Yayla CorbasI – a comfort food

My first pregnancy was ticking like a time bomb waiting to implode.  Until finally it did.  Here’s what happened…

My husband and I waited to have children – and found ourselves on the brink of having waited too long. I sat in the doctor’s office, anxious for the results of our fertility tests. Dr. Patrizio pronounced prescriptive words and foreign concepts – unfamiliar even before they rolled off his thickly-accented tongue. “IVF…ICK-zeee…COH…CVS…” I scribbled on a piece of paper, hoping I caught enough of the acronyms to look them up later, and tried to keep up as he hurled terms toward me like a spelling bee massacre. The gist was that, while not impossible, it was improbable we could conceive without intervention.

The following week, we met with a nurse assistant who shared with us an entirely different, yet equally strange, set of vocabulary and instructions. She pulled out visual aids, a wad of scripts to fill, and a photocopied diagram of what appeared to be an eight-year-old rendering of a female human body, with dotted-line arrows veering off to various fleshy body parts, ripe for injection. With broad, demonstrative strokes, she went back over the arrows with her ball-point pen, as if the emphasis somehow made everything clear.

Tolga returned later that day with the pharmacy’s version of Bloomingdale’s BIG brown bag, filled with all sorts of individually-wrapped IVF accessories and medications, some needing refrigeration. I cleared out the leftover lasagna to make room for the “new tenants” and stood in front of the bag, unable to fathom how ANYONE would allow non-medical professionals to go home with these implements – to say NOTHING of actually putting them to the prescribed use. I had a slight complicating factor – a childhood cancer that, after etching into me various physical scars, also bequeathed a reactionary fear of injections. I cried for 3 straight days. And Tolga smoked countless sympathetic cigarettes.

Took some getting used to, but eventually, and true to the advertised odds, on our third cycle we were pregnant. We started to think of names. Then, one night after moving a box, a stupid box of trains, the ground on which I stood started to shift. I was desperate to get out of Connecticut, where we’d been living temporarily, and get back to New York City. I had started packing months before the actual move and I lifted a box of old HO-scale model trains, heavier than anticipated. Almost immediately, from deep within I felt an intense, trembling ache. I put myself on the couch, pretended to be listening to my husband talk, and panicked in silence that my relentless inability to sit still may have harmed my pregnancy. It was the first time I hadn’t turned to Tolga for comfort.

The next night at tap dance class, I felt the same ache. And later that night, at a friend’s apartment in the city, I started to bleed. Frantic, I called Tolga, then I called the doctor.

The morning’s ultrasound revealed a pool of blood hovering over our kidney-bean-sized baby. Dr. Patrizio looked over the photos, shook his head, and uttered, porca miseria… – a familiar Italian phrase to me, as I had heard my grandmother use it hundreds of times, usually reserved for moments of more-than-mild catastrophe. I was bed-rested at 8 weeks.

The next couple of months were a blur of bleeding, “googling,” hospital stays, and worry. I understood now the inner workings of torture: break the spirit by providing a constant level of anxiety and uncertainty, while simultaneously depriving of food (during each hospital stay, in case emergency surgery was needed) and sleep. In the winter of my annual February discontent, I went especially stir crazy – on the bed, on the couch, in the hospital. I had long hours of fear, of feeling trapped, and of an acute guilt for the predicament in which we now found ourselves. At 20 weeks, we knew we were having a boy. He seemed perfect in every way, except for the threat – quite literally – looming above him.

I prayed for my son’s life, I prayed for resolution – one way or another, I prayed for forgiveness.

