Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When we visited Singapore last month, we were told we must try the chilli crabs and the black pepper crabs.

Our friend Danny, a native Singaporean, enthusiastically explained we must eat these crabs specifically at Jumbo Seafood in the East Coast Seafood Centre. When a native person tells you where to eat, you listen!
Diners enjoying lots of seafood at Jumbo Seafood in Singapore.
We hailed a taxi, ordered the crabs and drunken prawns, hammered away at our crabs and had a finger-licking-outrageously-messy good time! Even our taxi driver told us Jumbo Seafood was one of the best places to eat these crabs in Singapore.
Jumbo Seafood's Chilli Pepper Crabs
Gigantic crab claws dipped in the black pepper paste.
Now, I’ve tried Maryland’s Old Bay-style crabs several times, but these crabs were so different. I preferred the spicy black pepper crabs while hubby liked the chilli crabs best. Then we sopped up the yummy juices with steamed Asian buns.

Lucky for us, Jumbo Seafood sold take-away spice packets in the restaurant. We bought a box of each spice blend so we could whip up these tasty Asian crabs at home. (Unfortunately, it looks like the spice packets are only sold in the Singapore restaurants. Make friends with someone to get your own.) Since I’ve never seen crabs in Turkey, we decided to bring the spices with us to the U.S.

During our whirlwind driving tour on the East Coast, we stopped in Baltimore and bought 2 dozen Maryland crabs in Fells Point.
On Christmas Eve and Day, hubby and his brother steamed the crabs here in North Carolina. 
Great photo opp! But our nephew was like "do I have to?"
The crabs enjoyed a brief moment of freedom before they were dropped into the steamer basket.

Then, Jason proceeded to cook up the spice mixes on the stovetop. For the chilli pepper crabs, he mixed ketchup, soy sauce, two eggs, cornstarch and water with the spice blend while the black pepper mix only required chicken stock and soy sauce.
Chilli pepper Maryland crabs
Christmas Day - Hubby shows off his Singaporean-Maryland crabs.
As you can see, the crab mixture we made looks nearly identical to the crabs we enjoyed in Singapore. One major problem is the size of crabs we bought in Maryland – they were small. Eating these crabs was difficult because they were a lot of work for just a little bit of meat inside.

Unfortunately, Jason and I were the only ones who preserved at picking away at the crabs for awhile. The majority of the family tried a few of the crabs while others refused to try them at all. Raw and steamed oysters were the clear winner over our Singaporean-style crabs.

Sigh! Well, at least we tried to share some new flavors with our family members.

In Singapore, Jumbo Seafood Chilli and Black Pepper Paste retail packs are available at Jumbo Seafood Singapore restaurants located at East Coast Seafood Centre, Serangoon Gardens Country Club, Riverside Point, The Riverwalk, Singapore Indoor Stadium, NSRCC, Dempsey Hill and Singapore Food Festival Village at Clark Quay.

Monday, December 26, 2011

North Carolina – I just had a yabanci moment here.

Although the sun was shining brightly, the weather was deceiving. This morning, we took our niece and nephew outside to enjoy the beach. They pulled off their socks and ran on the beach. I was thankful to enjoy some beach time rather than the chilly weather we had in Nebraska.
Christmas greetings from sunny and beachy North Carolina!
I picked up a few seashells along the seashore and tucked them in my pocket. I’ve collected a good handful of shells and polished stones from our travels in Turkey.

Well, let’s just say once the coastal winds whipped through our hair I was wishing for my winter coat, and the kids definitely should not have been barefooted. The locals were more bundled up than us. Oops!

We had to cut our relaxing walk on the beach very short! And the kids got carried back to the house for the most part.

Hopefully, the temperature will warm up so we can enjoy our last few days with family on the beach.
A little backlit - nice long pier along the beach in Kure Beach, NC.

Footprints in the sand

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Our Carolina Christmas tree. Sorry, couldn't get the photo to post correctly.

Today has been filled with presents, cookies, food, family and friends.

