In past years, I’ve mollified Michigan winters with trips to flavorful destinations, a country’s cuisine inspiring my travels. One birthday, for instance, a friend gave me a collection of Turkish spices — four months later I was waking at dawn to the “call to prayer” in Istanbul.
Turkey is a swirling dervish of a landscape, redolent of ancient spice markets, vendors grilling fish and kebabs in alley ways and dessert carts shuffled along the streets. When traveling through Turkish towns and cities, you are aware you are in a population of people passionate about their food; in short, Turkey is a food-lover’s paradise.
The food reflects cuisine dating back to the period of growth of the Ottoman Empire, which was markedly influenced by Arabic cooking and New World crops such as tomatoes and peppers. Stuffed fruits and vegetables, in particular, are hallmarks of this savory fare.
Stuffed vegetables, known as dolmas, are commonly made with grape leaves, zucchini, onions, peppers, tomatoes, leeks and eggplant. They may be stuffed with ground beef, rice, vegetables and spices and are often simmered in tomato sauce or juice.
Many Eastern Mediterranean countries lay stakes on recipes such as the one below; I recently found similar recipes on the Internet from Iraq, Iran and Azerbanijan. I adapted the recipe below from a favorite cookbook, “Arabesque” by Claudia Roden, who says the name Karniyarik, means “slashed belly.”
I improvised on her recipe by substituting fresh mint for parsley and lamb for ground beef, and I added toasted pine nuts for a nutty, textural crunch. Her recipe also calls for using fresh tomatoes, but at this time of the year, I prefer using diced canned tomatoes, strained.
I’ve found the Near East rice pilafs to be quick and easy accompaniments to dolmas — wonderful for soaking up the flavorful juices of the dish.
This recipe is easily adapted to another vegetarian Turkish classic, Eggplants stuffed with Onions and Tomatoes (Iman Bayildy); simply omit the lamb, add chopped garlic and increase the amount of tomatoes and onion; then, proceed with the recipe. I chose to fry the eggplant before stuffing, but I’ve seen recipes that call for simmering the eggplant in water, instead, after soaking in the sodium bath; that would be a good way to cut fat — eggplants are sponges for oil.
Colorful, sun-drenched Turkish cuisine reflects the way I love to cook and eat, the perfect antidote to (expletives deleted) March in Michigan.