Vegetable cooking, Turkish style

Although the city is famous for its kebabs and other meat dishes, our class featured vegetable specialties of Gaziantep.

Gaziantep-style omaç – Spicy tomato-bread-cheese balls (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Gaziantep-style omaç – Spicy tomato-bread-cheese balls
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Last month we attended a cooking class near the Syrian border, at the home of Kamuran Dover in Turkey’s gastronomic capital, Gaziantep.
Although the city is famous for its kebabs and other meat dishes, our class featured vegetable specialties of Gaziantep.
In her cooking, Dover, an experienced cook and caterer, made use of the popular flavorings of Southeast Anatolia – tomato paste, pepper paste and pepper flakes. Turkish people usually buy these flavorings at the market, but Gaziantep food expert Filiz Hösükoglu, who translated the cooking demonstration, told us that Kamuran Dover prepares hers at home.
The most unusual dish we learned to make was omaç (pronounced “omatch”) – spicy tomato-bread-cheese balls. Dover made them by kneading crumbled dried flatbread with fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions, tomato paste, pepper paste and shredded cheese. She then formed the mixture into orange-hued egg-shaped balls. (See recipe.)
Turkish cooks excel in preparing eggplant, and Dover used the vegetable to make a summertime favorite – a roasted eggplant salad enhanced by a sauce of tomatoes, onions and peppers sautéed in olive oil. She served the eggplant dish two ways – on its own as an appetizer, and with a sautéed ground lamb topping as a main course. This was the only meat dish at our class. (See recipe.)
Tomatoes and peppers also flavored Dover’s bulgur wheat pilaf. She flavored the pilaf with tomato paste, pepper paste and sautéed vegetables, and enriched it with butter. (See recipe.)
Dover insists on good-quality ingredients. To make sure she has flavorful tomatoes year round, she preserves tomatoes when they are at their best. In some of the dishes she demonstrated, she added home-preserved tomatoes to reinforce the flavor of fresh ones because, she said, flavorful summer tomatoes were not yet in season. She makes her own pepper flakes by cutting fresh red peppers in pieces, drying them in the sun and pounding them in a mortar.
“Red pepper flakes taste better if you heat them in oil,” said Dover as she heated a generous amount of them in olive oil to finish her purslane stew, which contained much more than greens. Old-world legumes – chickpeas, black-eyed peas and lentils, as well as bulgur wheat and vegetables, made it wholesome. To perk up the stew, Dover finished it with her homemade sour cherry molasses, with sumac molasses and the heated pepper flakes. (See recipe.)
In several dishes, Dover used an aromatic vegetable trio, which consisted of chopped onions and diced red and green peppers. She sautéed the mixture in olive oil as the first step in making her bulgur wheat pilaf and her eggplant salad and used it raw in her tomato- bread-cheese balls.
We loved our Gaziantep cooking class because the dishes were delicious yet uncomplicated. As soon as we returned home, we prepared them in our kitchen.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Bulgur Pilaf with Tomato (Domatesli Bulgur Pilav)
Tomatoes, tomato paste and pepper paste give this pilaf a rich flavor and a reddish hue. Sweet and hot pepper pastes are available in Turkey, and Kamuran Dover used equal amounts of both. To make the pilaf parve or vegan, substitute olive oil for the butter.
Serves 4
■ 2 to 3 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 1 cup chopped onion (about ½ large onion)
■ ¾ cup sweet green pepper, diced
■ ¾ cup sweet red pepper, diced
■ 2 cups diced tomatoes, peeled if desired (about 350 gr. or ¾ pound tomatoes)
■ 2 to 4 Tbsp. good-quality canned tomatoes, chopped (optional)
■ 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
■ 2 to 3 tsp. pepper paste, or to taste (see Note below)
■ 1½ cups coarse bulgur wheat
■ 3 cups hot tap water
■ ½ tsp. salt, or to taste
■ 2 to 4 Tbsp. butter or extra virgin olive oil
■ Black pepper (optional)
Heat oil in a heavy, wide saucepan. Add onion and diced green and red pepper and sauté over medium heat for 7 minutes or until vegetables soften. Add diced tomatoes, canned tomatoes, tomato paste and pepper paste and stir until blended. Add bulgur wheat and stir to combine with sauce. Add water, salt and butter. Mix well and bring to a boil.