Just wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas from our current location in North Carolina. Hope everyone's day has been sweet and delicious - no matter where you are in the world.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Some people are resistant to change. Stubborn is another word.

My father, whom I love dearly, is one of these people.
I am my father’s daughter because I can be quite stubborn too. Ask my husband. But I am always open to new ideas, especially regarding new food.
While I was visiting my family in Nebraska, I wanted to share some of the cuisine that I enjoy in Turkey such as Karnıyarık (split-belly eggplant) or köfte (Turkish grilled lamb meatballs). I ended up not cooking as much as I had intended because I was too busy savoring my mother’s boneless beef ribs, spicy chicken wings, pulled BBQ pork, roast beef and gravy on toast, steak and other familiar delights in my home state. (I did bake a batch of my Grandma’s anise-flavored lebkuchen. If you like drinking Raki, then you will probably enjoy this dessert!)

I did find the time to make a simple batch of one of my favorite Turkish soups – mercimek corbasi (lentil soup). In Istanbul, I often order this hearty, chicken-broth based soup for lunch and a side of tost. It’s the Turkish version of a grilled cheese sandwich with soup – though they often aren’t served together at the same time as I would like.
Now, the last time I made anything with lentils for my dad was nearly 9 or 10 years ago. I remember this quite clearly because after I served him my summer lentil salad with fresh herbs and balsamic vinaigrette, he replied “What is this? Rabbit pellets?”

This comes from a man who is clearly a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy year-round. My mother serves potatoes – mashed, boiled, roasted or baked – with nearly every meal! But I was determined (aka...stubborn) to convince my dad that lentils were healthy and delicious.

At the supermarket, I only could find green lentils next to the bags of dried beans. I was hoping to find red lentils, but that would have been asking a lot. I also bought some containers of organic low-fat, low-sodium chicken broth. (There are two versions of mercimek çorbası in Turkey: red and green. You can find other recipes here at my friend’s blog: A Seasonal Cook in Turkey.)

In my mother’s kitchen, I set about preparing the few ingredients one needs to make mercimek çorbası - onion, garlic (though not traditional), a little vegetable oil, chicken broth, salt, pepper and cumin.

After cooking and blending, I served dad a bowl of my mercimek çorbası in my mother’s good china. Would it pass my father’s critical eye? I wondered.

My father raised his eyebrows up at me, skeptical, as I set the bowl in front of him.

After a few bites, I asked him what he thought of my Turkish soup.

“Well, it’s something after I added the crackers,” he said.

Sigh! Lesson learned – I will never change my father’s opinion about lentils.

Afiyet olsun!
Green lentil soup served with a drizzle of paprika melted butter on top.

Mercimek Çorbası/Lentil Soup
(Adapted from the recipe learned in my Turkish Flavours cooking class in Istanbul.)

1          lb.        dried green lentils (yeşil mercimek), soaked overnight
1          lg.        onion, chopped small
4-5       ea.        Garlic cloves, chopped small
2          T.         sunflower or vegetable oil
2          T.         flour
2          qts.      Chicken stock/broth, hot
1          tsp.      cumin
To taste           salt and freshly ground black pepper

1.      Place lentils in a container covered with water and refrigerate overnight. (This will help speed up the cooking process.)

2.      On the following day, using a large pot, heat the oil and sauté the onion and garlic for five minutes, just until tender.

3.      Then, add the flour and stir continuously for 2 or 3 minutes. (You are basically making a roux here.)

4.      Next, slowly pour in the hot chicken stock a little at a time and stir continuously, so you don’t create lumps in your soup. You should end up with a smooth, thickened mixture.

5.      Now, add the drained lentils. Discard the water. Season with salt, pepper and cumin. Bring the soup to a simmer, cooking over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender.

6.      Using a hand immersion blender or a regular blend, pulse/blend the soup. It doesn’t need to be completely smooth.