During those months, we moved back to New York. I was home again. And despite the noise and the crowds and the air pollution, I could breathe easier. Then, one afternoon, resolution came. Lying on the couch, reading nothing of consequence, I felt a rush of fluid. I was bleeding again, or so I thought. I called my new doctor – my college friend and maternal fetal medicine specialist – who cradled me in her care at Cornell as soon as we moved back. At the hospital, I learned the blood clots had weakened the gestational sac to the point that, likely, it had been slowly leaking amniotic fluid until it finally ruptured like a water balloon. And at 23.5 weeks, he could not survive, his lungs hadn’t yet fully formed. It was too soon. Just a little too soon for him. Adding searing insult to this egregiously painful injury, I had to physically go through labor and childbirth – but without the tremendous prize at the end.

I was discharged two days later – on Mother’s Day.  From the passenger seat, I mused sardonically about the coincidence as we pulled out of the hospital’s parking garage. The sun shone brightly against a brilliant, blue sky. Weather knows nothing of heartache or sympathy. Finally, in the privacy afforded to me in our own car – privacy otherwise unavailable during the last 48 hours of my hospital stay, I broke down in tears and wept the entire way back to Morningside Heights.

I can’t recall a single moment in my life that left me so bereft, so empty as that sequence of events – being in the delivery room, giving birth to my baby, and then leaving without him. A pregnancy so difficult to achieve, so long in the making, was lost cruelly and unceremoniously.

It’s been six years now. Six years. I wish I could say it no longer saddens me – or that I’ve forgiven myself. Parts of me have healed, other parts not yet reconciled are usually buried in the flurry of current-day activities. Sometimes my idle mind wanders to him, wondering who he would’ve been, what bedtime stories would be his favorites, what his hugs would feel like, how he’d feel about his little sister. And I am reminded of the great harm – albeit unknowingly – I am capable of inflicting.

Good things don’t necessarily come to those who wait. Sometimes you get lucky, despite yourself, and sometimes you don’t. And to ease miserable moments, I make Yayla Corbasi, Eastern Anatolian yogurt soup – my favorite go-to Turkish comfort food. It is yet another wonderful way the Turks use yogurt for savory nourishment. If you’re in need of comfort food, and want something different than mac-n-cheese, this won’t let you down.

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 ½ – 2 tsp salt
  • ½ cup Arborio rice (Note: White rice is what Anne uses, and what seems to be generally used in Turkey, but, for my Italian origins, I find Arborio with its creamy texture especially suited to this soup)
  • 3 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 3 tbpsn white rice flour
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 2 tbspn melted butter, salted or unsalted
  • 1 tsp dried mint

Instructions:

  1. Bring 6 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt to a boil; add Arborio rice, cover, and cook over medium heat for 30-35 minutes, until the rice is tender. Then, maintain a low simmer…
  2. In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, egg yolks, and white rice flour until smooth. Slowly add 1 cup of cold water to the yogurt mixture.yayla corbasI
  3. Add the yogurt mixture to the soup, passing the yogurt mixture through a sieve. Stir and cover for an additional 10-15 minutes, cooking the egg yet being careful not to boil.
  4. Melt the butter in a small saucepan until it gently sizzles, and add the dried mint, crushing it as it is added to the butter. Stir, and then slowly add to the soup along with additional salt, to taste.

This soup not only stays well in the refrigerator but also freezes well. If it thickens the next day, simply add water, heat, and serve.

KadInbudu – an ode to ladies’ thighs

Today’s tidbit is a hats-off to gorgeous, meaty-thighed women everywhere. For in Turkish cuisine, voluptuous female thighs are so revered that they have a kofte named after them – kadInbudu, or ladies’ thighs. Indeed there is no higher honor! Once I asked my brother-in-law and medical researcher, Koray, (note:  my husband, under such interrogation conditions, simply cannot be trusted for an objective, empirical response) how it was that such shanks as my generous Italian backside could be desirable, but he reassured me of an authentic cultural appreciation for “nice buns” and thighs. And he concluded his affirmation with a shrug and straightforward medical response, “it’s not healthy to look hungry.”