Cover and cook over low heat for 18 minutes or until bulgur is tender and water is absorbed. Lift lid and lay two layers of paper towels over top of pot (to absorb excess moisture); then cover with lid. Let pilaf stand for about 30 minutes or until ready to serve. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, sprinkled with black pepper if desired.
NOTE: If you don’t have pepper paste, you can add another tablespoon of tomato paste with semi-hot or hot pepper flakes to taste. Or make quick red pepper paste using the following recipe from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean by Paula Wolfert: In a food processor, puree 550 grams (about 1¼ pounds) fleshy sweet red peppers, stemmed, cored and cut up with 1 small hot chili pepper, stemmed, cored and seeded, 2 tablespoons water, a pinch of sugar and ¼ teaspoon salt. Transfer to a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until reduced to a jamlike consistency.
Store in jar, covered with 2 teaspoons olive oil, up to 3 or 4 days; or divide into 5 parts, wrap in plastic and freeze in an airtight container. Makes ²⁄3 to ¾ cup.
Spicy Tomato-Bread- Cheese Balls (Omaç)
This frugal Gaziantep appetizer is made from dried bread. It’s the fresh vegetables, the cheese and the tomato and pepper pastes that make it so tasty. Omaç is denser than bread salads like Italian panzanella and Lebanese fattoush and is served in egg shapes that look almost like vegetable meatballs. You can make them in advance; they taste even better if made a few hours or even a day ahead.
If you like, serve them on lettuce leaves.
You can think of this as a basic recipe and make it with different kinds of peppers (sweet or hot), cheeses and thin breads. For Passover, we will try it with matza.
Makes about 20 pieces, 6 to 10 appetizer servings
■ 4 thin pitot (170 gr. or 6 ounces) or 125 gr. (4.5 ounces) dry pita
■ ¾ cup onion, finely chopped
■ ½ cup sweet red pepper, finely diced
■ ½ cup sweet green pepper, finely diced
■ 1¹⁄3 cups tomatoes (280 gr. or 10 ounces), finely diced
■ ½ tsp. semi-hot pepper flakes, or to taste
■ 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
■ 1 Tbsp. pepper paste, or to taste (see Note at end of Bulgur Pilaf recipe)
■ 1½ cups shredded mozzarella or other mild cheese (120 gr. or 4.2 ounces) (shredded in large holes of grater)
■ 3 Tbsp. olive oil, or to taste
■ Salt to taste (optional, depending on saltiness of cheese)
If using fresh pitot, split them in half, tear them in pieces and let stand about 12 hours or longer until dry and crisp enough to crumble. Crumble into bitesize pieces; you will need 3 cups.
In a bowl, crush the bread further into very small uniform pieces. Add chopped onion and diced red and green peppers and mix with bread using your fingers.
Drain diced tomatoes of any juice and add to mixture. Sprinkle mixture with pepper flakes and add tomato paste and pepper paste. Mix ingredients by kneading, wearing gloves if desired, until thoroughly combined. Mix in shredded cheese and gradually mix in olive oil.
Sprinkle with salt if desired, and knead to mix it in thoroughly.
Take small handfuls of the mixture and shape in egg-shape pieces. Put them on a plate. If they are soft, refrigerate to firm. Serve at room temperature or cold.
Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Salad (Sebzeli Sögürme)
You can serve this salad as a vegetarian dish or top it with sautéed ground lamb, following the variation. If you have roasted eggplants ready, this dish is quick and easy. If you use smaller eggplants, the roasting time will be shorter. Instead of roasting the eggplants, you can grill or broil them, turning them several times; they will take about 20 or 30 minutes. Serve with flatbread.
