Wednesday 16 October 2013

The delights of Turkish markets

When I'm travelling and arrive somewhere new, my first excursion is usually to check out the local food market, even if it means getting up unfeasibly early. I love a good market. I always think you can get under the skin of a place by seeing the fresh food on display, what's in season here, what breads do they have, what local cheeses? Abroad, even the most provincial market tends to put anything in the UK to shame. 

I was lucky enough to be in Turkey last week, in that in-between time when the last of the summer sun is still strong, but it can also pour down with rain. In Istanbul, the tourist crowds were still out in force in the Grand Bazaar and Spice Markets, drinking in the colours, sounds and sweet-spicy aromas from the produce on display.

The temptation to buy up bags of differently coloured spices, from coriander, cumin, Turkish saffron (dried marigold flowers), jasmine tea, or an aphrodisiac mixture - plenty of herb blends labelled 'viagra' - or to bring home a string of aubergine shells or dried okra was overwhelming.

We ate well in Istanbul, picnicking on mackerel sandwiches beside the Galata Bridge, where the fish are caught, filleted and grilled on the boats bobbing alongside the quay, before the fillets are stuffed into baps with salad for you. Trays of lemon juice, jars of pickles, and seasonings are brought round the tables to accompany this freshest of fast food snacks.

The best restaurant was easily the Lokanta Maya, just on the north side of the Galata Bridge, and serving modern Mediterranean/Aegean food, with an emphasis on fresh seasonal produce. Zucchini fritters, deep-fried anchovies, and smoked sea bream set exactly the right note, and dinner ended on a high note with the sublime chocolate and bergamot ice-cream.

At Lokanta Maya we also picked up a copy of Aegean Flavours, the cookbook by the restaurant's New York-trained chef Didem Şenol, which also concentrates on just-out-of-the-ground, or just-off-the-tree, produce, giving many recipes a modern Aegean twist. 

At the end of the summer season, a trip out to the provinces means you can browse happily through the local markets with room to move. The market at Yalikavak, on the Bodrum peninsula, has always been a delight – fresh seasonal produce piled high and beautifully presented. It’s not just me who thinks so: I was delighted to see that the market at Yalikavak gets its own chapter in Aegean Flavours.

By October, the Yalikavak market takes on an autumnal air, with apples, pears, pumpkins, alongside the courgette flowers. The sheer variety of produce is stunning, with aubergines, say, in pink, mauve, deep purple, short, round, or long. Or a stall devoted entirely to different kinds of grapes.

We were looking for bergamots, to recreate Didem Şenol’s chocolate and bergamot pairing. But while there were plenty of citrus, with lemons, limes, and mandalins [sic], bergamots won’t come until nearer the end of the year. 

We did come away with a good haul of fat aubergines, Turkish radishes, greens and local cheeses, ready to be mixed and dressed into mezes and salads.

2 good-sized aubergines
1 clove garlic
Olive oil
Tahini (optional)

Sit one of the aubergines on its bottom so that it fits snugly on a gas ring. Turn the gas on medium-high and let the aubergine skin char. It will turn papery and brown or back. Turn the aubergine carefully over the flame until it’s charred all over, then place in a bowl. Do the same for the second aubergine.

Once the aubergines are cool enough to handle, strip or rub off the burnt skin and discard, leaving just the flesh in the bowl. This is a messy business, so you might want to wear Marigolds.

Mash the aubergine flesh thoroughly with a fork.

Heat a little olive oil in a pan. Crush the garlic and add to the pan, keeping the heat very low so that the garlic doesn’t catch or brown. As soon as it starts a gentle sizzle, remove from the heat and add to the aubergine flesh. Mix in well, adding a little more olive oil to get a soft and silky texture. Add salt and pepper to taste, then you can also add a level tablespoonful of tahini. This will give the babaganoush a bit more depth and a softer flavour. Leave it out if you want the smoky notes of the aubergine to come through more strongly.

Pomegranate, melon and tulum peyniri
Half a pomegranate
Quarter melon
200g tulum peyniri (Turkish goat's cheese), or a reasonably hard goat's cheese, or feta
Olive oil
Pomegranate molasses
Mint leaves (optional)
Salt (maybe)

Pick out the seeds and juice from the pomegranate into a bowl. Cut both the melon and the cheese into 1cm cubes. Add to the pomegranate seeds, and toss together. Dress with the pomegranate molasses and olive oil, and taste to see if any salt is needed to bring out the flavours. The cheese may make it salty enough already. Garnish with mint leaves to serve.

Ready for picking: from the tree to the plate in approximately one minute.

Salad of Turkish radishes
Gherkin-sized cucumbers and beetroot-sized radishes.
I make this at home with my long purple winter radishes from the allotment, but it tastes perfectly summery with these crisp crimson Turkish radishes, so big they are doppelgangers for beetroot.

3 beetroot-sized radishes
Extra virgin olive oil
Pomegranate molasses
1 teasp coarse sea salt
A handful of fresh dill

Wash and scrub the radishes, and peel them if you'd rather. They look more attractive on the plate with the pink skin on, but it can be a bit tough. Slice the radishes as finely as possible into almost transparent discs and arrange on a large plate. Sprinkle with the salt, and leave for 5-10 minutes.

Drizzle with olive oil and pomegranate molasses. Just before serving, finely chop the dill leaves, discarding the stalks, and scatter over the radishes.

Monday 7 October 2013

Which seeds for 2014?

It's seed catalogue season once again and the hefty tomes are thudding on to the mat at the Zia Maison. In previous years the cover pictures were getting glossier and glossier, rather like highly groomed supermodels. This year I notice both Kings Seeds and Suttons have gone retro with a hark back to the catalogues of a more monochrome age.

I'm thumbing through them looking for some new varieties to grow in 2014. This year's newbies have done well. The long purple radishes were fantastic, whether sliced in salads, added to stir-fries, or cooked like any other root vegetable. The mouse melons were great fun and much more prolific than I expected. The puntarelle is shaping up nicely for winter. So, what to try next season?

I'm starting a new asparagus bed next spring, and my son has requested colourful carrots. Can anyone recommend any particular varieties for either of these?