The more eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that I’m Turkish Cypriot by heritage.
This has many advantages in London, like having the ability to catch out unsuspecting waiters in Turkish restaurants by suddenly switching to Turkish halfway through the food order (incidentally, I find this usually results in a better meal) and being able to navigate my way through and feel at home in Green Lanes in Haringey, or “Turkish Town”, as I call it.
One of the best advantages though is having had access all my life to a vast array of Turkish food. My mum and grandma cooked almost entirely Turkish meals for us when I was younger and everything was cooked from scratch. I remember school friends coming round for dinner and being served stewed Okra with Bulgur rice. A friend once exclaimed that it was much better than the chicken kievs she had at home. It’s odd isn’t it, to think that back then, in the mid-1990s, the concept of eating something like Okra had not been Jamie Oliver-fied yet, and the daily eating of most foreign cuisines was confined mainly to immigrant families.
And so, now I’m in the last year of my twenties, I’m trying to learn how to make the Turkish dishes that I grew up on. It’s harder than you might think, even for a keen cook – for some reason lentil soup (“mercemek corba” in Turkish) doesn’t seem to the taste the same when it’s not made on my grandma’s gas stove in Cockfosters. And as simple as broad-bean and courgette salad (“pakla”) sounds, I defy you to make a version of it that matches up to my mother’s, or for that matter, a version of lamb shish kebab that rivals my father’s.
Seriously, if you manage to make either dish taste better I will personally come to your house and shake your hand.
I thought I’d start by blogging a crowd pleaser and life-long favourite of mine: lamb koftes.
These are a classic Turkish dish – meaty, succulent and rich, with a hint of spice. They would make a wonderful starter served on their own or a filling main course with some salad and pilav. For an extravagant Turkish experience though, serve them as I have set out below (although I warn you my method is not entirely traditional) – on a platter with tzatziki (“cacik”), grilled halloumi, chilli tomato sauce, tomato and onion salad, and garnishes of extra parsley, raw onion and chillies (yes, raw onion, that’s how Turkish people roll).
For the koftes, you will need:
- 800g to 1kg of minced lamb
- 2 large brown onions or 3 medium brown onions
- 2 tablespoons baharat (a Turkish spice – see below for more info)*
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 egg
- several large handfuls of chopped parsley
- the juice of half a lemon
- sea salt
- vegetable oil, if you’re shallow frying (or you can grill them instead)
*Baharat note: Literally, “spices” in Turkish. You can now buy this premixed in Waitrose, although if you want to be old school about it, you can make it up to your own taste at home by mixing together in a pestle and mortar allspice, cardamom seeds, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ground nutmeg, black peppercorns, paprika and dried red chillies. I’m using Bart’s version today.
1. Heat up a frying pan and, once it is very, very hot, add your cumin seeds to toast them. You’ll know they’re done when you can start to smell the cumin’s fragrance being released, around 2 to 3 minutes. Once done, transfer to a pestle and mortar and lightly crush.
2. Grate your 2 onions until they are shredded very finely. This isn’t the best job if you’re prone to onion tears, however, the finely grated onion keeps the moisture inside of the lamb mixture and almost dissolves into the meat whilst cooking, so it will be worthwhile taking this step rather than simply chopping your onion.
3. Place your lamb mince in a large bowl, and season liberally with salt. Add more than you think you’ll need here – 3 or 4 large pinches at least. Next, add your crushed cumin seeds and baharat, and mix in with your hands so all of the meat is coated in the spices. Then add the grated onion, and finely chopped parsley, and mix well. Once everything is well combined, add your egg and mix through to help bind the mixture.
4. Now the fun bit. Using your hands, take around 1 tablespoon of meat per kofte and roll each one in your palms to form a slightly flattened oval shape. Arrange on a plate, slightly separated, cover with cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes before cooking (although, these will be happy for far longer if you’re making in advance for a dinner party).
5. Whilst the koftes are resting in the fridge, you can prepare the other dishes below (if you’re making them). When you’re ready to serve, you can either grill or fry your koftes. We grill them at home usually (they take 10 minutes or so on each side, under a medium-hot heat), but if you’re pushing the boat out these taste immense fried in some shallow vegetable oil. Simply warm up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil and cook the koftes in batches for around 3 minutes on each side, or until nicely browned all over. If frying be sure to place the cooked koftes on some kitchen roll to blot off any excess oil before serving.
And there you have it… the core to your Turkish feast is done!
Now to make the side dishes :
1. Chilli tomato sauce – heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan and gently brown 1 roughly chopped onion, 3 garlic cloves and 1 finely chopped red chilli (with seeds left in). Pour in 1 x 400g can of chopped tomatoes, season with salt and gently simmer for around 20 to 30 minutes. After about 15 minutes add 2 teaspoons of brown sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice. Once cooked, puree the mixture with a handheld blitzer and decant into a small serving bowl.
2. Quick Tzatziki/Cacik – grate 1 whole cucumber, and mix into 500g of Greek style natural yoghurt with 1/2 a clove of crushed garlic, lemon, salt, black pepper and a generous lug of olive oil.
3. Tomato and onion salad – roughly chop tomatoes and cucumbers into evenly sized pieces, mixed with thinly slices raw red onion, and dress with olive oil, salt, lemon and a dash of white wine vinegar. You can add salad leaves and/or olives as desired.
4. Grilled halloumi – slice your halloumi into thick portions (I like them about 1/2 an inch at least) and either place under a very hot grill or onto a hot griddle (if you want to get the griddle lines as below), turning every now and then so that the chese grills evenly. This should take around 10 minutes or so, although cooking time will vary depending on how thickly you have cut your halloumi and how close to the grill you put it. Squeeze lemon juice over once cooked.
5. Garnishes – roughly chop some extra parsley and raw onion and leave on the side of the platter with pickled chillies and lemon wedges, ready for people to pile into their pitta breads.
The ideal way to enjoy these is to load up a pitta bread with absolutely everything – kofte, salad, tzatziki, chilli sauce, extra parsley and pickled chillies, squeeze lemon juice over it and then tuck in.
ps. For future reference, I should also note that this recipe is South Beach Diet Phase One friendly if you don’t have the pitta bread and simply eat it as a salad. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, a South Beach Diet post will be with you imminently…