Just before we left Berkeley, I paid a visit to my beloved Oaktown Spice Shop to stock up on some spices to send off in our container. Originally in Oakland, they had recently opened a second location in Albany, just a mere walking distance from our house. It’s one of the places I miss most.
Yes, in case you’re wondering, you can certainly find spices in a big city like Barcelona, but John’s sourcing is impeccable; the freshness, intensity, and quality of their products are hard to find anywhere in the world, even though these products are not local. Of course we got a big stash of their Shichimi Togarashi, which is better than the versions I have tried from Japan, as well as black lava salt, vanilla bean powder, Golden Milk mix, Herbal Coffee, and a long etc.
“Is there anything extra special you recommend that I don’t have in my basket already?”
The Oaktown spice specialist didn’t hesitate to answer: Urfa Biber.
We walked over to their ample pepper section so that I could smell it, and into my basket it went, and then on to the container, on a ship across the world (again, as it had originally come from Turkey) to arrived a couple months later in my kitchen.
Before we moved , I had agreed to host the Fall edition of Sobremesa by Sunday Suppers in our new home. Surprisingly, when Karen sent the recipes for the event, there was one with Urfa in it. My event took place November 11, and you can read more about it here. It was a magical afternoon, which has left me with new friends to last a lifetime, I hope.
These events always have a group cooking/demo component, which in this case was a homemade smoked ricotta. Since I already had the guests in my kitchen, I decided to show off my Urfa and let everyone get a whiff. The Urfa was in an oil that went on a whole-roasted cauliflower, and I love to let people see what a new-to-them ingredient looks like in its whole form before they taste it in an unrecognizable form.
It just so happens that three of the attendees were a lovely Turkish family, the daughter was living and studying in Barcelona, and her parents were visiting. They had a wonderful time, as we all did, and said goodbye late that afternoon with promises to keep in touch and even send me some more pepper.
Nevertheless, when a package arrived in the mail a mere month later, I was very surprised. I know we make promises in the heat of the moment, but the fact that they not only remembered, but also generously sent me three bags of Turkish goodness, along with an endearing note of thanks for the day they had spent with me at my table, just blew me away. This is the kind of thing that makes me tick, the reason for it all. Connecting people, connecting with people and creating solid, enduring memories and relationships is without a doubt the most important possible outcome of the effort of putting food on a table, and people around it.
Though it’s always special and new, this time, for some reason, I was extremely touched. Maybe it’s because I’m still a bit vulnerable in the aftermath of this big life transition we’ve taken on. Mustafa and I are already planning a new get-together for our families the next time they visit Barcelona in 2019, and I would so love to take my family to Istanbul.
As soon as the spices arrived, I dug out all of my Turkish recipes for inspiration. I felt the need to honor this generous gift with some good cooking, and receiving new ingredients in abundance was the perfect excuse to push myself out of my comfort zone to cook something new.
I visited Istanbul on a work trip in 2014, and stayed a couple of extra days to tour the city, including a cooking workshop and a culinary tour (in fact, this walking tour was one of the first inspirations to create Sobremesa Culinary Tours!). This trip was one of the culinary highlights of my life; I came back so into Turkish food it that I even taught a workshop or two in San Francisco with recipes I had learned.
Time went by and I went back to my ways -though there’s a red lentil soup I still make regularly. It was super exciting to go back to a way of cooking which is definitely Mediterranean, yet also idiosyncratic. I remember the breakfasts in Istanbul were so much richer than the staple pastry and coffee one tires of seeing all over the place in this part of the Mediterranean. There were always cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives, it was a savory meal, which I personally prefer any day over an unsatisfying sweet breakfast that spikes your blood sugar and makes you hungry again in no time.
I was also lucky enough to visit the restaurant Çiya Sofrasi with my Turkish colleagues for a curated feast of traditional local dishes. The food at Çiya is delicious, but it is also a unique place with a mission, and was featured in a recent Netflix Chef’s Table episode.
I love the Turkish use of spice, which is not as hot spicy as many people think. Spices are aromatic rather than hot, and used sparingly, without overpowering the flavors of the other, fresh ingredients.
My new friends sent me three spices they claim to use on absolutely everything: Maras pepper, which is bright red, fruity in flavor and slightly hot (warm, let’s say); Urfa pepper, dark red-brownish in color, smoky and earthy in flavor. It doesn’t seem at all hot at first bite, but throughout the meal the spice builds up. Finally, there was also sumac, which I am more familiar with as it’s also used in Israeli cuisine, and I like it on that Shepherds Salad for a summer breakfast or lunch.
My new Turkish culinary adventure began with a few recipes, which I will release to you in phases.
The first one is the one I’m most proud of, because it was delicious but also because I really jumped far away from the original recipe I loosely based it off of.
Köfte are extremely popular in Turkey as a meze, perhaps because they are easy to eat with your fingers and also a great food for sharing (i.e. party food). Traditionally made with ground meat, I decided on a vegan version. Tempeh would have been easier to replace, but I only had tofu at home and decided to go with that.
The results were amazing; even my meat-eating husband congratulated me (and himself for marrying me). I made some more substitutions to make them lighter: I decided to bake the balls instead of frying them, and used rice flour to dredge instead of AP flour, so they’re also gluten free.
In spite of all these changes, the outcome is super tasty and filling. Ground walnuts make them substantial and nutritious. You can serve them as is, or drizzle with some tahini (make sure it’s the runny Middle-Eastern kind; I adore the Israeli brand Soom), or a garlicky yogurt sauce.
inspired by a recipe by Engin Akin
1 300-gram block plain tofu (tempeh would also work well here)
1 tsp EVOO
a few drops tamari
a few drops Mirin (rice wine)
1/2 leek, minced (or spring onion)
1/2 cup ground walnuts
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp Maras pepper
1/2 tsp Urfa pepper
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped (or cilantro for stronger flavor)
rice flour for dredging
Preheat oven to 200ºC/400ºF and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the tofu from the package and place on a plate with paper towels on top and bottom. Place a weight on top (such as a bowl with water in it) and let sit for a while (30 min at least) to squeeze out some of the liquid.
When ready, pat dry and break into large chunks with your hands. Place in a food processor and pulse until you reach the texture of ground meat; don’t overdo it or it can become too pasty.
Place the tofu in a bowl and let marinate for a while with the tamari, Mirin and EVOO. Meanwhile, pulse the walnuts in the food processor until you reach the texture of flour, but don’t overdo it or you’ll get walnut butter.
Place the walnuts in the bowl with the tofu and add in the peppers, minced leek, parsley and knead with your hands to meld.
Form the mix into walnut-sized balls, squeezing well to help them hold together.
Roll them in rice flour on a plate and transfer to the baking sheet, on which you have drizzled a generous amount of olive oil. Roll the balls in the oil a bit to coat.
Bake for about 20 min. or until golden all around.
Optional: Serve with some tahini drizzled on top.