Sunday, 11 March 2012

Turkish beans + a recipe

Like the English caff, the Turkish esnaf lokantasi (tradesmens’ restaurant) is usually a daytime-only operation where lots of tea is served. For both, the core custom is local, male and looking to get some hot food without spending a bundle. But where the former might top out at a decent plate of egg and chips, many esnaf lokantasi feature up to a dozen or more home-cooked dishes: meat stews, stuffed vegetables, slow-cooked beans and homely desserts like rice pudding. This is meant to be cooking like Turkish mothers do, some recompense for spending the day in a shop or office

Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi’s location directly across from the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul’s Fatih district attracts some tourists, though most don’t make it past the large terrace. Inside, it’s all late ‘30s vintage (bar the steam table and the fountain serving aryan, salty drinking yogurt) with pride of place given over to the fasulye (bean pot). The beans, small and white, are cooked to a recipe from Erzican in the south—distinctively spicier, with more tomato and less meaty, buttery overtones (though some butter and lamb fat or stock definitely make their way into the pot) than those popular further north, along the Black Sea. It was recommended that I order the beans with pilau and cacik, the yogurt-cucumber mixture that can range from pourable to clotted cream-like. The pilau, dotted with pine nuts, was gently savoury, and the cacik was super-thick, a soft, sour counterpoint to the heat and richness of the beans.

Though I tend to cook from recipes rather than taste memories, my first try at recreating the beans I had at Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi was nonetheless a success. I made the sauce thicker, as they were intended to sit alongside lamb chops rather than on rice. And while the exclusion of lamb fat and butter was not authentic, the resulting beans were hardly abstemious.

Fasulye in the style of Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi

I happened to have two ingredients for this dish which might not be readily available: semi-dried white beans, podded last summer and stored in the freezer, and an open jar of a Spanish/Portuguese sofrito-like sauce called tomate frito. For the former, the best substitute would be small, dried white beans, pre-soaked overnight and, depending on age and variety, cooked for a bit longer. Any good-quality brand of chopped, tinned tomato can be substituted for the tomate frito.

Like any chilli products, Turkish red pepper flakes vary in flavour profile and heat. I think this dish should have a good prickle of chilli, but not more. I’m not sure the bay leaves are authentic, but they marry very well with most bean and tomato dishes.

The beans are initially cooked separately in order to ensure they soften properly, something which can be retarded by the acid in tomatoes.

Serves 2
Total time (excluding soaking): 90 minutes; Active time: 15 minutes

1 ½ cups semi-dried OR 1 cup dried white beans, pre-soaked if required
Olive oil
1 medium onion
Tomato paste
150 ml tomato frito OR ½ can tinned tomatoes
Turkish red pepper flakes (aci biber)
2-3 fresh bay leaves (ideally fresh)
1-2 cloves garlic
Small bunch parsley
Salt and pepper

Put the beans in a saucepan, cover amply with water and bring to a boil.

In another saucepan of a similar size, heat a thin film of oil on a medium heat. Chop the onion finely and add. Season with salt and pepper. Lower heat and sauté gently, until onion is fully soft and beginning to taste sweet. Squeeze in a few inches of tomato paste and cook for 3-4 more minutes.

When the beans reach a boil, turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook until soft but not falling apart. (In the case of semi-dried cannellini or lingot beans, this should be about 45 minutes.

Add the tomato to the onion. Refill the tomato jar/can to the same level with water and add to the pot, along with a good pinch of the red pepper flakes and the bay leaves. Chop the garlic and half the parsley and add. Season to taste with salt and pepper and cook on a gentle heat until thick and integrated, 30-45 minutes.

When the beans are ready, drain, reserving some of the cooking water, and add to the sauce. Adjust seasoning and add a bit of the reserved water if the sauce is too claggy. Cook for a further 15-20 minutes to allow the flavours to fully combine.

Just before serving, chop the remaining parsley and add. Finish with another pinch of pepper flakes.

No comments: