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.
I first visited Morocco 5 years ago, and ever since a small part of me has been roaming the narrow streets of medinas, bartering at the ancient souks, looking at the ocean and feasting on the finest dishes. Every winter I get in the mood for Morocco and feel an itch to come back and reunite with the chipped off part of my heart.
“What kind of food will you serve in the restaurant?” people ask us right after they ask about the restaurant name. In fact, many think that the name of Babushka suggests Russian cuisine. Borsch and chicken Kiev come to mind of anybody who thinks that Russian food equals the menu of a Soviet canteen.
My home kitchen and our restaurant kitchen is the same person. In a minor identity crisis. Deciding whether it gears towards an old village kitchen, a kitchen that can serve dozens of restaurant guests or a kitchen I want. First I thought I would give her time to make up her mind, but since she has been taking a while, I am going to open the wooden door (that we removed upon declaring this possibly the most robust part of the whole kitchen obsolete) and get you to meet her.
It started with pomegranates. One of the four trees in our garden brought a load of them. “Sweetest I have ever eaten,” my visiting mother-in-law confessed. Mind you, she grew up amidst pomegranate trees unlike me, a child of Russia, who used to treat this exotic fruit as a questionable pleasure. Pomegranate, always sold at premium, was sour and hard to peel. It stained tablecloth, dress, pants, sofa or carpet depending on the consumption situation. In the Russia of my childhood pomegranates arrived in winter to the market stalls run by the men who spoke with the accent as thick as their black eye-brows. The sellers addressed every female shopper “young woman” and at times even asked out. Think of it, along with the pains of buying the overrated fruit you get an unsolicited evidence of your sexuality.