IT DIDN’T TAKE much time in Turkish kitchens for me to begin to grasp the importance of yogurt at each step of cooking and every part of the meal. Over the 30-plus years I’ve been traveling to Turkey, I’ve seen yogurt used to thicken sauces and soups; to provide cool contrast to grilled meat and vegetable dishes; and to tame the heat of Turkish chiles. Yogurt sweetens and also adds a sour tang. It even moistens and tenderizes cakes.
“Yogurt appears in the most unusual forms,” Turkish cooking authority
explained to me when I visited Istanbul last year. “Strained, preserved, salted, potted. There are even dried and smoked varieties.” She spoke of the thick, clotted yanik yogurt of Denizli in the southwest, made from sheep’s or goats’ milk and prized for its burnt-caramel flavor, as well as a cooked and salted yogurt from Antakya on the southern coast. To make tarhana, a sort of instant soup base, yogurt is mixed with crushed wheat, then dried. The refreshing drink ayran, a simple mix of yogurt and water (fizzy or still) with salt or sugar, can accompany everything from breakfast to afternoon snacks.
When in Istanbul, it’s worth ferrying across the Bosporus to the Asian side and the waterfront village of Kanlica, deservedly famous for its yogurt. Also on the Asian side sit the three restaurants of the renowned Turkish chef
who uses yogurt one way or another in most every dish. Kebabs of lamb, chicken and vegetables come with healthy dollops of yogurt on the side. Creamy stews feature meats marinated in savory yogurt until meltingly tender. Meatballs charred on the grill come in pita sandwiches with plenty of yogurt, crushed red pepper from Urfa or Maraş, and the deep-crimson spice sumac, which contributes an additional tart note. As in many Turkish kitchens, yogurt mixed with mint, dill and garlic makes a sauce for stewed beans, bitter greens or, in springtime, fresh young fava beans in their pods.
At home, I always stock two tubs of yogurt—one container of the regular, looser kind; another of the thicker, strained variety we’ve come to call Greek yogurt here in the States—and I use them all the time. My Italian friends will roll their eyes, but I’ll add a dollop of yogurt to spark up the flavors of a meaty ragù. After spending some time in Turkey, I’m apt to whip up a bowl of çaçik (pronounced dja-DJEEK), the cooling dip of strained yogurt mixed with crushed garlic, chopped cucumbers and either mint or dill—perhaps familiar to you under its Greek name, tzatziki. Or I might slowly stir a cup of regular yogurt into a soup that lacks oomph—tomato soup especially benefits from this.
In the Turkish recipes I’m sharing here, yogurt does more than its share of heavy lifting. It turns a simple soup of potatoes, chickpeas and just a small amount of meat into a substantial main course. A savory yogurt marinade renders lamb shoulder tender enough to cut with a spoon. And a half-cup of plain whole-milk yogurt makes a pistachio cake so delicate and light you’ll easily justify going in for a second slice.
Creamy Yogurt-Potato Soup with Chickpeas and Veal
The original recipe, from southeastern Turkey, is called haspirli and includes a garnish of butter melted with dried golden safflower petals (haspir in Turkish). Since they’re used more for color than taste, you can omit them without particularly compromising the flavor of the soup. If you’d like to use the petals, you can find them at kalustyans.com.
ACTIVE TIME: 45 minutes TOTAL TIME: 1½ hours SERVES: 4-6
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound lean veal, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 5-6 cups boiling water
- 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover, drained
- 2 bay leaves
- Sea salt
- Red pepper flakes, such as Aintab, Maras or Urfa pepper
- 1 pound yellow-fleshed potatoes (3-4 medium potatoes), such as Yellow Finns, cut into ½-inch dice
- ¼ cup butter
- 1 tablespoon dried safflower petals (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried mint, crumbled
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
- 1 egg
1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy 2-quart cooking pot over medium-high heat. Add meat and cook, stirring occasionally, until it gives off liquid and is sizzling and brown, 15 minutes. Stir in onions, lower heat and cook just until onions start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add enough boiling water to cover meat. Bring to a simmer and cook meat and onions gently until foam stops rising, about 15 minutes. Add chickpeas, bay leaves, a big pinch of salt, and Turkish red pepper flakes to taste. Cover pot and simmer gently until chickpeas are tender, 30-60 minutes, depending on the age of the chickpeas.
2. When chickpeas are tender, add potatoes and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes.
3. Make butter garnish: Melt butter and stir in safflower petals, if using, mint and plenty of black pepper. Keep warm until ready to serve.
4. In a small saucepan, beat yogurt with egg. Beat in remaining olive oil, a spoonful at a time, to make a smooth mixture. Set saucepan over low heat and bring slowly to a simmer, stirring constantly. As yogurt warms, stir in soup broth, a tablespoon at a time, continuing to stir, until you’ve added about ½ cup. Once yogurt is at the point of simmering, stir it slowly into soup. When soup comes to a simmer once more, remove from heat. (Do not let soup come to a boil or yogurt may break.)
