Couple captures the flavors of Turkey

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2009

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For those whose lives revolve around culinary adventure, it's hard to imagine a better life than that of husband-and-wife cookbook teams Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid of Toronto, who cover East Asia, and Greg and Lucy Malouf, who are based in Australia and roam the Middle East. The grand, rambling travelogues that result from these excursions manage to ignite the inner wanderlust of homebound cooks (like me) and satisfy it when travel's not possible.

Turkey is a place where practically everything grows. Whatever didn't grow there eventually arrived in Constantinople via the Silk Road, so it's no surprise that the cuisine is fantastically diverse. Still, the recipes in "Turquoise: A Chef's Travels in Turkey," written by the Maloufs, have threads common to Near East cooking: saffron, paprika, mint; lamb and chicken rather than pork and beef; lots of greens and yogurt; nuts as thickeners and seasonings; and very sweet sweets.

The cookbook's easiest, one-pan weeknight supper is shepherd's spinach, in which ground lamb and rice get a flavorful lift with mint and paprika. For a far more sumptuous treatment using similar ingredients, give yourself up to the manti in yogurt with sizzling paprika butter. In this striking pasta dish, creamy yogurt drapes over tiny lamb dumplings made with silken fresh dough. The butter in the dish is mint-flecked and sweetly spiced, pure heaven, and worth every minute of the three hours it takes to make them. The same butter lends its luxe finish to red lentil soup, which is like a thick dal simmered with fine bulgur.

Celery root, potatoes, and bitter greens in oil uses an unusual technique: gentle poaching, in water and enough oil to infuse the scent of dill, coriander, and fennel throughout the dish. Chicken in pistachio, sumac, and sesame crumbs offers a simple riff on breaded poultry. Even with lemon and Parmesan, though, the nut and seed coating barely make up for the chicken's blandness. More memorable than either is the pistachio pilaf with spinach and herbs, which is brilliantly green and aromatic.

Thanks to a Persian friend, I happened to have some dried barberries on hand, so roast chicken with a pilaf-stuffing of pine nuts mixed with the tart berries was an easy choice. Here the chicken is simply oiled and seasoned with salt and pepper, so the star of the show is the rice, flavored with allspice and cinnamon. Oddly, the recipe neglects to mention where to add the raw rice, so I guessed, and it was fine.

Another oddball slip turns up in lamb and pine nut borek (a rolled, savory pastry), where the nuts are nowhere to be found - not in the ingredient list nor in the recipe. The yogurt-based, layered dough is easy and smooth to work with, if not as flaky as puff pastry or phyllo.

There was only one major letdown: yogurt cookies with sesame and pistachios, which are a bit like a not-sweet cake, or a not-crunchy cookie, and not nutty at all (since the ground pistachios just fall off).

Not much more gets lost in the conversion from Turkish to Australian to US measurements. But who among us doesn't return a little battered from a long overseas voyage?