Tuesday, June 21, 2011

lamb in Turkey

When we plan a vacation, my numero uno priority is to compile a list of restaurants and foods to try. I hate to miss out on the best local cuisine, especially if it's probably the only time we'll ever visit the certain destination. Special meals make special memories. But if the city is very large, for example Istanbul, sometimes schlepping across town to hunt down a "must-try" place can become a fiasco.

July 2009, we spent 2 weeks traveling through Turkey. Turkey had  never even been on my radar, but I'm so glad we got the opportunity to see this amazing country. It has some of the best ancient ruins in the world (Ephesus), landscape that looks like another planet (Cappadocia) and a crazy metropolis full of different cultures and my favorite cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum (Aya Sofia in Istanbul). 

But back to the food. Kofte is a Turkish specialty - grilled meatballs made from beef and/or lamb. One of the most popular places to eat them in Istanbul is Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi which has been around since 1920. See?

It's conveniently located right near the major tourist sites, making it the perfect lunch spot. And the kofte are delicious.

But I still wanted to try kofte in a restaurant geared towards locals. A hidden gem. And I just so happened to have the place on my restaurant list: Kofteci Huseyin. It wasn't too far from our hotel, based on the marker I had placed on my map of Istanbul. So one day for dinner, we trekked up the hill to Taksim Square. (No one told me how hilly Istanbul is - nearly as bad as San Francisco. It definitely made getting around the city a sweaty endeavor.) And then we wandered around the alleys where I had placed the restaurant on the map, argued a bunch and FINALLY found it. And it was closed. And full of old men playing okey. Dejected, we picked a random restaurant nearby and much to Todd's chagrin, it ended up being vegetarian.

I wanted to try again on the last day of our trip, but someone had a hangover from staying out until 4am with his buddies at the conference they were attending. Hmph.

It ended up being a comical memory, but that's how it goes when you're crazy like me. But I'll continue to make my "must-try" lists because I don't want to be eating bad vegetarian food in a foreign city every night of vacation. I may just rely a bit more on recommendations from locals.

Here's the kofte recipe I use to recreate our time in Turkey. It's even more delicious when made with ground lamb. There's just something special about the combination of lamb and mint (although I've never had mint jelly - that just sounds gross.)

Superfast Kofte
(adapted from Cooking Light, March 2007)

1/2 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground red pepper
1/8 tsp. ground allspice
1 lb. lean ground round (or ground lamb)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Cooking spray

Combine all ingredients, except the meat, in a large bowl. Add the meat and stir until just combined. Divide mixture into 8 portions. Shape each portion into a 2-inch oblong patty. Place patties on a broiler pan coated in cooking spray. Broil 4 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Watch carefully for grease splattering onto the oven coils!

Serve with pitas, sliced tomatoes and plain yogurt (or this yogurt sauce):

Yogurt Sauce for Kofte

1/2 cup plain non-fat yogurt
A dollop of sour cream (if you want a richer sauce)
A splash of lemon juice
1 Tbsp. chopped mint
1/2 cup grated cucumber (optional), salted and drain 10 minutes to remove excess water
Mix all ingredients in a small serving bowl.

...And one more recipe. This is the ubiquitous side dish of Turkey. It rounds out the above meal nicely.

Piyaz (Turkish white bean salad)
(adapted from Simply Recipes)

1 14.5 oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 tiny red onion, thinly sliced
juice from 1 lemon
2 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
A big handful of shredded lettuce

Slice the onion, squeeze lemon juice over it and let it sit while you prep the other ingredients. This helps to cut the onion's sharpness a little.

Combine all ingredients except lettuce in a serving dish. Prepare a few hours ahead of time to allow flavors to develop in the fridge. Add lettuce just before serving so it doesn't wilt.