperature to 350ºF and bake for 11-14 minutes, until edges are deep-golden brown and the domes are just beginning to brown.
7 remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a wire rack.

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.