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.
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pita bread

pita 1

over the years, I have attempted bread a few times, from very easy pita recipes to intensive brioche-based babkas. so much flour, so much yeast carnage, so many tears.

all of a sudden, after five years of sad pizza crusts (yeah, I couldn’t even make a good pizza crust) and tasteless dense bread loaves, I had a yeast breakthrough. after finally producing an edible loaf of bread (and then a few more to assure myself the first wasn’t a fluke), I returned to the pita. how does one achieve a fluffy, risen pita, yet retain the characteristic pocket of air inside? the recipes I tried had the pocket, but not fluffy texture inside the pita shell that I loved.

then michael solomonov published his long-awaited zahav: a world of israeli cooking. these days, a cookbook is more than a compendium of recipes – it serves as a culinary memoir for the chef. in zahav, solomonov relates with raw honesty how personal tragedy catalyzed his reconnection with israel, and from there, how his desire to bring israeli culinary experiences to america culminated in zahav, located in philadelphia, pairing relatable writing with accessible and (so far) delicious recipes.

there are incidences of cultural appropriation, most glaringly “israeli salad,” a salad with arab origins which solomonov admits is “technically a misnomer,” but persists in identifying as israeli. however, zahav is overall a worthy addition to the culinary world, where politics often take the back burner to inspired dishes. the book is a heartfelt introduction of israeli food to the uninitiated, and a love letter to solomonov’s family and friends who supported him and to the food that sustained him through times of difficulty. another point of recommendation: his pita bread recipe is the one I’ve been searching for, the neo of pita breads.

hm. maybe finding perfect pita wasn’t such a good idea. two pitas in and I’ve lost all self-control. help!


pita 2
makes 8-12 pitas

2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
2 tsp sugar
2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
scant 2 cups (250g) bread flour
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp olive oil

michael solomonov and steven cook. zahav: a world of israeli cooking. new york: houghton mifflin harcourt, 2015.

1 mix together 1/2 cup water, yeast, and sugar in a small bowl. let stand until foamy, ~5 minutes.
2 combine the flours and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment. mix on low speed until blended. add the yeast mixture, another 1/2 cup water, and oil and mix on low until the dough forms a ball that pulls clear of the sides and bottom of the bowl. (if the mixture doesn’t form a ball after a minute, add a tbsp of water.)
3 the moment the dough starts to pull clear, add another 1/2 cup water and continue mixing until incorporated. the dough should look quite wet and feel sticky when slapped with a clean hand, but should not stick. (if it sticks, add more flour, 1/2 tbsp at a time.)
4 cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, ~1 hour. (you could also let it rise in the fridge overnight.)
5 preheat to 480ºF convection (500º conventional) and place a baking stone or inverted baking sheet on a rack in the oven to preheat as well.
6 roll the dough into 8-12 balls the size of baseballs (3-in diameter). cover with a cloth and let rise until they are the size of softballs (3.7-in diameter).
7 roll each dough ball to 1/4-in thickness, the size of a hockey puck (3-in diameter) with a floured rolling pin on a floured work surface. place 2-3 at a time on the preheated baking sheet and bake until puffed and cooked through, ~3 minutes. remove with tongs, serve immediately, or let cool.