Aylin Öney Tan - [email protected]
Just as I was ready to write another spring article, I woke up to a frosted morning. The blooming flowers in the garden are covered with snow; it is hard to believe that it is April 23. This reminds me of another mid-April snowfall in the most unlikely geography, in Gaziantep. It was the spring of 2011; I was preparing a book on Gaziantep cookery for the Chamber of Commerce. I had a meeting early in the morning at the Chamber and having arrived at the city late at night, I was still a bit tired as I hastily opened the curtains in my hotel room; I was utterly confused and disoriented. It was snowing heavily, a scene totally unexpected in Gaziantep, I thought I woke up in the wrong place, wrong city. It was a period of frequent travels for me, so it could easily be another geographical location. I remember vividly the flash of panic when my confused mind was saying: “Damn you should have gone to Gaziantep, remember you have a meeting there!”
Alas it was the right place. The snowfall was over by noon and the delightful spring tastes of the city were waiting for me. Gaziantep cookery welcomes spring like no other. Every week there is a new fresh taste to step on the stage. One can practically follow the advance of spring and its course from the end of winter to the start of summer. First sign is the crocus flower. When the flowers merge from the seemingly dormant soil the spring is on the way. The bulbs of the crocus contain starch like all tubers and can be cooked in stews, giving a crunchy dimension reminiscent of water chestnuts. There is even a totally forgotten crocus bulb pudding made by cooking smashed bulbs in milk, the starch of the bulbs congealing the milk just like arrowroot starch or corn flour would do.
Then follow unripe green almonds. Green almonds best enjoyed dipped into salt and nibbled straight from hand, but here they add an unusual freshness to rice pilafs, or give a bite of spring to sublime yogurt based lamb stews. The pale green whitish fuzz of the green almonds has always reminded me of the frost of winter days, may be that is why they make the most ideal early spring taste to put on the table. Almost on the same days spring garlic and spring onions also appear. Here in this city these two are treated as vegetables in spring dishes. In the old times when the summer vegetables like courgettes and eggplants were yet to appear months later, the spring greens like young garlic and onion were cooked just as tender leeks or green beans in stews. Certain recipes get foreigners confused (just like myself with the April snow) when the ingredients list start with two or three kilos of fresh garlic or spring onions. Outsiders are usually stunned by especially this abundant use of the garlic, but once they get over the initial intimidation, they are rewarded by their amazing taste.
The advance of spring continues with greengages, a favorite snack of children, dipped in salt just like the green almonds, but also used in dishes. Another spring arrival, fresh vine leaves are wrapped to make the freshest dolmas, especially when the pot is lined with the sour greengages. Lettuce and loquats follow, the first ends up in yoghurt stews, the latter ends up skewered in kebabs. Apparently there is still time to wait for loquats, so my choice for this frosty spring day is the fuzzy frosty green almonds. Enjoy!
Bite of the Week
Recipe of the Week: If you get hold of fresh green almonds in spring reserve some to make this delightful stew. The very same dish is also made with green apples, just substitute chunks of green apple instead of almonds but do not peel them to have the green color, and take care not to overcook them. Çağla aşı, green almond and yogurt stew is a typical early spring dish in Gaziantep, so representative of the passage from winter to spring with its frosty white fresh green color. Soak half a cup of chickpeas overnight. Put 500 g cubed lamb pieces in a cooking pot with water to cover. Bring to boil, skim off any froth that forms on the surface. Add the soaked chickpeas, 1 chopped onion and 1.5 teaspoons of salt. Cover and cook over low heat until the meat and the chickpeas are tender, for about an hour. Wash and clean 1 kg of green almonds, halve the bigger ones, leave the smallest ones as whole. Add to the stew, and continue to cook for about half an hour until the almonds are tender. Beat 3 cups of strained yogurt with 1 egg until smooth, put in a saucepan, and heat over low heat constantly stirring in one direction and adding a spoonful of the cooking liquid of the stew. By this way some of the cooking juices of the stew will be blended in the yogurt, so the yogurt will not curdle when it is added to the stew. When the yogurt comes to the boiling point, add it to the stew pot and stir to blend. Continue to cook until it comes back to boil and remove from the heat at once. Serve with a generous drizzle of sizzled butter with a handful of safflower and sprinkle with freshly milled black pepper.