In an earlier article, I mentioned that I’m the iftar go-to guy for many of my fasting friends this Ramadan. What I didn’t realize was just how much of a challenge this would turn out to be.
The first two days it took me about four to five hours to create a decent yet modest spread that included soup, salad, appetizer, meal, beverage and dessert.
I quickly wised up and came up with a plan that requires some initial time in the setup but then saves tons of time over the week and still satisfies my hungry fasters! By the way, this can also be useful for those who may not be fasting but who are too busy to prepare healthy, delicious meals during the week due to time constraints.
The idea behind this is to make a large batch of soup, a meal or an appetizer that can be altered in some way to make it different over the week. For example, if you make a large pot of plain lentil soup, it can be served as-is one night, converted to ezo gelin soup the next night, become a fancy Indian dal the third night and then be enhanced with some vegetables and spices to make a vegetable lentil soup the fourth night -- four very different soups for little more than the time it takes to prepare just one!
Prep your veggies
One action that can reduce time in meal creation is prep work. When you get home from the bazaar or the store with the week’s fresh fruits and veggies, consider washing them and cutting them up and putting them in plastic storage bags or containers, ready to use on cooking day. For carrots, you can dice some (for meals and soups) and shred some (for salads). When it’s time to create a meal, just pull the containers out of the fridge and grab ingredients as you need them.
It’s better to freeze some of the ingredients than just keep them in the refrigerator. For example, I usually dice and slice a lot of onions, put them on a silpat and stick them in the freezer for a few hours. Then I transfer them to a plastic bag or container and keep them in the freezer. When you go to cook with them, they will taste as fresh as the day you cut them. I also freeze extra parsley and cilantro. Frozen herbs and vegetables are only really good for cooking -- they don’t do so well in salads.
Stock up on spices
My new favorite spice place, in Eminönü, to the right of the Spice Bazaar and close to Kahve Dünyası, is called Nil Baharat. The man you want to talk to is Devrim -- he speaks perfect English and can help you find what you need. There, I found mustard seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, fennel seed, turmeric (zerdecal) and nigella (çörek otu) -- the perfect additions to an Indian dal. They also have all of the standards: crushed red pepper (pul biber), smoked red pepper (isot biber), thyme (kekik), etc. His prices are reasonable and the service can’t be beat. While you’re in Eminönü, don’t forget to pick up some nuts and dried fruit. I got four kilograms of nuts for TL 100 the other day -- much better than some of the outrageous prices charged in the major supermarkets.
Pick a cooking day
For me, it’s Sunday. For you it may be another day. That’s the day that I plan to spend five or six hours in the kitchen to make dishes that will last through the week but whose spices can be rearranged to ensure they are never repetitive or boring.
Here are some things you can make on cooking day.
A pot of spaghetti: Spaghetti can be a whole meal or a side dish. Sauces for it are easy to make and can be varied. One night you can make a basic marinara sauce, the next you can add some şakşuka (a cold eggplant appetizer, recipe below) along with some Italian spices and yet another night you can add some Indian dal.
A pot of rice: Like spaghetti, rice can be very versatile. Have it plain as a side dish for one meal; make Chinese fried rice for another meal; and add vegetables, chicken and spices and make an Indian biriani for yet another meal.
Roasted potatoes make a very tasty side dish, but can also be used in a biriani along with other vegetables as well as in a Spanish omelet (an appetizer or a meal in itself, called “tortilla de patatas”). They can also be added to a menemen dish. Here is a recipe for roasted potatoes that works well with either peeled potatoes or potatoes with the skins still on them (which is how I prefer them).
Preheat oven to 400-425 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash and cut four or five medium-sized potatoes. Put them in a pan of cold water with a dash of salt and bring the pan to a boil. The second the potatoes come to a boil, strain out the water and put them into a hot frying pan. Continually stir until almost all of the moisture is off the potatoes.
Add two tablespoons of butter and one-and-a-half tablespoons of olive oil. Add spices: Here, anything goes, but at a minimum add salt and pepper; I also like pul biber or isot biber, curry, cumin, Italian spices or kekik.