7.      Ladle the soup into warmed soup bowls. Garnish with a drizzle of melted paprika or spicy red pepper butter.
I used my mother's avocado-green blender (a wedding present in 1972) to blend my
lentil soup. The blender is older than me and still going strong!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Looks like we may be getting some snow here in Nebraska!

So far, it’s just been very cold – with temps hovering around 0 C/32 F. Despite the cold, we have been enjoying the Christmas feeling in the air.

We are staying in the Old Market area of Omaha, Nebraska. The city has taken great strides to revitalize its old downtown area with new restaurants, art galleries and boutique shops. It’s one of the few areas in the city where you can walk around without feeling like you are in suburbia.

Running through the middle of the Old Market is the Gene Leahy Park – a miniaturized version of Central Park at 9+ acres. Right now, the park’s trees are decorated with thousands of Christmas lights. It’s a delight to walk through at night – even a bit romantic despite the cold. Just bundle up and get out there to enjoy it!

Does it look like Christmas where you are?

Beautiful Christmas lights light up the night with the city's "skyscrapers" in the background.

You can even take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Old Market in Omaha.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Christmas shopping did not involve last-minute trips to an overcrowded mall or waiting in line to buy the new must-have toy at some megastore.

No way!

This year, just like last year, all of our gifts for our family and friends are from our travels in Turkey and a few from Singapore. I’m proud to promote Turkey as much as I can, and I’d much rather buy a gift that means something than the typical commercial rubbish.

It probably would come as no surprise that many of our Christmas gifts are related to food. So here’s a rundown of the many handcrafted, beautiful and edible items you can bring back from Istanbul like I did.

Hopefully, our family members, who may be reading this, won’t figure out what they are getting for Christmas this year!

1.       Lokum (Turkish Delights) and Baklava – Fortunately, we live near Güllüoğlu Baklavacı , and I bought a few boxes right before I left Istanbul. Lokum is a sweet, chewy confection made from sugar and starch. This treat comes in a variety of fruit flavors and traditional rose and is usually studded with nuts. This new box I picked up was pomegranate flavored – my seasonal favorite – and dredged in coconut flakes! I highly recommend it!
2.       Candied chestnuts – On many street corners in Istanbul, vendors sell freshly roasted/grilled chestnuts from their small, portable stands. Chestnuts also are shelled, cooked and cooled down in a sugary syrup like the ones in this jar, pictured. These can be found at  Güllüoğlu Baklavacı  and other high-end pastry shops in Istanbul.

3.       Dried spices and teas – If you enjoy cooking or have cooks on your Christmas list, then you must include a visit to the Mısır Çarşısı. This is one of my favorite culinary spots in all of Istanbul. My friends over at Ucuzcular, No. 51, always have what I need, and they seal the plastic bags for traveling; or you can order online and have them shipped home.
4.       Tavla (backgammon) – If you know anyone who likes to play this fun game, this is a great gift to barter for at the Grand Bazaar. I brought a dark-stained walnut wood one back for a friend in NY that also featured checkers on one side. Jason and I often enjoy playing tavla while enjoying a glass of Efes in Istanbul.

5.       Turkish towels – Turkish towels can be found at many shops, but for the best quality and service you must stop at Jennifer’s Hamam at the Arasta Bazaar behind the Ayasofya or Stephanie’s Home Spa near the Galata Tower. Both stores are owned by a Canadian and an American woman, respectively. Jennifer’s shop also features a nice selection of bath robes, duvet covers and more while Stephanie features towels and olive oil soap.
6.       Turkish olive oil and olives – From our August trip to Cunda Adası, we picked up several bottles of fresh Turkish extra virgin olive oil and jars of olives. I kept a few bottles for myself, but some lucky family members will be getting some soon.

7.       Olive wood cheese trays and bowls – Speaking of olives, I recently found these adorable cheese trays and small bowls made from olive wood sold at Kurşat, Şakayik Sokak No. 57/1, in Nişantaşı in Istanbul. This family-owned shop also features high-quality olive oil and olives from the Ayvalık region. I liked these trays so much that I bought one of each for our own home.
I love these! They also are reasonably priced at 10 tl for the boards and 7.50 tl for the bowls.
 8.       Pashminas – Last year, I bought several of the pashminas for the women on our Christmas list. These can be found everywhere all over Istanbul.