So for all my lady-friends and family, here’s how to make (and sustain!) those kadInbudu, courtesy of Anne’s expert cooking:

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound beef
  • 1 medium-sized onion, minced
  • 1/4 cup arborio rice
  • 2 tbspn olive oil
  • 4 eggs
  • mix of all-purpose flour and unseasoned bread crumbs
  • salt
  • pepper
  • canola oil for frying

Instructions:

  1. mince onion (I use a food processor because chopping onions makes me cry!) and sautee on medium heat in 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  2. add 1/4 cup of rice, coating the grains with the onion/olive oil mix (special note:  my mother-in-law always measures in Turkish tea glasses, which was confusing at first, but I’ve settled on the following conversion:  1 tea glass=1/2 cup)
  3. add 1/2 cup water
  4. add 1 tsp salt
  5. cover and cook over low heat until rice is soft

In a separate pan,

  1. cook 2/3 of the meat with 1/4 cup of water on medium heat until water has evaporated
  2. add 1/4 tsp salt
  3. mix both pans together, and let cool

Last part,

  1. mix remaining 1/3 cup of uncooked meat with 1 egg and 1/2 tsp black pepper
  2. form small, oval-sized burgers (about 3″ long, by 2″ wide and 1″ deep)
  3. in one bowl, whisk 4 eggs, in another bowl add a mix of all-purpose flour, unseasoned bread crumbs and 1/4 tsp salt
  4. dip/coat each kofte in the flour mix first, then dip into the egg (I like to do a double-dip for extra crispy coating!)
  5. fry in canola oil until golden brown (my mother-in-law fries in a pan on the stove, I use a deep fryer – either works just fine)
  6. …and while you have your deep fryer out, you may as well do a few potatoes to go with!

A Fig Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Turkish Figs with Walnuts & Hazelnuts (Incir TatlIsI)

In May of 2006, my in-laws took us on a road trip from Ankara to the Aegean.  The morning of departure was beautiful – warm, cloudless, dry…and far away from the realities of my infertility waiting for me back home in New York.

My brother-in-law bid us farewell and hurled the contents of his Hacettepe University water bottle at the car as we were leaving. It’s customary in Turkey to splash water on a car embarking on a trip to wish a speedy return, like the ebb and flow of a tide. And while typical to use a bucket – an instance in which more is better, or, at least more accurate to this example – his choice of vessel demonstrated his modernized, waste-not urban take on the tradition.

For the first couple of hours, the car window framed a rocky, semi-arid Anatolian terrain. On the stereo, Turkish/Arab hip-hop belly-dancing from an old cassette tape blasted over the soft roar from the open windows. “These are Tolga’s favorites,” his father shared with an inaccurate paternal pride.  The conversation then segued into why my husband wouldn’t shave his beard, why wouldn’t we consider buying a summer place in Turkey to be closer to the family who, of course, weren’t getting any younger (insert whatever medical test results his parents received the week before…), and then shifted to a bride – any bride – for Tolga’s happily-single younger brother. A few minutes later, a small herd of sheep waddled across the road, and Anne (mother) began poking Baba (father) to slow down.  “Yavas, Oktay! YAAAAHVAAAHSH!!!” (slow, Oktay, slow)  My father-in-law, who was already exceedingly cautious and uncomfortable behind the wheel, having had a government chauffeur for most of his working days, and, otherwise, a car without power steering, narrowly escaped a ditch on the side of the road.

We stopped to refuel – a couple of ounces of Turkish tea. Blazing sun cast an amber glow through prismed Turkish tea glasses nestled in small gold-painted porcelain plates, and warm proprietors served us in the traditional hospitality for which this country is known. Smiles beckoning us to linger, they offered pieces of sweet lokum, or Turkish delights, made with carrot and coconut, as a welcome gesture for the family with the touring American, who, glancing at her watch and counting the New York minutes, seemed to not quite grasp the concept of vacation. A quick stretch at a Garden State Parkway rest-stop with a Starbucks latte seemed to me a more suitable way to layover and not lose time…but it was early in the vacation, and I hadn’t yet understood that I wasn’t losing anything at all.

