We have had a turbulent week here in Sapanca. On Monday we witnessed a family drama of a Georgian helper whose daughter did not pass an entrance exam to the university she wanted to get into so the girl was about to take a veil. On Tuesday Özgür’s Blackberry reformatted itself and deleted all the contacts – all of them. On Wednesday parents’ furniture arrived from Istanbul and the house got filled with boxes packed with memories, five male movers bustling about and a sharp smell of their sweat. On Thursday one of the dogs broke the chain and went wild around the estate. On Friday we went to Istanbul to rewind over great food and drinks and meet a few friends: too much rewinding is worse than turbulence, let me tell you. By the weekend it felt only right to withdraw myself from much of the public life and resort to reading and catching up with family over skype.
The other day our newly acquired friends, Elena and Mehmet, popped by. “They live in a village nearby” – I was explaining to my mom the other day on skype. “If you can imagine village dwellers living in a place packed with villas and X5s parked all over”. Belorussian-Turkish couple, Elena and Mehmet moved here from Istanbul and now looking for a house on the hills of Sapanca. “It’s an age thing”, – Elena said with a laughter. – “I tell Mehmet maybe we should buy right next to a cemetery”.
Özgür led them into our kitchen, “Olga, look who has come!”. We exchanged greetings and sat down for a chat over tea and kurabiye. Me and Elena ventured into the subject of the garden, what grows and can be grown on this land. She suggested, “Bring a spring of red currents from home. That would be exotic! And I think they will love it here”. Then she launched into the memories of black chokeberry wine or cowberry kissel made by her mother.
“What else.. Imagine serving hot mulled wine with a touch of cranberry and lemon here – people would flood the place”.
“I doubt that a lot. Turks are extremely conservative with their tastes”, I said recalling highly localized menus of international restaurants in Istanbul.
She looked at me and smiled narrowing her eyes, “You experiment! Put less of that, more of this, see how it is received and then make required adjustments next time and it will surely become a hit”. I think when they talk about smartness of Slavic women that is matched only by their beauty this is what they mean: we know ways to get things done and please people at the same time.
Late Sunday afternoon the brunch rush slowed down, the guests left and the inhabitants of Zelis Ciftligi retired to their rooms. At 7 am I started feeling like comfort Sunday dinner. No attempts to create my takes Turkish food, no trying new recipes, no recipes at all for change! And what is more: I would do it quietly as no one will be around the kitchen so early! I decided to make rice casserole, a convenient compromise between non-Turkish cooking method and locally legitimate tastes. We have a big tradition of sweet casseroles of grains and cottage cheese (zapekanka) in Russia yet I find savory versions more satisfying and fitting almost any occasion.
Guess what? Just as I stated Zeliha Hanım Özgür’s mom appeared at the kitchen. “I am hungry,” – she announced in her naughty tone reserved for pulling someone’s leg as she spotted me running around in an apron.
“What is our chef cooking?” – Ali Bay, Özgür’s dad inquired following her.
Zeliha Hanım got to the stove top and opened the cover of my steaming rice: “What are you doing? Which cuisine is that?” – she asked. Just like her kitchen undertaking are interesting for me she’s always keen to find out what I am up to.
Caught in the middle of my task I had difficulties to classify the dish and provide a proper explanations in Turkish. So I labeled the dish as firinda pilavi, baked pilaf. Özgür’s parents figured I am cooking a rather weird animal which will not be ready until an hour later anyways. They composed a quick snack dinner and left for their room.
I was again confused about the rush around me. I asked Özgür how come that every night we don’t seat down for dinner before 9.30 pm and today everyone was up for it so earlier. “Because we have guests all the other nights” – he replied. I sighed. Will I ever grasp the proper meal times?
An hour later I sat a table at our restaurant where we have our dinners on quiet Sunday evenings. As I brought the casserole up a cannon fired and the sound of ezan filled the surroundings. Well, my dinner timing appeared perfect for the Ramadan.
“What is this? Which cuisine is that?” – Özgür asked echoing his mom. “It’s a kind of pilaf but it is baked” – I said and regretted: show me a Turk who would not have a bullet-proof point of view on pilaf.
Özgür tried, praised and then politely mentioned that in Turkey pilav was never an independent dish to grace a table but always to be served on the side. “It is nice as is but I would also add mushrooms and green peas and maybe kaşar peyniri for the more Turkish-tuned taste” – he suggested.
“Great ideas for next time, dear!” – I replied.
I guess there will be no baked pilaf in my menu any more but the rice casserole I will definitely cook again. With mushrooms, green peas and maybe kaşar peyniri.
Excellent comfort food for Sunday dinner and great way to make sense of leftover rice
Prep Time: 30 Min
Cook Time: 40 Min
- 2 cups rice
- 4 cups hot water
- 1 large red bell pepper
- 2 green banana peppers
- 2 clove garlic
- 2 eggs room temperature, whites and yoks separated
- 100 g halloumi or other cheese with high melting point
- 100 g lor peyniri (cottage cheese)
- 1⁄2 cup Greek yogurt
- 1 tsp dry thyme
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil for greasing the iron-cast skillet
- Cook rice: Pre-soak in hot water, if you have time, and then wash in cold water. Fill a medium size cooking pot with 4 cups hot water, add rice and bring to boil on high heat. Reduce the heat to low and let cook covered for 7 minutes. Remove from the heat, wrap the cooking pot with a few towels tightly and let sit at a warm place for 15 minutes while you are busy with the rest of the ingredients. Here I feel obliged to tell you that traditional Russian way to cook cereals would be exactly that – first, cook them in a clay pot over the heat (in the oven) and then wrap it in the fur coat (we usually take fancy ones such as sable) and let them sit by the oven. You should try it on a cold winter day and you will never ask again how Russians survive their harsh winters. Anyways, this cooking method leaves you with a bowl of perfectly cooked rice.
- Make casserole: Back to the cooking though. Preheat the oven to 160C (320 F). Whisk the egg yolks with a pinch of salt, stir in Greek yoghurt and lor peyniri. Crash garlic, thinly chop red and green peppers and dice halloumi, or other cheese you have picked. Grease the iron-cast skillet with the oil. Add all the prepared ingredients to the rice, mix well and transfer to the skillet. Now beat the remaining egg whites into a stiff foam: take a clean dry bowl, add a pinch of salt and beat with a hand mixer for about 2 minutes at medium speed, then add a drop of lemon juice and beat for 2 more minutes on the high speed. Once done spread this foam with a clean spatula over the millet casserole. Sent to the over and bake for about 40 minutes until the golden brown crust forms on top of your casserole. You can cover the skillet with parchment paper so it does not over-roast for the first 20 minutes and then remove the paper for the rest of the baking. Serve hot.