9.       Jewelry – At the Grand Bazaar, you can find many stalls that sell gold, silver, beaded and evil-eye themed jewelry. I prefer to pop into the Old Bedestan area, especially to see my friend Selim at no. 218/219. His selection is impeccable! Every time I do stop in, I can’t resist buying a pair of earrings for myself!

10.    T-shirts – This is always an easy gift to get for my friends’ children, cousins and even some of the male adults on our list. It’s hard to bring back Turkish gifts for guys so T-shirts seem to be a good option, and they pack well in suitcases.

Other popular gifts on my list are ceramics, specifically from Tarik Bey at the Çukur Han in the Grand Bazaar, and books about Turkey and Istanbul. Since my dad’s health doesn’t allow him to travel anymore, I bought him a book showing him all the beautiful and historic sites in Istanbul. This way he can still "travel."
For more gift ideas, please check out my friends over at Turkeys for Life. They recently wrote a great post about this same topic.

Even if you can’t visit Istanbul before Christmas, you can use this handy gift guide for future trips to my second “home.”

Happy shopping!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's funny how you notice Turkish things everywhere - once out of the country.

Evil eye necklaces and ceramic serving platters, leather-bound notebooks, blue and white ceramics, wooden jewelry boxes and more. I even overheard people speaking Turkish in a grocery store! I wanted to join the conversation.
I spy something from the Grand Bazaar!
I smiled and laughed out loud as I saw these items at the outdoor Christmas market in Union Square in NYC. I chuckled a bit more when I saw the ridiculous prices - 2-3 times the price I've paid at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul!

But I guess if you want a taste of Turkey without paying for the airfare, these holiday markets, set up in several NYC locations, are your best bet! Hours: 10-7 until Dec. 24, I believe.

One of the market stalls even had a full spread of teas and dried spices, pictured, that I often buy at the Misir Çarsisi in Eminönü in Istanbul. But not the same service I get from my friends at Ucuzcular, and I certainly won't get offered bottomless glasses of çay! Sigh!
And this stall was totally Turkish located in Union Square!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I’ll admit it I’ve been quite gluttonous since I landed in NYC four days ago.

Day 1 - My friends and I ordered NYC-style pepperoni pizza. I’ve been craving this for a year now!

Day 2 - Pork empanadas in Hell’s Kitchen for lunch at Empanada Mama.

For dinner, I met one of my good friends, Sandy, who also introduced my husband and I to each other over 5 years ago. I requested a dinner full of porky goodness so we met at Austrian-fare serving Cafe Katja in the Lower East Side. The menu here is dominated by meat, specifically pork. Needless to say, I stuffed myself silly and washed it all down with a hearty ale.

My meal featured a meaty emmentaler sausage, savory cabbage-sauerkraut-like mixture and quark (fresh cheese) dumplings. Sandy ordered the pork sampler so he could share with me. Even my male friends know the way to my heart! The food and the ales reminded me of our eating experience in Munich.
My Emmentaler sausage plate of goodness!
The pork sampler platter at Cafe Katja featuring a slab of pork belly and other goodies.
Day 3 - Bacon and eggs for breakfast. Ham and cheese wrap for lunch.

For dinner, my long-time friend, Angie and her husband, Gordon, and I paid a visit to Inoteca Liquori in the Gramercy Park neighborhood. One of my old friends from my Jean-Georges days, Steve, works there as the chef. The restaurant is a sister to one my favs down in the LES, ‘inoteca.

Once again, we were served a superb meal filled with several pork dishes such as the Italian salumi platter, tagliatelle with a pork ragu, the chef’s special of a 36-hour slow-cooked pork belly and oh so much more! Thanks Steve!

