Parsley, salt, red pepper, and time

Adventuress Joan Wood shares secrets of Turkish cuisine

San Antonio Current

SAN ANTONIO, TX, May 27, 2004

By Laura Fries

She is a small, dynamic woman, whose pointed features and feathered blonde hair cause audience members to proclaim her a mix between Joan Rivers and Dr. Laura. She heartily admits the resemblance, and just keeps on cooking. Joan Wood, caterer, world-traveler, and today, professor of Turkish cooking to students assembled at Central Market Cooking School, is the type of woman who lets little get in her way.

So when her husband – a general in the Air Force – was transferred to a base in Turkey, Wood packed up the kids, and the metaphorical pans, and headed off to her latest adventure: mastering the art of Turkish cookery. On this evening, she shares her experiences with the small group; most of whom were travelers like herself that longed for a reminder of the lands they once visited.

First up on her menu are cigra borek: tiny, taquito-shaped rolls of filo dough filled with a mixture of feta, dill, flat-leaf parsley, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes, all bound together with raw egg. To get rid of the sometimes too-salty tang of the feta, she advises the group, soak a block of feta in water for hours, occasionally changing the water, and taste-testing for doneness, so to speak. The feta mixture, dropped by the tablespoon onto squares of filo dough two or three layers thick, is then rolled into the cigar-shaped rolls, and fried in butter, the preferred cooking medium of the Turks, according to cookbook author Ayla Algar. The resulting rolls are crisp, golden, and light, a perfect contrast to the creamy cheese lurking inside. Algar’s cookbook, Classical Turkish Cooking, which contains recipes for most of the dishes Wood prepared, points to cigra borek as a mainstay of the meze course, a tapas-like assortment of small dishes.

Wood, never one to keep a low profile, learned the recipe by watching a street vendor in Turkey – taking notes, and earning the confused stares of locals.

Adana kebabs, the quintessential street food of the Turks, are made in Wood’s kitchen with ground lamb, heavily seasoned with parsley, grated onion, minced garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. The lamb mixture is throughly kneaded to distribute the spices, and to create a paste dense enough to stay molded on the skewers in a flat, sword-like shape. The kebab is served on top of pide bread, a flatbread coated with yogurt and sesame seeds before baking. Accompaniments are cacik, a tzatziki-esque sauce of yogurt, cucumber, lemon, and dill, and a sprinkling of chopped parsley soaked in fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

Wood, never one to keep a low profile, learned the recipe by watching a street vendor in Turkey – taking notes, and earning the confused stares of locals. The spices of the kebabs hit at different times: first garlic, then red pepper, then parsley. The cacik serves to cool off the meat, and the tangy parsley topping adds texture to the mixture, which can be eaten like an open-faced sandwich, or folded like a taco.

Pilic Tava, a subtly spiced chicken casserole, demonstrates one of the fundamental rules of Turkish cookery according to Wood: Don’t stir. Chicken, first browned in a pan, is placed on the bottom of a casserole dish, then layered with browned eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, tomato slices, and slivers of garlic. A paste made from dried red chili peppers -a staple of the Turkish kitchen that lasts for months, according to Algar – is then slathered over the mixture. When it emerges from the oven an hour later, the chicken pieces should be lifted out of the dish carefully, and served with a “simple rice pilaf.” Unfortunately, the chicken sampled that night was dry, but the spices and the delicately roasted vegetables more than redeemed the dish as worthy of imitation in a home kitchen.

Wood’s pilaf was the perfect foil to the pilic tava: the delicate, soft rice was punctuated with sweet currants, and moist, sautéed pine nuts. “The Turkish are like the Italians: There is only one way,” Wood had joked earlier, and in her kitchen, rice is prepared by first soaking it in hot water. Onions, pine nuts, and currants are sautéed in even more butter, and then the rice, and chicken broth are added. The resulting mixture is ready when the broth is absorbed, and receives a garnish of chopped scallions and even more parsley.

Last on Wood’s menu is a yoghurt cake. Made ahead of time, the cake is soaked overnight in a simple syrup of sugar and water. The cake absorbs the syrup, fluffing out to create a rich pastry that simply oozes out sweetness. Held on the tongue, and pressed to the roof of one’s mouth, it simply gushes: it’s a delightful treat.

Wood, who has peppered her conversation liberally with anecdotes about her experiences, can’t say enough good things about the country and its cuisine: “It was the best two years of my life.” •

THIS STORY

was written as I attended as cooking demonstration – one of the many perks in a Food Editor’s life! I have made these recipes countless times since that day.