California's Anatolian feast

Due to Anatolia's position at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, much of its cuisine was influenced by and spread to a broad area.

green beans 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
green beans 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A few weeks ago in Costa Mesa, California, at the first Anatolian Cultures and Food Festival in the US, the longest lines of people were waiting for Turkish-style kebab and for baklava from Turkey. Yet my husband and I were equally drawn toward a booth labeled "vegetables in olive oil." This delicious way of preparing vegetables became a specialty of many of the peoples who inhabited Anatolia, or Asia Minor, throughout history. They included not only Turks, but Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and others. According to the festival's Web site,, "Turkish culture today is a mosaic reflecting the amalgamation of cultures and traditions that thrived in Anatolia across the centuries." The same could be said for Anatolian cooking. Due to Anatolia's position at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, much of its cuisine was influenced by and spread to a broad area. Thus vegetables in olive oil are popular in much of the Mediterranean region, as appetizers, main courses and side dishes. In Turkey these vegetables are so beloved that on restaurant menus they are often featured as a separate category called zeytinyaglilar. Tugrul Savkay, author of Turkish Cuisine, gives a reason for this: "Vegetables cooked in olive oil... are the sultans... of summer time... Turks never utilize vegetables as garnishes or side dishes, as they take this as an insult to the vegetables, but give them utmost importance by cooking them solely as a nourishing dish." The vegetables might be prepared singly or in medleys. They might be sautéed or fried; or cooked in water and then marinated with olive oil and seasonings. At the festival we tasted several examples - green beans with olive oil and fresh garlic, green beans with fried potatoes and diced tomatoes, artichoke hearts with peas and dill and cooked dried beans with garlic, tomatoes, parsley and semi-hot red pepper. Savoring these delectable vegetable dishes reminded us of our culinary research trips to Turkey, where we also enjoyed braised leeks with carrots and olive oil and, of course, the famous eggplant dish known as imam bayeldi or "the imam fainted." Made of sautéed eggplant, lots of onions caramelized in olive oil and a garnish of tomatoes, it is one of the most illustrious representatives of this category. Many other vegetables are prepared by this method, including peppers, zucchini and fava beans. The group of vegetables in olive oil also includes meatless stuffed vegetables, such as grape leaves with a savory vegetable and rice filling seasoned with allspice or oregano, and peppers stuffed with chickpeas and rice. A special ingredient that might flavor the vegetables or their stuffing is red pepper paste, which may be sweet, hot or semi-hot. Turks refer to it as Antep pepper paste, using the historic name of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey. We were introduced to the renowned pepper paste when we visited that city, which many consider the culinary capital of the country. At a family business where the pepper paste was made at home, we observed how the peppers were dried on the roof, and then ground to a paste. As if by magic, this paste makes stews and other cooked dishes delicious, and is also popular as an ingredient in marinades for kebabs. Oskur Yildiz, who demonstrated making stuffed eggplant at a cooking class at the festival, used Antep pepper paste to flavor the stuffing for the fried eggplant. He explained that the filling could be prepared either as a meatless sauté of chopped onions and sweet peppers with salt, pepper, paprika and plenty of parsley, or with ground beef sautéed with the vegetable mixture. These dishes are quite simple, deriving their excellence from fresh vegetables, fine quality olive oil, and careful seasoning. Savkay recommends serving vegetables in olive oil warm or cold, with lemon wedges, tomato sauce or yogurt. With eggplant, Yildiz suggested garlic-seasoned yogurt, which is indeed a wonderful accompaniment. GREEN BEANS WITH OLIVE OIL If you have ripe fresh tomatoes, you can dice two or three small ones and add them to the green beans at serving time instead of making them into a sauce. In this case, remove the onion mixture from the heat after adding the garlic. Serve the beans hot with rice as a light entree, or cold or at room temperature as an appetizer. 700 gr. green beans, ends removed, broken in 2 pieces 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 onion, halved, sliced 6 garlic cloves, chopped a 400-gr. can tomatoes, drained and diced Salt and freshly ground pepper Pepper paste or cayenne pepper to taste (optional) pinch of sugar (optional) 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley Boil beans in a large saucepan of boiling salted water for about 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain in a colander or strainer, rinse under cold running water until cool, and drain thoroughly. Heat oil in a large wide saucepan or deep sauté pan. Add onion and sauté over medium heat for 7 minutes or until it begins to turn golden. Stir in garlic, then tomatoes, salt and pepper. Return to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes or until thickened to your taste. Add pepper paste or cayenne. Stir in beans. If serving hot, heat them through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add a pinch of sugar if needed. Stir in parsley. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings. SUMMER SQUASH WITH WHITE BEANS, TOMATOES AND DILL This is a variation of a popular Turkish bean salad, to which I like to add squash. If you have cooked white beans, use 21⁄2 or 3 cups for this dish. If using canned white beans in tomato sauce, you can drain the sauce or include it in the dish, according to your taste. 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 2 large onions, finely chopped 450 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or a 400-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped salt and freshly ground pepper 11⁄2 tsp. paprika 1⁄4 cup chopped fresh dill or 1 tablespoon dried dill 1⁄2 cup chopped parsley 450 gr. medium zucchini or other green summer squash (kishu) 450 gr. yellow squash or additional green squash two 425-gr. cans white beans, drained cayenne pepper or red pepper paste to taste 1⁄2 tsp. sugar (optional) few drops lemon juice (optional) Heat oil in a deep skillet or casserole. Add onions and sauté over medium-low heat about 7 minutes or until just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon paprika. Reserve 3 tablespoons dill. Cook, stirring often, over medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until thick. Add yellow squash and zucchini to tomato sauce and sprinkle with salt and remaining paprika. Add 1⁄2 cup hot water and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until tender. If pan becomes dry, add a few tablespoons more water during cooking. Reserve 1 tablespoon dill and parsley. Add white beans to pan, and remaining dill, parsley and cayenne pepper and heat through. Taste, adjust seasoning and add sugar or lemon juice if needed. Serve warm, room temperature or cold, sprinkled with reserved herbs. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast form the Mideast and the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.