Turkish Delights

Muhammara (Red Pepper, Walnut and Pomegranate Dip)
and Tarator (Pine Nut and Garlic Dip) 

Last year in late spring, with the tiresome cold of a northern European winter having driven us to the point of madness, Manuel and I made an impulsive decision to spend a week in Turkey. It was really just luck that brought us to this destination, as we would have gone practically anywhere with sun and a place to lie supine beneath it, but a particularly good last minute deal to this country we had both been long eager to visit practically fell into our laps, and before we even had a chance to think twice, we had packed our bags and hopped on a plane.

Our itinerary took us to the southwest corner of Turkey – the area on a map where the coastline stops plunging south and takes a sharp left-turn to the east, an area stunningly beautiful but unsuitable for mass tourism because of its steep topography and lack of sandy beaches. We stayed in a small family-run hotel on a hill overlooking the town of Kalkan; below our balcony snaked small, serpentine streets leading down to the harbor, and beyond that – as if we were perched on the edge of the world – nothing but the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean stretching out to meet the horizon. The sun was shining, the locals friendly, the pace of life relaxed, the cold beers plentiful. There was something deeply, familiarly Mediterranean about the place – but at the same time it was tantalizingly foreign. This foreignness assumed many guises: the distant plaintive wail of the muezzin calling everyone to prayer at the break of dawn; the strange, incomprehensible writing on street signs; the markets, full of haggling and drama and unfamiliar products; the scent of tea and Nargile smoke wafting out from the interior of shops, and of course, in ways more spectacular than we could have dreamed, the food.

We both considered ourselves familiar with Turkish food from Germany, where Turkish take-out is as ubiquitous as McDonalds and only sometimes better tasting. In Turkey itself, the food was jaw-dropping. It exploded with freshness and the flavors of sun-ripened fruits, vegetables and herbs. We feasted on chicken stewed with cumin, pomegranate and orange; fish roasted with sumac; eggplant stuffed with spicy lamb and pine nuts; melting tomato salads doused with lemon and fresh dill. We ate rose-petal jam on thick, creamy yogurt for breakfast, candied pumpkin and spoonfuls of honey-soaked pistachios for dessert. We drank tart apple tea, salty yogurt aryan, and tiny glasses of syrupy coffee. And whenever everything looked so good that we simply couldn’t decide what to order, we ate mezze.

Dips, salads, vegetables, pastries and meat – mezze are the tapas of the Middle East, small plates that are meant as an appetite stimulant, an antidote to indecision, and an excuse to linger over your meal for hours. In Turkey and other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean they’re cheap, plentiful, and about as authentic as food gets; they’re also one of the easiest ways to recreate a Middle Eastern feast at home. A few fragrant salads, some marinated olives and peppers, some spicy lamb kofte, warm pita bread and these hauntingly delicious dips, and you have a meal fit for a sultan. Though it can’t replace the magic of actually being there again, at least for this there is no last-minute packing required. 

Note: both of the following can be used as dips for bread, as a sauce for vegetables or as an accompaniment to meat or fish. 

Muhammara (Red Pepper Dip with Walnuts and Pomegranate)

Source: adapted from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
Yield: 3 cups 

2 1/2 lbs. red bell peppers
1-2 small hot chilis, or 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil 

For best results, make the recipe at least one day in advance.

Roast the bell peppers and the chili, if using, over hot coals, a gas burner, or under the broiler in the oven, turning frequently until blackened and blistered all over, about 12 minutes. Place in a covered bowl to steam for ten minutes, then rub off the skins. Slit open the peppers and remove the stems, membranes and seeds. Spread the peppers on paper towels and let drain for at least ten minutes.

In a food processor, grind the walnuts, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, salt and sugar until smooth. Add the peppers; process until pureed and creamy. With the machine on, add the olive oil in a thin stream. If the paste is too thick, thin with a tablespoon or two of water. Taste and add more pomegranate molasses, salt or sugar to achieve a good balance between sour, sweet and salty. Refrigerate overnight in a covered continer to allow the flavors to blend. Serve at room temperature.

Tarator (Pine Nut and Garlic Dip)

Source: adapted from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
Yield: 1 3/4 cups 

1 cup pine nuts
2-3 fat cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup water
2 cups stale crustless bread, soaked in water and squeezed dry (to make about 1/2 cup packed)
3 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice
salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons plain or Greek yogurt (optional) 

In a skillet or oven, heat the nuts until they just start to turn fragrant and golden, watching closely to make sure they don’t burn. Place them in a food processor with the garlic and 1/3 cup of the water; process until smooth. With the machine running, add the bread, vinegar, salt, and the oil; process until well blended. Add the remaining water to loosen the mixture. If a slightly creamier texture is desired, add a couple tablespoons of yogurt. Transfer to a bowl and let mellow for at least two hours before serving, or up to a day.