The Cranberries

My family grew up with an Aegean Turkish kitchen culture. “Ege Mutfağı,” if you will. This involves copious amounts of vegetables, beans, rice, and fruit. And then some more fruit, chased with fruit. Fruit after breakfast, after lunch, as an afternoon snack, then right after dinner, before dessert (unless fruit is the dessert) and just before coffee/tea service. It’s easy to be a vegetarian (or a frugivore spider monkey) in Western Turkey. Everything grows here, much like the Central Valley of California. Dishes like Zeytinyağlı Barbunya (Cranberry Beans stewed in olive oil) are relatively unknown outside of the Aegean region, and that makes me have sad-face. A majority of the Turkish culinary culture that has been exported and consumed by foreigners is kebap-centric, unfairly bolstering a stereotype of unhealthy drunk food. (It’d be as if my opinion of Mexican food was gleaned from eating post-bar-close burritos). The rich seasonal produce is bolstered by ubiquitous farmer’s markets, street corner grocery stores, and even donkey-pulled bahçevan carts that call out their wares. “Bahçevan! Karpuuuuuuz, kavuuuuuun, şeftaaaali!”

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The organic market is still in its nascent stages in Turkey, but the emphasis on locality and the human element are present everywhere. I’ve seen customers in Turkey scold their manav (greengrocer) for selling them a dud watermelon. If you got a sour peach, some mustachioed-man was going to hear about it. Sure, these purveyors use pesticides, but their farms are small and their product is way better than the grocery store. Not to mention you can get a kilo of peaches for something absurd like 4 TL (about 2 bucks). I’m too scared to scold the North Berkeley farmer’s market vendors, since they’re surly assholes. (Great produce, though, guys!) Michael Pollan shops at the same market; I should ask him if he gets the churlish vibe. HOLD ON LET ME JUST PICK UP THIS NAME THAT I JUST DROPPED.

It’s an interesting perspective on the praxis of Slow Food: in California, I was always interested in how my food products were raised. Are they organic? Heirloom? Did the cows get to watch DirecTV and sip amontillado dry rich sherry after their evening graze? By eating like a food asshole, I’m consciously acting in a way that authenticates my food choices and sets my actions apart from the other – the industrial system. When it’s written like that, of course it seems elite and holy-shit-this-guy-thinks-his-shit-don’t-stink-ish, but I can easily argue that the industrial food system is broken. I can also argue that organic/local/insert trendy adjective tastes better. Hell, I can even make the argument that big agro’s latest GMO monstrosity can barely be called “food.”

In the same vein, although I don’t have a neat bookend for how Turks generally practice their Slow Food, my initial impression has been a focus on provenance as an indicator of quality, as well as a love of eating at home. Kids are often tasked to shell beans, the stove is usually working, and there are always dishes to wash.

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Generally, I’m recipe-averse. I turn sysdelxic dyslexic in the face of a recipe. I hate reading fractions, steps, and the chore of having to read the whole thing multiple times to ensure success. I’d rather apply a few fundamental cooking practices while worrying about the salt/fat/acid/heat. If you fuck it up, who cares – tomorrow it’ll be shit; literally. Having said that, this is a dish worth making; it’s really flexible, you don’t need exact amounts, and the variation I’ve encountered from different cooks is staggering. I’ve seen it with almost no liquid – like a bean salad, without any parsley, with carrots, and so on. I like to make mine rather soupy, because the olive oily bean broth is ideal for swabbing your plate clean with some crusty bread. Serve cold, preferably the next day, with a large glass of ayran, and you’ve got yourself a complete meal.

Shamelessly taken from:

Algar, Ayla. 1999[1991]. Classical Turkish Cooking: Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins.

2 pounds fresh cranberry beans in pods. Or buy a 1 pound dried bag of beans. I’ve made this with pintos, good mother stallards, and rio zape beans, since I can’t always find cranberry beans. They all work great. If you use dried beans, use Rancho Gordo.

1.5 cups finely chopped onions

½ to 1 Cup olive oil. (Use some good, green, grassy stuff, as this dish is one of the cornerstones of Turkish olive oil-stewed dishes).

1 Large tomato, chopped. I’ve noticed that Turks peel all of their tomatoes, and I’ve gleaned that it’s a combination of taste preference and getting rid of pesticide residues. I like the way the tomato skins curl up like wood shavings in a dish, so I never peel ‘em, pesticides be damned. I’ll probably be sterile in a month.)

2-3 long green peppers. Nothing too crazy spicy; 1 fat jalapeno also does the trick. If using skinny peppers, seed and chop into rings. If a jalapeno, give it a fine dice.

2 chopped handfuls of parsley.

Salt
Sugar
Lemon

Shell the beans. If using dried, soak them for a couple hours. Or don’t; it really doesn’t matter. I’ve made this dish with no soaking and with the oh-balls-I’ve-had-beans-soaking-for-three-days method. Just adjust your cooking time!

Cook the onions in the olive oil until softy and translucent. Medium to medium low heat. It should look like you’re cooking the onions in too much oil, but keep in mind you’re adding water and beans later.

Chuck in the chopped tomato and cook it until broken down and soft. (The tomato, not your penis).

Stir in the beans, peppers, a healthy pinch or five of salt, a pinch of sugar, and 2-3 cups of water. Cover and simmer until the beans are soft, but not mushy. Could be thirty minutes, could be an hour and a half. If you’re unsure of cooking time, check after 20 minutes and go from there. Make sure there’s enough liquid to cover the beans. If the water is too much for your taste, simmer with the lid open for a spell.*

Tamar Adler has forgotten more about beans than I will ever know, and I recommend her method for tasting at least five beans for doneness before you’re sure.

Toss in one handful of parsley and let it cook for a few minutes. If your beans are done or near-done, squeeze in at least one lemon’s worth of juice. Adjust your salt and acid at the same time. Keep in mind that you’re going to sprinkle a bit more lemon from the garnish, as well as adjust the seasoning once it’s cooled.

Sprinkle the remaining fresh parsley on top after the beans have cooled. Drizzle with olive oil, and serve with lemon slices, bread, and tangy yogurt.

*Important time saving note! Pressure cookers seem to have been invented for the sole purpose of bean cooking. You can skip all of the “to soak or not to soak” discussion if you prep the recipe exactly as above, and “simmer” the dish in a pressure cooker for about 8-12 minutes. Proceed with the lemon and parsley as above.

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3 thoughts on “The Cranberries

  1. Hi Erdem. I find such delight in reading your blog. This is a part of you that is a pleasant surprise for me. You are so intelligent and witty, I can see why you would receive the Fulbright. It seems as though we have only touched your beginning. Bravo to you!

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