Truffled egg toast with asparagus - you can't go wrong with this!
Mmm...pork belly!
For dessert and despite our protests, we even had a cute shot glass filled with affogato - two baby scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with espresso. A perfect touch to a fun evening!

A bottle of bubbly Lambrusco, good friends and food - what more could a girl ask for? Just like Bologna!

Day 4 - I just made myself a ham and cheese omelet for brunch.

So sinful, huh?

At least, I’ll be spending the rest of the afternoon teaching a fun cupcake class for Angie and her friends here. A sweet way to end a Saturday!

Afiyet olsun!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Unlike the U.S., Christmas decorations do not appear until a more proper time like the beginning of December in Istanbul.

I’ve always thought it’s ridiculous that U.S. retailers start marketing Christmas and holiday decor as early as September! At that point, summer has just ended and the leaves have barely started turning their autumnal shades of glory.

Well, in Istanbul, the timing is right. But technically, the holiday decorations that currently fill many shop windows, especially in Nişantaşı, are for the New Year celebrations. The festive atmosphere leading up to December 31 is quite similar to what we’re used to seeing/doing for Christmas in the West.

Earlier this week, I walked through Nişantaşı on my way home from the metro and was delighted by all the garlands, silver strands, red and green bulbs and even Christmas/New Year’s trees in the neighborhood. Even Santa Claus makes a few appearances.
One of the many store window displays in Nişantaşı in Istanbul. I can only imagine the price on these items though! 
If you live in Istanbul and are missing the holiday spirit, just take a stroll through Nişantaşı. It brought a smile to my face!

Today, I’m heading out to do some shopping by the big Macy’s in NYC. Not sure if I’m ready for the crowds, but I am ready to see some more Christmasy things. And I’m sure I’ll get my fill Jingle Bells playing in the stores.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Today, I’m flying back to the U.S. for the first time in a whole year - the longest I’ve ever been away from “home.”

In the midst of a crazy frenzy of packing and last-minute Christmas shopping, I’ve been thinking where IS home for me?

In Turkey, when someone asks me where am I from, I have an easy response ready.

Amerikaliyim, ama şimdi Istanbul’da oturyurum.” (I am American, but now I am living in Istanbul.)

The longest I’ve lived in the same place is in the state where I grew up - Nebraska. My parents, brother and other relatives are still there or in Kansas and Iowa. But I haven’t called Nebraska home per se for 13 years.
2005: A fun picture my dad took of me at a John Deere plant in Nebraska.
When I visited my hometown last year, I felt out of place. It’s a whole different way of life to me now after living in large metropolitan cities for seven years. Sure, some things still resonate with me like listening to and singing along with old country music songs on the radio, visiting the local cafe where everyone knows my dad and eating a simple, but delicious steak and potatoes dinner.

I’m happy to see my family and friends back home, but I wouldn’t see myself living there again.

I also called NYC home for 3 years. I loved my life there, especially being involved and working in the restaurant industry. But I’m not sure I can call it home either - maybe a pit stop for a slice of NY pizza and visiting old friends.
2006: Mom and me in NYC
Baltimore, MD., - a view of the inner harbor.
We most recently lived in Baltimore, MD, before moving to Istanbul. Our townhouse is still there, and I miss my roofdeck garden and local restaurants. However, is that city home?

The easiest answer now is that Turkey has become my home - where I live. I’ve tried hard to embrace the language, culture and daily life as much as possible. I don’t live in a “bubble” like some expats I’ve met.
A view of Istanbul - the city that's stolen my heart! =)
I think that’s why I’ve fallen hard for Turkey.

Sure some things are annoying and incovenient like taxi drivers that try and rip you off because you are the yabancı or trying to find a whole turkey for Thanksgiving. But at the same time, Jason and I have made a new life for ourselves in a foreign land that I love! (And yes, we still miss our friends and family back in the U.S. too.)

On my way back to our apartment last night, I got a little misty eyed as I crossed the Galata Bridge over the Bosphorus in the tramvay. Maybe it’s possible to call two countries home for now!

Where is “home” for you?