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Oct 19, 2017

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Let’s Talk Turkey
by Rosina Tinari Wilson
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.6
Bet you thought I meant that dumb, clunky bird that makes the scene each fall, then goes from gobble to oven to carving board faster than you can say "pass the drumstick."

Wrong! We're talkin' Turkey the country here. Part Europe, part Asia, all serious eats and drinks. It's a mix of East and West, a crossroads of the ancient trade routes, with a history of mystery and intrigue. Its sweet-savory-spicy-salty cuisine has been ranked among the tops in the world. And frankly, any place that serves olives for breakfast and names its specialties "Harem Navel," "Lady's Thigh" and "The Imam Swooned" gets my vote too.

So this year, we're inviting the gang to a Turkey dinner. Sure, roast a bird for the main event (or grab one ready-cooked from your friendly local market); everybody expects it. But try adding a few Turkish twists to the usual side dishes -- cinnamon and chopped dried apricots in the candied yams; pistachios instead of almonds on the green beans; pine nuts and raisins in the stuffing -- to jumpstart those snoozy old standbys.

First, though, you're gonna meet the true Turkish delight. See, the Turks have this weird firebomb of a national drink that looks like water, smells like licorice and turns pearly-swirly white when you add water. They call it raki -- and rocky is just how you feel if you knock it back the way your average Turk does. That's why you'll also want to sop it up with Turkey's answer to tapas: those addictive little snacks called meze.

Meze can be as simple as bowls of olives, store-bought grape leaves or crack-'em-yourself hazelnuts. But with just a bit of extra effort, you can load up the meze table, nibble and sip while the bird's roasting and make your Turkey dinner a feast to remember. Bring on the raki for starters. (If you can't find any, Greek ouzo is a reasonable substitute.) Switch to vino for dinner (though it's hard to find, the Turks make decent stuff: Some memorable names are Dikmen and Buzbag.)

Keep dessert simple: A big platter of fall fruits (including dried figs, dates and a pomegranate or two if you can find Ôem); a bakery pumpkin pie with some good vanilla ice cream and a bowl of warm honey, and pots of thick, strong coffee.

The recipes that follow are easy to fix and guaranteed to blot up the raki so you won't get blotto yourself. Try any or all of them, and throw in the olives, grapeleaves and nuts if you want. As they say in Turkish: Serefe!

Stuffed Tomatoes

The Turks love to stuff things -- peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, you name it. Serve these cold, or pop them under a broiler until the cheese gets gooey on top.

Fresh, firm, large cherry tomatoes
Creamy goat or sheep cheese (or cream cheese plus a little lemon juice)
Fresh or dried dill
Salt to taste

Cut about one-third off the top of each tomato and squeeze the pulp gently into a bowl. (Save pulp and tomato tops for another use.) With a fork, mix cheese with dill and salt; spoon gently into tomatoes. Top with paprika.

Veggie Kebabs with Three Dips

The thick bean puree, smoky eggplant and tangy yogurt make a great antidote to raki (the bread helps too!), as they spark up these colorful crudites-on-a-stick. The dips keep well -- make 'em the day before and save any extras for the next day.

Assorted vegetables (about a half-pound per person) in bite-size pieces (red and green bell pepper triangles, radishes, mushrooms, zucchini slices, celery chunks, baby carrots, 3-inch lengths of green onion, broccoli and/or cauliflower florets)
Wooden skewers
Thinly sliced baguette

Thread 3 or 4 veggie chunks on each wooden skewer. Arrange the kebabs on a serving platter with the bread slices around the outside or in a separate bowl.

White Bean Dip

2 cans (15 oz.) cooked white beans
1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
1/4 cup olive oil (extra-virgin has the most flavor)
1/2 bunch parsley, leaves only
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 t salt, or to taste

Drain beans; discard liquid. Put beans and other ingredients in a blender or food processor; puree until not quite smooth.

Spiced Eggplant Dip

4 lb. eggplant, any variety
1/2 cup olive oil
2 (or more) cloves garlic
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 t powdered cumin, cinnamon or allspice (pick a favorite, or use some of each)
1/4 t cayenne, or to taste
1/2 t salt, or to taste

Cut eggplants lengthwise. Pour a little olive oil on a baking sheet, spread it around, and place the eggplants, cut side down, on top. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until dark and very soft (20 minutes to 1 hour, depending on size). Let cool a bit, then scoop pulp into a blender or food processor. Add remaining ingredients, and puree until smooth and silky.

Cucumber-Mint Yogurt Dip

3 cups plain yogurt
1 medium cucumber, sliced
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, or 2 t dried
1/4 cup green onions (green part only), sliced
1/2 t salt, or to taste

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor; blend briefly so small cucumber pieces remain.

Ravioli with Walnut Sauce

This hot meze is much easier than it looks -- the secret is ready-made ravioli. Get the plain ones with cheese filling, or go fancy with over-the-top fall flavors like pumpkin or wild mushroom. Allow 1 pound uncooked ravioli for each 4 to 6 people.

Small, ready-to-cook ravioli or tortellini (in the deli case or freezer)
Walnut Sauce (enough for 1 lb. ravioli)
2 cups walnut pieces
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 t onion powder, or to taste
1/2 t garlic powder, or to taste
1/2 t salt, or to taste

Cook ravioli in boiling salted water according to package directions. Combine all ingredients for sauce in a blender or food processor, and mix until very smooth. Warm sauce over low heat. Arrange ravioli on a serving platter or in individual bowls; spoon sauce on, and mix lightly.

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