While it might be technically fall on the calendar, the weather begs to disagree here in Istanbul. Working all day in the heat has me just about melting by the time I get home and the last thing I want to do is turn on the oven and cook something. I’ve recently started stocking the fridge on Sundays with easy to pull-out items that, after the initial effort of making them, require no effort except that of my teeth to chew them. However, refrigerator size here is much smaller than the standard state-side size. I do have a full fridge here…but it’s still maybe only 1/3 the size of my parents’ back home. This plays a major role in my cooking routine as when I stock the fridge full, I feel I should be considerate of my roommate-She needs to eat too right? Well…she has recently gone back to being A VEGETARIAN! When she told me she was thinking about this life choice, my exact words (I kid you not) were “This may seriously affect the depth of our friendship.” I’m happy to report that actually I’m coping with this new lifestyle and I’m even enjoying it (as much as it pains me to admit). The vegetarian has caused me to seek out more veggies in my own diet and get creative. In trying to find dishes that we both love, I’ve stirred up quite a new love affair with a few Turkish dishes.
Enter THE MEZE: ‘Meze’ are small dishes that are appetizer-like as they are served at the start of a meal. Be careful though as once the meze tray is brought out, you might end up sitting there and eating for hours as usually there is a tray of cold meze, followed by hot meze, followed by then the main course. They are normally vegetables cooked slowly with olive oil added to them. You usually find them at restaurants serving fish but they can really be found anywhere. They are also usually soft or mushy textured… with a consistency of a spread or a dip that one might not normally think to eat lots of…and that’s where the BREAD comes into play. Normally meze is served with bread to scoop up the olive oily meze and savor everything there is-which then usually results in being stuffed full before the main course is served. In this way, meze aren’t appetizers but in most cases they are a meal in itself.
In the Kadıköy Fish Market, there’s an amazing shop that sells pre-made meze all day every day. At Gözde Şarküteri you can find everything from eggplant salad with tomatoes, to potato salad, to stuffed grape leaves or even to different herb cheese spreads. It was my favorite place to pick up meze and take it to meet friends for a picnic by the sea-side. This always ended up turning into a very pricey picnic however as the food is incredibly simple in nature, but a bit expensive as it’s time-consuming to make.
With meze, there is a lot of cooking vegetables first and then cooling them down-a lot of wait time. Also, here, you can’t just go grab pre-chopped veggies. You have to chop, slice, and grate everything yourself. Most meze have only 3-4 ingredients total, and yet the flavor is usually rich and complex.
Mercimek Köfte are lentil meatballs, and they are not technically classified as a meze. You can however find them and other bulgur style meatballs at Gözde Şarküteri though. They aren’t served at restaurants with typical meze fare, but they are definitely a cold, refreshing, and squishy textured food that fits well into my ‘roommate menu’. This spicy vegetarian meatball combines mashed lentils with onions, tomato paste, spices and lemon juice to be mushy and tangy and really filling all at once. It may not be a typical meze, but it’s in the same style as it is made from a few simple fresh ingredients, served cold, and can easily be eaten as an appetizer or a whole meal. It’s also a dish that nearly everyone here knows how to make off the top of their head.
That’s the way it is with this style of food it seems. Everybody knows how to make it as a part of who they are. I actually learned how to make the two meze below from my roommate’s boyfriend. He made the carrot one once for a party and I was crazy for it. When I asked him how he learned to make it, he just gave me this look. The look said everything, but mostly it said ‘How could you not know how to make something so simple?” Because, that’s what meze are: simple recipes that are traditional and not to be deviated from. Every Turkish person knows how to make some version of meze, they are foods that exist in some form in every family, in every household.
……………………………….Continue reading below for recipes………………………
**On the left: Közlenmiş Patlıcan Salatası = Smoked Eggplant Salad
*4-5 long skinny eggplants *3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine *1 teaspoon salt *1 lemon
*2 cups thick plain yogurt (Greek Style works) *good olive oil
To make this, you cook and cool and mush the eggplant. After this, you squeeze the lemon juice on the eggplant and let it sit 5 minutes, then you mix in all the other ingredients and you drizzle oil on top and put it in the fridge. VERY easy, but you have to ‘smoke’ the eggplant. You could do this on a grill, I use the eye on my gas stove. You want to blister the eggplant skins all over. This is worth doing just for the smell of the smoked eggplant!!
**On the Right: Yoğurtlu Havuç Salatası = Yogurt Carrot Salad
*5 carrots, grated, with 1 teaspon of sugar sprinkled over them
*3 cloves garlic *1 teaspoon salt *2 cups thick plain yogurt *1 lemon
You make this by giving the carrots a quick saute for about 10 minutes on the stove top, then let them cool. Next stir eveything together and drizzle with olive oil and put it in the fridge. SO AMAZINGLY FRESH AND YUMMY!
**Mercimek Köfte= Lentil Meatballs
*2 cups red lentils *1 white onion, chopped 2 tablespoons tomato paste
*1 bunch green onions *3 tablespoons fine bulgur wheat (small ones)
*2 teaspoons cumin *salt to taste *red pepper flakes to taste *olive oil *lemon juice
First you cook the lentils (I cover them with water, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let them soak up the water). Then, in a separate pan, saute the white onion with the tomato paste until the onions soften. Stir the tomato-paste-onion mixture into the lentils and mush them around. Stir in the bulgur and wait for 10 minutes for this to absorb some of the lentil liquid. Next, stir in the green onions and spices, add olive oil and lemon juice (the oil and juice is per your taste, add it until you like the taste). Then, you can shape them into little nuggets by pressing them into your fingers and palm.