Turkish Summer

By Elif Selvili
Photography by Knoxy

The phrases “Chinese food” and “Italian food” are likely to evoke instant palate recognition, complete with smells and tastes. However, when most people hear “Turkish food,” they don’t automatically know what to expect. Maybe that’s because there is no single ingredient or dish that fully defines the cuisine. Turkish cooking is best interpreted as going to the market, choosing what’s in season and preparing it in the simplest possible way.

And as a cook who specializes in this wonderfully diverse cuisine, I am a little reluctant to admit it, but Turkish cooking takes no special skills—only a commitment of time and an appreciation for local, fresh produce.

When I put together this menu of Turkish summer recipes, I realized that, with the exception of the shrimp dish, all the recipes are vegan. The word vegan would probably have no meaning to a Turk; most of our summer recipes don’t include animal products—not because of intentional omission, substitution or restrictive diets, but simply because of common sense. Summer dishes are often served at room temperature, and might languish on a table for two or three hours, the typical length of a Turkish meal with friends. Keeping dishes vegan also makes them lighter and easier to digest on a hot summer day.

I picked two appetizers for this summer menu that can be prepared a day in advance—allowing the cook to relax on the day of the party. Yalanci dolma (fake dolma) is a summer staple and is cool and refreshing to the palate. It’s called a fake dolma because the real dolma includes ground meat, whereas this recipe uses rice, currants and pine nuts as a stuffing. Mercimek köftesi (red lentil patties) become tastier on the second day as the lentils and bulgur are infused with the herbs and spices to create a delicious combination that is light in calories but heavy in nutrition.

The shrimp dish is a specialty of the Aegean, where seafood is much more popular than meat. The sauce can be prepared in advance, allowing the flavors to intensify, and the pilav (cooked rice) recipe is one of the tastiest and the showiest ways to prepare rice. The eggplant for the pilav is traditionally fried, but I prefer to bake it in the oven to reduce the calories and the time spent in front of a hot, sizzling frying pan.

The idea of dessert without eggs, butter or milk might be hard to imagine, but here it is. A?ure is part of a fable that accounts for the unusual combination of nuts, fruits, grains and dried beans. As the story goes, upon finally spotting land, the survivors on Noah’s Ark threw all of their remaining provisions into a pot and made one last meal for the end of their journey. Traditionally, it includes various dried beans, such as navy and garbanzo, but I prefer to use dried fruits and nuts because finding a mushy dried bean in my dessert bowl is a little too disconcerting, even for me! Make it the day before to get all the flavors to blend and to check off another item on the to-do list.

The last word on this summer Turkish menu is that it’s ideal for people who shun recipes, hate running to the store for that one forgotten ingredient and don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen cooking while everyone else socializes on the patio. Substitute to your heart’s content, eyeball the measurements, have a sip of the cooking wine and don’t forget to brag that it’s not only good, but also good for you!

Yalanci Dolma (Grape Leaves Stuffed With Pine Nuts, Currants And Rice)
Mercimek Köftesi (Red Lentil Balls)
Ege Usulü Firinda Karides (Aegean-Style Shrimp)
Ashure (Noah's Pudding)