I’ve been on a real kick for Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food recently, with Turkish, Moroccan and Greek food being at the top of that list. Earlier this week, when out shopping at Trader Joe’s, we stopped at Cafe Istanbul at Easton for dinner, and one of the things we enjoyed for dinner was their Appetizer Sampler, which we absolutely loved.
The Appetizer Sampler comes with a bunch of different cold salads, and I decided to try my hand at reproducing them at home. Some came very close, others not so much. But everything we made was extremely delicious and hit the spot.
Small bites in Turkey are called “meze”, and they are the equivalent of Spanish tapas or French Hors D’Ouevres. Here are the ones we tried to make at home.
First, my personal favorite, the Kisir, which is Turkish tabbouleh. Whereas most tabbouleh I’ve had has been extremely heavy on the parsley, this is the exact opposite – while parsley is in there (and a cup of parsley at that!) it’s an afterthought and not the star of the party. The flavor of this salad is complex – lots of different flavors working together here, and an incredible mouth feel. The fine bulghur wheat used in this salad reminded me of couscous, although they are two different things entirely. I was able to find the more obscure ingredients for this (the fine bulghur wheat, pepper paste, tahini, etc) at various Mediterranean supermarkets in town, namely two that are located in the Bethel Center Mall (same place that Cafe Istanbul’s other location, Cafe Shish Kebab, is located). My husband thought the addition of the hot pepper paste made it too spicy – I’m a spice wimp and thought that it was just right. If you don’t like any kind of heat in your salad, then substitute a third tablespoon of the mild pepper paste for the hot.
recipe adapted from InterFaith Cultural Organization
2 c. fine bulghur wheat
2 c. boiling water
2 medium tomatoes, seeded
1 large onion
2 green peppers
6-7 green onions
2 cloves minced garlic
1 cup loosely packed parsley
8-10 fresh mint leaves
2 tbsp. mild pepper paste
1 tbsp. hot pepper paste
3 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. sun-dried tomato paste
3/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. lemon juice
2 tbsp. tahini
1/4 c. pine nuts
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. salt (plus more to taste)
1 tsp. cumin powder
Chop the onion, green onions, and garlic finely. Set them aside. Chop the green peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes into tiny cubes and set aside. In a small food processor, process the parsley, mint and pinenuts until finely minced. Set aside.
Pour 2 cups of hot water on bulghur and cover it so that the bulghur soaks up the water and softens it. After 10-15 minutes (when water is completely absorbed), fluff the grain with a fork and add the pepper pastes, tomato pastes, tahini and all other spices and stir until evenly dissipated throughout the grain. Add the onions, herb/pine nut mixture, and the vegetables and mix well. Add the lemon juice and olive oil and stir. Chill before serving – the longer you wait before serving it (and the more time it has to blend the flavors), the better it is.
My second favorite appetizer, the Yaprak Dolmasi, was definitely one of the more time-consuming recipes. Cafe Istanbul’s version is just out and out awesome (this coming from someone who usually hates vegetarian stuffed grape leaves), and the version of the recipe I got at Cafe Fernando is similar, but not quite the same. I modified that recipe a bit to add a little more sugar, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses, which gave it a sweetness that was similar to Cafe Istanbul’s. These definitely improve with age. What was just good last night is addictive today. But now I see why they charge so much for so few at these at Cafe Istanbul (they charge $6.25 for 4 of them). This makes way more than we needed – easily a good quantity for parties.
Yaprak Dolmasi (Stuffed Vine Leaves)
adapted from Cafe Fernando
1 large (1 lb. net) jar vine leaves in brine, washed with warm water and drained
4 medium onions, diced
2 c. medium grain rice, washed under cold water and drained
1 c. flat leaf parsley, chopped finely
3/4 c. olive oil
1/3 c. pine nuts
1/4 c. dried currants
2 tbsp. pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp. dried mint flakes
1 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 c. graunlated sugar
2 tbsp lemon salt
juice of half a lemon
Dice the onions and saute with 1/2 c. of the olive oil. When they turn translucent, add the pine nuts and saute for 5 more minutes. Add the rice and stir constantly for 5-10 minutes until the rice is translucent. Add the spices (mint, cinnamon, lemon salt, black pepper, dried currants, sugar, molasses and allspice) and chopped parsley. After another quick stir, add 1/2 c. of boiling water and simmer on low medium heat for 15-20 minutes (ours took far less time) until all the liquid is absorbed by the rice mixture. Take off heat and let cool.
Place a single grape leaf (top pointing away from you, veins facing you) on a cutting board and add about 1 tbsp. rice mixture (for bigger leaves, use more – for smaller, use less). Bring the bottom up over the rice, fold the sides inward and then roll the leaf like a cylinder. Repeat until all rice mixture is used. Set aside any torn leaves for later. When you’re done rolling, take the torn leaves and line the bottom of a Dutch oven (like a Le Creuset) to keep the stuffed leaves from burning. Place the rolled leaves in the pot, as close together as possible, making a second layer if needed. Cover with the remaining 1/4 c. olive oil, juice of half a lemon, and 2 cups water, and then invert a heat safe plate over the rolls to keep them weighted down. Bring the water to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer until all the water is absorbed (45-60 minutes). These are typically served cold, so chill before serving.
I love the flavor of Cafe Istanbul’s Patlican Salatasi (Babaganoush), but not the texture of it – it’s still kind of stringy which I didn’t like. So I went off on my own tangent with this one, using the original as inspiration. I adapted the recipe from Grand Circle Travel, but added some tahini to it. I enjoyed this version more than Cafe Istanbul’s – it has a nice creaminess and tanginess to it.
The hummus is pretty textbook – much like my usual, but I used a different recipe this time. Not one worth repeating as I prefer my own recipe, which I’ll blog about some other time.
Patlican Salatasi (Roasted Eggplant Salad)
recipe adapted from Grand Circle Travel
1 large eggplant
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium tomato, seeded and diced
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. plain yogurt
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. tahini
2 tbsp. feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350. Slice eggplant in half lengthwise and place, face down, on lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until skin is charred.
Allow eggplant to cool slightly. Use spoon to remove pulp from each half, scooping into food processor. Discard skin. Pulse eggplant until it is finely chopped, but not so much that it is pureed. You want it to still have some texture, but not be stringy at all.
Transfer into medium sized bowl, and then add remaining ingredients to bowl. Mix well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
More meze tomorrow….