Once the butter has melted and the spices are all combined with the potatoes, pour them into a baking dish and put them into the hot oven. Stir every 15 minutes. Potatoes are done when they are crusty and brown and a fork easily goes through them.
Pot of soup
I generally make a fairly plain lentil soup that can be enhanced later. Stir fry one onion, three cloves of garlic and three non-spicy green peppers (çarliston) in a tablespoon of oil; cook until onions are translucent. Add a cup of red lentils (washed and picked through for stones). Pour seven cups of boiling stock (vegetable or chicken stock work nice) on top and half a tablespoon of salt. At this point, add half a teaspoon of cumin and a teaspoon of Italian spices. Cook until the lentils are cooked -- about 20 minutes -- stirring frequently so that the soup doesn’t stick to the pan. Taste and adjust the spices. Blend with a hand blender.
Variation one: ezo gelin
This recipe is for four servings; adjust it for more or fewer people. Put four servings of lentil soup in a pot and heat it up. In a separate frying pan, put a tablespoon of olive oil and put the burner on high. Add a tablespoon of tomato paste and cook them together. Add one-and-a-half tablespoons of dried mint and a teaspoon of thyme. After two minutes, put the mixture into the soup and stir. Add one-and-a-half teaspoons of crushed red pepper.
Variation two: Indian dal
Heat up your basic lentil soup. Add a cup of cold water and a one-inch piece of chopped, fresh ginger root; two chopped garlic cloves; a teaspoon of turmeric; two-and-a-half teaspoons of ground cumin; and two peeled and chopped tomatoes. If you like it spicy, add some cayenne pepper at this point (acı biber). Bring the liquid to a boil and then simmer until the tomatoes are soft. Stir often!
In another pan, put a tablespoon of olive oil and, once hot, add a bay leaf, a teaspoon of cumin seeds, a teaspoon of coriander seeds, a teaspoon of nigella (çörek otu), a teaspoon of fennel (rezene) and a teaspoon of mustard seeds. Cook them in the oil until they sputter, then add half of a chopped onion and sauté until translucent. Stir this into the lentils. If you have some butter, you can stir in a spoonful at the end. Blend again with the hand mixer. It is good served with rice.
In a frying pan, heat up one-and-a-half tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté a diced zucchini, half a diced onion, a diced carrot and a clove of garlic. Cook until the carrot is slightly crunchy. Add to the lentil soup. Add a teaspoon of curry powder, half a teaspoon of turmeric and a pinch of crushed red pepper (more if you like it spicy).
Şakşuka: cold eggplant
with olive oil and tomato sauce
This lovely appetizer can double as a tasty, versatile sauce. Serve it as intended, as a cold appetizer. Here are two possible variations: add to spaghetti to make a kind of “rustica” sauce or add a couple of tablespoons to menemen to make a richer taste.
2 eggplants (long type)
2-3 sivri peppers, finely chopped (Note: I use çarliston pepper here because sometimes the sivri peppers are too spicy for me.)
2 tomatoes, peeled and cubed
1 teaspoon tomato paste
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Peel strips off the eggplants to leave half the skin in stripes; cut into fourths lengthwise, then into two-centimeter lengths. Sprinkle with salt and let sit 15 minutes. Wash and pat dry, then fry in hot oil, drain and put into a broad salad plate.
As it is cooling, saute the finely chopped peppers in a frying pan in the olive oil. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring until they disintegrate. Add tomato paste and garlic, and cook a bit more but before too much of the tomatoes’ liquid is evaporated. Pour over the eggplants in the plate and let cool. Serve cold.
Preparing food ahead of time can save you hours in the kitchen and yet still allow you to lay out an impressive iftar spread. For more recipes, you can go to the Facebook page Cook’s Corner For Expats in Turkey. For those of you who are fasting, Allah kabul etsin. May God accept your fast.
Brooks Emerson can be reached at [email protected]