5. Serve soup with melted butter spooned over each portion.
—Adapted from “Essential Turkish Cuisine” by Engin Akin
This kind of simple cake is often served at breakfast throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. If you buy already shelled pistachios, be sure to taste them before adding them to the batter. Often they have enough salt that you won’t need to add more.
ACTIVE TIME: 30 minutes TOTAL TIME: 1½ hours SERVES: 6-8
- Butter for cake pan
- ½ cup shelled pistachios
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
- 3 eggs, separated
- ⅔ cup sugar
- ½ cup whole-milk yogurt
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Confectioner’s sugar for topping (optional)
1. Butter the bottom and sides of an 8½-inch springform pan. Cut a sheet of parchment paper to fit bottom of pan. Butter parchment paper.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast pistachios on a baking sheet in oven until crisp, about 10 minutes. (This is not necessary if using pre-shelled and toasted pistachios.) Transfer to a food processor and grind to a powder.
3. Whisk pistachios together with flour, baking powder and salt, if using.
4. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks with ⅓ cup sugar until thick and pale-yellow. Beat in yogurt and then olive oil. Fold in flour mixture, using a rubber spatula to combine thoroughly. Clean beaters for use in next step.
5. Beat egg whites to a froth. Add remaining sugar and continue beating until whites are stiff and glossy. Use rubber spatula to stir about a quarter of beaten whites into batter to lighten it. Then fold in remaining whites. Fold mixture gently, over and over, to be sure ingredients are distributed evenly.
6. Pour batter into prepared cake pan and transfer to oven. Bake until top is firm and sides have pulled away slightly from pan, 40-50 minutes.
7. Cool cake thoroughly on a rack, 15 minutes. Remove pan. Sift confectioner’s sugar over top of cake, if you like. This cake is delicious plain, but you can also serve with Greek yogurt, whipped cream or ice cream, garnished with crushed, toasted pistachios.
—Adapted from “Classical Turkish Cooking” by
Lamb Marinated in Spiced Yogurt
ACTIVE TIME: 1 hour TOTAL TIME: 8 hours (includes marinating lamb) SERVES: 4-6
- 1 tablespoon Turkish red pepper flakes (Antep, “Aleppo” or Urfa pepper)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste or concentrate
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup whole-milk yogurt
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 to 4 pounds lamb chops, cut about 1 ½ inches thick
- 1 or 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped fine, to make about 1 cup chopped
- 1 egg
1. In a small bowl, mix pepper flakes with 1 tablespoon boiling water and set aside to steep until all liquid has been absorbed, 5 minutes. In another small bowl, combine tomato paste with 1 tablespoon boiling water and stir to dissolve thoroughly. One at a time, add pastes and crushed garlic to yogurt, whisking thoroughly after each addition. Add plenty of black pepper, then whisk in vinegar and 3 tablespoons olive oil.
2. Arrange lamb on a platter and spoon yogurt-pepper mixture generously over it. Turn meat to cover with marinade, then cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight, turning meat at least once.
3. When ready to cook, transfer lamb pieces to a plate, brushing off marinade. Transfer marinade to a small saucepan and reserve.
4. Heat butter and remaining oil in a large heavy-duty saucepan over medium heat until butter foam subsides. Add lamb to pan and brown all over, remove and set aside. Lower heat and add onions to pan (you may need to add a little more butter and/or oil). Cook, stirring, until onions begin to soften, 10 minutes. Add lamb back to pan, nestled into onions. Pour over 2-3 cups boiling water, enough to come just barely to the top of the pieces of meat. Bring to a simmer and lower heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cover pan and cook until lamb is falling-off-the-bone tender, 1½ hours.
5. While lamb is cooking, whisk an egg into marinade in its saucepan, beating thoroughly.
6. At the end of cooking, when meat is very tender, set oven to 350 degrees. Remove large saucepan from heat and use tongs to transfer lamb pieces to a baking dish, reserving lamb cooking liquid in saucepan.
7. Set saucepan with yogurt marinade over low heat and gradually raise temperature, whisking, until yogurt is hot but not boiling. Whisk in hot lamb cooking liquid, ¼ cup at a time, using at least 1 cup. (Adding hot liquid slowly will raise the temperature without curdling the egg.) Continue whisking over low heat as marinade starts to thicken. You’re aiming for a sauce as thick as heavy cream. Spoon sauce over lamb, covering pieces as much as possible. Transfer baking dish to preheated oven and bake until sauce seizes up and blisters slightly on top, about 15 minutes. Remove baking dish from oven and let rest 15 minutes before serving.
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