Almost to Marmaris, in a daring gesture that tried my road-trip-patience, my husband detoured to Aphrodisias, an archaeological site southeast of Izmir, which was not on our prescribed agenda and would take us at least two hours out of our way. He grinned at me and turned off the main road toward the ancient city.

AphrodisiasBaba, assuming his position as appointed tour guide and master of Turkish history, art, and architecture (and making up whatever he couldn’t conjure from memory…), shared details in his broken English about the site and its significance.  But his voice faded into the background as we came upon a towering structure – a tetrapylon, a magnificent gateway into the ancient town in front of the Temple of Aphrodite.  Evidently, it survived multiple earthquakes, including ones from the 4th century and the 7th century. The stone archway, stationary and steadfast, seemed also alive in a magnificent, upward stretch. On the ground, tiny purple flowers burst through the stone cracks of amazingly preserved intricate etchings, juxtaposing possibility amidst the harshest of conditions. This was going to be my sign. And I’m not about signs or fated moments. I’m pragmatic, task-oriented, even slightly cynical in deep-down places. But this was going to be the symbol of something transformative, something that is created, regardless of situation or environment or innate ability. And Aphrodite was going to be my patron goddess of fertility.

Fig TreeAnne found a place to sit under a large, green fig tree – larger than any I’d ever seen. Figs have always had a special place in my family. My mother’s family have shoots of a fig tree that came from my grandmother, who transported it down to the Jersey Shore from the Bronx, and before that, from Brooklyn (ostensibly, it may have come over from Italy during one of my great-grandfather’s many travels across the Atlantic, but, for lack of confirmation, we leave it as having originated in Brooklyn…). Fruits from the tree’s descendants are enjoyed by my family every September, so it was unusual to be in a place where they were ripening in May. The fig – in its abstract a symbol of fertility, and in its familiar a personal harvest ritual – was rolling around in my mind as I stroked the soft, furry leaf within reach. Aphrodite, a tremendous force for change, was beckoning me to inhale the air, drink in the soil and surroundings, and move beyond the fears and frustrations and evidence-based in-vitro success rates under which I’d been trapped for months.

At the time, I still didn’t know if I’d ever be able to have a baby, but in that moment, intoxicated by some semblance of a Dionysian and ancestral sensory overload, I felt myself surrendering…giving up a tight grip on how my life was going to unfold. Can figs and ancient temples do all that?  Well, I find that surrendering is helped along in no small part by something called incir tatLIsI (fig sweet or dessert)…and a ton of whipped cream… incir_tatlIsI

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of dried Turkish figs (fresh figs work *beautifully*, too, and require less water, if you can get them)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts and hazelnuts
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • fresh lemon juice

Instructions:

  1. Simmer figs in water for 20 minutes, drain water, let cool
  2. Chop nuts – however you wish! (This recipe originally came to me with a 20-minute debate on the best way to chop nuts: Baba painstakingly sliced each nut by hand citing nebulous Turkish elders as his authority, Anne secured them in a zip-lock bag on the counter and then whacked them with a ladle on the kitchen counter…all with a little too much pleasure, I might add…and, then, being a geek with kitchen gadgets, I took out my trusty food processor to loosely grind them on a low speed)
  3. In a bowl, mix the nuts, half the sugar, and cinnamon
  4. Take each fig and gently remove the stem tip with a sharp knife; the figs will be fragile, so proceed slowly
  5. Stuff the figs with the mixture
  6. Place into a wide saucepan, aligning them like cozy relatives, until the pan is full, then add ¼ cup water and the remaining sugar and squeeze fresh lemon juice over the lot before covering and placing back on the stove over medium heat for 15 minutes.
  7. Enjoy with whipped cream

Subways are for Sujuk

Vegetarians, steer clear. This post is about meat – red, spiced, unadulterated meat.