Serves 6
■ 3 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 2 large eggplants, total 1.13 kg. (about 2.5 pounds)
■ 1¼ cups onion (about ½ large onion), chopped
■ ¾ cup sweet red pepper (about ½pepper), diced
■ ¾ cup sweet green pepper (about ½ pepper), diced
■ 3½ cups diced ripe tomatoes, peeled if desired (about 4 medium tomatoes)
■ 2 Tbsp. chopped canned tomatoes (optional)
■ ½ tsp. salt, or more to taste
■ 2 tsp. semi-hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
■ Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 230°C (450°F). Prick each eggplant 5 or 6 times with a fork.
Set them in a shallow roasting pan, lined with foil if you like. Roast eggplants until they are very soft when you press them and look collapsed, about 45 minutes; turn them over once during roasting.
Let eggplants stand until cool enough to handle. Cut off caps, halve eggplants lengthwise and scoop eggplant flesh out of peel with a spoon. Put eggplant flesh in a colander. Leave it for about 5 minutes to drain off any liquid. Chop eggplant in small chunks.
Heat oil in a sauté pan. Add onion and diced green and red pepper and sauté over medium-low heat for 7 minutes or until vegetables soften. Add diced tomatoes, canned tomatoes, salt and pepper flakes and stir until blended.
Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.
Add chopped eggplant, draining any liquid from bowl, and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until mixture is thick and flavors are blended, about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning; salad should be seasoned generously.
Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with black pepper
Lamb-topped eggplant salad
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat.
Add 225 to 350 gr. (½ to ¾ pound) ground lean lamb, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes, or until meat changes color and any juices that came out of meat are absorbed.
Add 1 or 2 tablespoons semi-hot red pepper flakes, or to taste, and heat for 1 or 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
To serve, spoon lamb over eggplant dish, allowing eggplant mixture to show, and sprinkle lamb with black pepper.
Purslane Stew (Pirpirim Asi)
This hearty stew of greens and beans flavored with garlic, tomato and red pepper flakes is adapted from recipes from Dover and Hösükoglu. If you don’t have pomegranate molasses, you can substitute 1 tablespoon lemon juice mixed with 1 teaspoon sugar. Instead of purslane, you can use chopped chard or spinach.
Serves about 6
■ 4 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 1 onion, chopped
■ ½ cup green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
■ 6 or 7 cups water
■ 1 tomato, chopped
■ 1 small eggplant, diced
■ 1 red pepper, chopped
■ 1 green pepper, chopped
■ ½ cup coarse bulgur wheat
■ 2 cups purslane, chopped
■ 10 to 12 garlic cloves, sliced or crushed
■ 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
■ 1½ cups cooked chickpeas or a 400- gr. (15-ounce) can, drained
■ 1 to 1½ cups cooked black-eyed peas
■ Salt and black pepper to taste
■ 1 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses (or 1 Tbsp. lemon juice with 1 tsp. sugar)
■ 2 to 3 tsp. semi-hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
Heat 1 or 2 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan. Add chopped onion and sauté over medium-low heat for 5 minutes or until softened. Add lentils and 4 cups water and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes.
Add chopped tomato, eggplant, red and green peppers, and a pinch of salt and cook for 15 minutes.
Add bulgur wheat, purslane, garlic and 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes or until lentils, bulgur and eggplant are tender. Stir in tomato paste.
Add cooked chickpeas and black-eyed peas. Stir in 1 cup water or more, to obtain the consistency of a stew or thick soup. Bring to a simmer. Add pomegranate molasses, salt to taste and a pinch of pepper.
Just before serving, heat remaining olive oil in a small skillet. Add pepper flakes, stir and remove from heat. Drizzle over soup. Taste and adjust seasoning.