Pros: One of the best introductions to Turkish cooking available. Good historical and cultural info.
Cons: Occasional use of hard-to-find ingredients; some ambiguous recipes.
Reviewed by Brook Elliott
Have you ever picked up a cookbook you were prepared to dislike, yet found yourself drawn into it?
So it was with the just released The Turkish Cookbook: Regional Recipes and Stories, by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman. There were several reasons for this. First off, Sheilah Kaufman is not my favorite cookbook writer. Her texts tend to be superficial, and her recipes written sloppily. Then, too, the pair had teamed up previously, to write A Taste of Turkish Cuisine, a book I didn't care for at all.
There are several problems with A Taste of Turkish Cuisine. To begin with, there is very little text, and what does appear is superficial. There is a section on the history of Turkish cuisine, for instance, in which they attempt to describe, in a mere three pages, foodways that took more than 9,500 years to develop
There are, as you can imagine, few insights, and the authors do not follow up on those they do provide. One of their rare, meaningful comments: "Today there are seven regions in Turkey, each with indigenous agricultural products, cultures, customs, traditions, and local dishes. A same dessert made in the Black Sea area with hazelnuts, would contain pistachio nuts if made in the southeast region of Turkey."
I would like to see some expansion of that idea in the recipe section. But not only are they silent about that, there is no explanatory text at all. Or too little to speak of. In short, the rest of the pages are merely a recipe file.
That, alone, is not cause for condemnation. But, unfortunately, the recipes suffer from using indigenous ingredients which are difficult (even impossible) to find, and which are not described; and, very often, the directions are difficult to understand and follow. Standard terms seem to apply to other than standard techniques, and instructions, once you get down to making the dish, aren't what they seem.
So, when the postman brought me a larger book on the same subject by the same authors my expectations were low.
To be sure, The Turkish Cookbook does share many of the faults of the earlier work. For example, there's a recipe for Lamb Loin and Eggplant Stew that has us prep the eggplant, but never actually put it in a pan. I guess it somehow gets cooked by magic. And there is still some use of specialized ingredients (whatinheck is shelled wheat?) without explaining what they are. But, compared to the original volume, these problems are at a minimum. So much so, in fact, I found myself wondering how the same pair of authors could have improved so much in such a short period of time.
In other words, The Turkish Cookbook is a whole 'nuther story!
For openers, it's gorgeous. Their original attempt was kind of dreary. There were no photos to speak of. And the only attempt to make it aesthetically pleasing was to print ingredient lists and chapter heading with a peach-colored screen. Ho hum! The Turkish Cookbook, (which, by the way, measures an oversized 9 x 11 inches, with 347 pages), on the other hand, is chock-a-block with four-color photos---most of them food porn, but enough others to serve as a visual travelogue of the seven regions of Turkey.
Then there's the text. There's a lot more of it (the history of cuisine section, for instance, has been expanded to 11 pages), much of it insightful. Reading it I now feel I know something about how Turkish cuisine came about, and the various influences from which it grew.
The text doesn't end with a few introductory comments, though. Every recipe includes notes and comments about it's history, or how ingredients may vary, or ways to prepare it differently. Substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients are given as well. For instance, in their Pumpkin, Collard Green, and White Bean Soup, oven-dried cracked corn is called for. But they point out "because this is not available in the United States, either rice or bulgur can be substituted."
Aleppo peppers are an integral part of Turkish cooking, but are like hen's teeth in the U.S. Rather than ignoring that problem, the authors actual provide a way of simulating their flavor by mixing one part cayenne with three parts paprika.
Information like that would have made their original book exponentially better, and turns this one into a useful cookbook.
Another great improvement is arranging the recipes by region. Turkey encompasses a vast area, and it's culinary offerings can vary greatly. The authors were fully aware of this when they wrote their first book, but tended to ignore it. Here the recipes are presented as they'd be made in each region---often with comments that in another region the same dish would be made thus and so.
No recipe collection laid out this way can be tested with Cheftalk's usual approach, which is to prepare at least two dishes. Instead, I decided to make a Turkish dinner, which would not only provide insights into the individual recipes, but how they might work together as well. The menu: Pumpkin, Collard, White Bean Soup, Pearl Onion Stew, Best Rice Pilaf, White Radish Salad, and Orange Curd for dessert.
As noted, the soup calls for an unavailable ingredient, so I subbed bulgur. Overall it was tasty, albeit a bit bland and green flavored. Making it again, I would definitely include the optional dried chilies, and perhaps increase the amount of Aleppo. I'd also decrease the proportion of collards. The addition of cooked chicken or ham would turn this into a fantastic main-dish soup.
Pearl Onion Stew is, perhaps, misnamed, as it's actually a meatball stew. A very nice dish, hearty without being overly heavy. You have to be careful to not overcook the meatballs, though. And keep in mind that while the recipe calls for a pound of pearl onions, nowadays the little alliums are packed in 12 ounce packages. All in all, Turkish comfort food at its best.
I chose Best Rice Pilaf because the author's recommend it as an accompaniment to the stew. "Best" refers to the quality of the rice grown in that particular region. You need that explanation because, as a pilaf, this one isn't even second best. It's bland to the point of tastelessness, and needs considerable kicking up. Dousing it with the broth from the stew helps. But this is one I can't recommend.
On the other hand, the White Radish Salad can only be described as suburb! It's a really nice way of using Daikon (which, btw, the authors call "Japanese radish"), producing a salad with great flavors and color contrasts. Eat it after the main course, because it's a wonderful palette cleanser.
We're not big dessert eaters in this house. When we do have one we prefer it to be refreshing and not overly sweet. The Orange Curd meets those criteria to a fare thee well. In fact, it's even better tasting than a more traditional citrus curd made with eggs.
So, the first five recipes, chosen at random, produced only one with serious negatives. Could the authors maintain that ratio? Actually, they do better than that. There are some dishes you might not like because of personal taste. But we've yet to find another that was actually bad. Among others I particularly recommend: Shrimp and Squid in Lemon Vinaigrette (an incredible room-temperature seafood dish), Lamb Cooked In Clay (which works fantastically as a tagine), and Chickpea Patties (a Turkish version of falafel).
There are lessons to be learned in every cookbook. In this case, it was a matter of relearning a lesson I should have absorbed long ago: never prejudge a book. As we see in The Turkish Cookbook, the same authors, writing on the same subject, can produce works of varied quality.
If you're looking to expand your repertory of ethnic or regional cuisines, or are just interested in a different slant on Mediterranean cooking, The Turkish Cookbook is a good place to start---something I never thought I'd say when the postman first left it at my door.
Recipe: Shrimp and Squid in Lemon Vinaigrette
2 lbs cleaned squid
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp sugar
1 tbls freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbls olive oil
1 tsp lemon zest
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
½ cup olive oil
3 tbls finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 lb peeled, cooked large shrimp, tails removed.
Cut squid into ¼-inch thick rings. Place in a shallow dish and mix with baking soda and sugar. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours. Rinse well, and drain.
Place lemon juice and oil in a 2-quart pot, over medium heat, and add squid rings. Mix well, cover, and cook for two minutes. Stir again, and test a squid ring to see if it's done; it should be opaque and tender. If not, cook for half a minute more. (Be careful not to overcook the squid rings or they will become rubbery) Remove from heat and drain well.
To prepare the dressing:
In a bowl, whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, garlic, salt and pepper to taste.
Gradually whisk in olive oil, whisking constantly. Add the finely chopped parsley.
Arrange the shrimp and squid rings in a shallow round serving dish. Pour the dressing over them and toss well. Serve with a green salad.