It was a typical subway rush hour, with typical rush-hour accessories: folded newspapers, iPads, travel mugs, messenger bags. And then there was something completely out of the ordinary.

A few straphangers away, a man in a trench coat leaned on the train door and unabashedly pulled from his backpack something that resembled a balloon animal, minus the head. It was half a foot of hardened, dark red sujuk. And he started to gnaw on it voraciously.

Sujuk, or sucuk, a dried, spiced sausage in Turkish and other Middle Eastern cuisines, is typically fried and served for breakfast with eggs or diced on top of toast – hardly a late afternoon subway snack.

And I was mistaken in presuming to be the only one who took notice: a couple minutes later, a woman within arm’s reach of the sujuk, shuffled her way back toward the opposite door, as if recalling the dramatic irony of A Lamb to the Slaughter and deciding that a hunk of meat, whatever the animal of origin, was a formidable weapon.

I asked him how it was he came to be munching on this snack as opposed to the usual mainstay bag of potato chips. Evidently, his aunt was just visiting from Turkey and had smuggled her homemade sujuk through security.

A quick digression: have you ever been stopped by airport security for edible items? Ironic, but not three weeks prior to this encounter, all bottles of my daughter’s ready-formula and jars of baby food for a continental U.S. plane ride had to be disrobed of labels and opened. Meantime, Turkish Teze, draped in tasseled scarves, clenching rolls of edible animal contraband under her arm, innocently eluded all international airport check-point personnel. I’m guessing she slipped them a slice in exchange for safe passage.

Here’s my favorite way to enjoy sujuk – sliced length-wise, pan fried, snug inside an Italian roll.

sucuk sandwich

So, in case anyone is reading this, how do you like your sujuk?  I’d love to hear!

BabaAnne’s Kuru Fasulye

Kuru Fasulye

BabaAnne, my husband’s fiery-haired grandmother, had me on the edge of my seat that entire afternoon. She and I were meeting for the first time the summer after he and I were married in 1999.  She knew me only as the reason her grandson didn’t return to Turkey and so had more than one withering glance for me.

After preliminary inspection, she barely acknowledged my presence. Cigarette in one hand, Turkish coffee in the other, she sat in a parlor chair in her Istanbul apartment like royalty in a room of onlookers, nodding her head in approval, sipping her coffee, as Tolga’s father shared family updates. Using just a couple of Turkish words carefully practiced on the airplane, I attempted to show my interest and enthusiasm.  Her dark eyes peered at me from over the horizon of the coffee she sipped.  Yeah, my parents had this great idea, go meet the family…no, I can’t go with you til next year, but I’m telling you, they’ll LOVE you… were my husband’s words, like a sweet-sounding refrain morphing into a minor chord as I sat across from her.

Known for being stubborn, opinionated, and exceedingly judgmental, I didn’t see how this would end well.  But she was also known for her kuru fasulye, a white bean stew that, despite my many formidable attempts, I’ve never been able to duplicate. She was the type for whom you’d forgive any character flaw in exchange for her beans. Using simple ingredients, a large saucepan showing years of wear, and a heavy wooden spoon, she transformed those tiny beans and chopped veggies into a heart-stopping, mouth-watering stew.

I took plates from the kitchen with the intention of setting the table.  Without warning, she turned on her heels, glared at me, waved a boney finger in my face, and only relinquished a lip-pursing after I slowly lowered the plates back down to the counter, never averting my eyes for a second, as if returning a bone to a ferocious dog about to pounce.

The stew was served with tomato rice pilaf and freshly-baked pide, a Turkish bread that resembles a round Sicilian slice of pizza, but without the sauce and cheese, and the aroma of the freshly-baked pide and the simmering beans was like nothing I had ever experienced. As I lifted the first bite toward my mouth, I can’t be sure, but I think there were church bells ringing…and fireworks outside her balcony…and a parade marching down the street.  It was THAT good.  Suddenly I didn’t care if she despised me.  As long as she fed me.

