When I am not cooking, I am talking about food. Once we have served all the mains I take off the apron and step in the garden to greet our guests. At first I felt awkward about approaching every table and asking people about their dining experience. I thought restaurant is different from the food tours or cooking classes I ran in Istanbul. The latter proved personal; people wanted to learn more about the city and its food, but also many wanted to meet me and hear my story. Turns out our restaurant is no different. As one guest put it, “You do feel like a house guest here. The hosts receive you at the backyard, sit down to chat with you and as you leave they turn off the lights and go to bed”. True story, given we live in the restaurant. So we have already made Babushka personal and it is ridiculous to hide.
In a resort town like ours summer means long hours on the beach and late dinners, so I stopped being surprised by our guests arriving at 10 pm and requesting food. After serving the starters, hot dishes and desserts, we get to wrap up the kitchen action and clean by the midnight at best. Chat with Özgür, this and that, and a glance to the clock confirms the new day has started. I go to bed around 1 am and would not wake up until 8.30 am meaning that after yoga, breakfast and planning the day with my husband we are ready to rock and roll by 11 am at the earliest. Shopping, paperwork, dealing with suppliers consume a good few hours and hopefully conclude by 3 pm when the staff arrives and the preparation for the night kicks off.
Suddenly April comes to its end, and we are racing with time here in Alaçatı. As if someone in the weather department banged the table with their fist and barked, “Enough rain and chill!” Summer arrived the very next day with a sly smile knowing better than anybody that it has been late this year. That’s right: from winter we have moved right into the summer. Last week we shared breakfast with our friends Figen and Oğulcan, owners of Kesre Hotel, in their lovely garden. T-shirts and all, after breakfast we had to move away from the generous sun under the shade to continue drinking tea and chatting about the final preparations for the season.
Friday kicked off pretty cool: my assistant for the day, a young soft-spoken woman referred by our neighbor, arrived early. We were to prepare Friday dinner and Saturday lunch at once. Some 40 guests in total according to the reservations. The night before I examined my kitchen utensils and not without satisfaction concluded that I own sufficient number of XX-Large cooking pots, baking trays, mixing bowls and storage containers. Thanks anne for sending a bunch and insisting that I buy more. I also stocked the produce. For two meals I bought 5-6 times the amount I would usually purchase for the whole week. My mom sighed when I told her about the festival reservations in a skype chat, “I wished things could build up gradually, not like a storm“.
I roast vegetables all the time. Rubbed with olive oil, salt and occasionally spices, they get cozy in the oven giving me time to consider how to serve them. They may keep a company to the meatballs or grilled fish as the thin arches of roasted fennel bulb my husband worships. Perhaps, they might become a spectacular meze like the whole, skin and all, roasted peppers I turn into the addictive muhammara. Roasted vegetables can suffice as a meal on its own calling only for a simple sauce or possibly an egg cracked on top if you are reheating the leftovers. And never, never underestimate the nourishing power of a creamy thick soup made with roasted roots.
The first falafel I tried was from the hands of my mother-in-law to be. The small hot ball that emerged from a pan of peacefully sputtering oil revealed the big flavor of earthy cumin, bright herbs and nutty beans. I still wonder if it was the moment I took a bite when I decided that woman would become my mother-in-law.
“What is it?” I begged to know as if as my life depended on that knowledge. Aware of the effect her food made on me, she replied, “Falafel”. Mom was surely proud to showcase the Middle Eastern culinary heritage of her family, little known in this country outside of the South Eastern Turkey. This is how I met falafel: it was not a by-the-way packed with a lot of condiments in a pita pocket and shoveled up to satiate my appetite. Instead, it appreared a jewel from the treasure chest of the culinary tradition I started exploring with my sinking heart and watering mouth.
Last year I learned about a website here in Turkey that puts small-scale food producers directly in touch with the consumers, Toprakana. As I started my pursuit for the perfect sourdough to serve at Babushka, I placed my first order for a few bags of flour from a small watermill where they grind a blend of local wheat varieties into the whole grain flour (they do rye and corn too, needless to say, all whole grain).
My order arrived the morning after I placed it; the flour in the cotton bags without a single label was milled that very week! A tremendous difference from the whole wheat flour milled half a year ago you can get at the local stores. The stone-ground flour looked different too. The commercial varieties felt almost starch-like silky and looked predominantly white with occasional grayish-brownish freckles of bran as if the flour was refined from the bran, milled and then some bran was integrated back. The stone-milled whole wheat flour felt coarse and had a pleasant a golden brown tint. Its bran was abundant and visible. I was jumping with joy thinking about the new highs my baking was going to climb.