After dinner, we drank Turkish tea.  At one point, I excused myself to take the extra folding chairs from the dining room table back to the balcony where they belonged. A faint call to prayer echoed from the nearest mosque through the open door. It was time to leave, and my father-in-law took his mother’s hand, kissed it, and then touched it to his forehead, as a respectful gesture for the one who cared for and fed him as a child. My mother-in-law kissed her, and when it was my turn, she suddenly beamed at me, taking my hand for a firm handshake, and then clasped my face with her hands to kiss me on both cheeks. I was convinced she was glad to get rid of me. But as we walked back to the car, my father-in-law explained, quite surprised himself at her declaration on our way out, that my unintentional gesture at the end of the visit – returning the folding chairs to the balcony – was the gesture that won her. And I chuckled, as I imagined myself as Luke Skywalker launching my proton torpedo at the almost-impossible Death Star target.

Today, our daughter Ayla resembles this spitfire in both looks and “charm.” So in honor of this feisty lineage, her kuru fasulye, imitated but never equaled:

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups dried white or small lima beans
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 green frying or cubanelle pepper
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 tbspn tomato paste
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

The beans:

  • Soak the beans overnight in a large pot with 2-3 inches of water above the beans themselves
  • The next day, rinse and change the water, adding more water and boil, with lid covering only partly, cook on high for about 10 minutes
  • After the boil, remove the white foam with a wooden spoon (my mother-in-law believes this keeps the beans’ gasses to a minimum, although I haven’t been able to confirm from my own personal gastrointestinal experience…)
  • Sieve the beans, running water over them

The sauce:

  • Chop onion and pepper, peel and chop tomatoes
  • Sauté veggies in olive oil in a large saucepan, medium-high for about 15 minutes, give or take, enough to “kill” the onions
  • Add tomato paste and continue to stir

Now:

  • Add beans and 1 tea glass of water (special note:  liquids – and sometimes even dried goods – are measured, imprecisely, in tea glasses, which is roughly 4-5 ounces…as I hone the measurement further, I will provide updates!
  • Bring to a boil
  • Salt to taste

Serve with your favorite bread or pilaf.

A kofte by any other name…

When I was in the 3rd grade in 1981, I drew the shortest straw and was assigned to write a country profile on Turkey. I knew nothing about the country, other than the obvious name-sharing with our traditional Thanksgiving bird.

It was my least favorite of all the reports I did that year. My rendering of Mehmet the Conqueror resembled later-years Van Gogh, as I got lost in trying to draw the turban and forgot his ear.  3rd grade report drawing

Then in 1997, I met a Turkish man who changed my life. Previously, having sworn off romantic love, I had decided that men were like hamburgers. We have one burger in the United States. You can get this burger with a myriad of different toppings – tomato, onion, pickle, cheese…and it has a different name based on the toppings combination. But essentially it’s the same burger. The same shape, roughly the same ingredients, most always eaten between the same tedious yet innocuous burger bun.

And then I met Tolga. And, shortly thereafter, experienced a savory explosion – a Turkish burger, or kofte.

Tolga explained that each region in Turkey has its own kofte, which isn’t merely the same burger with varying toppings. It’s an entirely different take on the burger itself. Texture, shape, spice – before the kofte is plated, you already know it will be something unique, something extraordinary.

If I can de-clutter and organize years and piles of recipes on sticky notes, Mercimek in the Oven will share my passion for Turkish food, a unique and extraordinary cuisine, and include a few personal anecdotes and traditions along the way…and, maybe even preserve some edible heritage for my 3-year old daughter, Ayla.  And the blog title? A coy Turkish euphemism for having sex – and a playful undercurrent for the subjects of food, family, and fertility!

Hosgeldiniz! I warmly welcome your comments and recipe variations!