Friday, December 28, 2012

If you still need some Christmas cheer in Istanbul, I’d recommend heading down to the Pera Palace Hotel.

We popped into this historic hotel, located in the former Pera neighborhood, to show off the impressive multi-million renovation to our visiting friend earlier this month. A stunning Christmas tree greets you in the lobby as soon as you pass the hotel doormen.
As you enter the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul.
Who wouldn’t want to see where the likes of Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway once hung out in Istanbul in the early 1900s? I would love to have seen this city through their eyes!

We happened to drop by during the hotel’s afternoon English tea time, which is every day from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Kubbeli Saloon Tea Lounge. We saw a gorgeous spread of sweet petit fours, cookies, sandwiches and even a festive gingerbread house. A gentleman was playing soothing classical music on a piano while I was hoping to hear a Christmas song or two.
A peak inside the Kubbeli Saloon Tea Lounge at the Pera Palace Hotel.
The afternoon tea also includes Turkish tea or other kinds of tea as well of coffee and fresh juices. I think the cost is around 50 tl per person, but you’d be best to double check.

If you’re looking to indulge in this unique afternoon tea experience, the Pera Palace Hotel certainly offers a historic, elegant and Christmas-y surroundings.

Reservations are recommended.
Phone: 0212 377 4000
The hotel's historic elevator (no longer functioning) was Turkey's first elevator in 1892.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

After four consecutive days of holiday parties with friends in Istanbul, I feel like I’m still recovering.

On Christmas Day morning, we awoke to a disastrous kitchen filled with dirty wine, çay and champagne glasses as well as pots, pans, platters and dessert plates. At least one load of dishes got done during our dinner party.  But the night ended quite late, as all good parties should, so we crashed and forgot about the cleaning up part.

Suffice to say our first Turklish Feast of 7 Fishes and our first Christmas abroad was a success! I feel so blessed to have met a wonderful, warm group of international friends here, and we shared our dinner with them on Christmas Eve night.
Our Christmas Eve dinner table at home in Istanbul.
To make our Feast of 7 Fishes dinner happen, of course, we first had to make a trip to the balık pazarı in Beyoğlu. Our Turkish friend, Kartal, took us to two of his favorite stalls where we purchased 1.5 kilos of shrimp, 800 grams of squid, 3 kilos of clams and  7 whole sarıkanat (a medium-sized bluefish). Later, we wished we had bought fresh hamsi from here too.
You can get some wonderfully fresh fish here in Istanbul.
At the Tunç Balık Market, you can’t miss the long lines of cured fish hanging down from the storefront. Here, we bought two meze-style Turkish fish - lakerda (bonito pre-served in brine) and uskumru (a type of cured mackerel). Both of these are too fishy for me, but everyone else seemed to like them.
Two of our 7 fishes for Christmas Eve - Turkish lakerda and uskumru.
As part of the traditional antipasto platter, we had bought pickled veggies from the Beşiktaş pazar, Italian pork salami and imported cheeses from Şütte in Nişantaşı and assorted mezes from Namlı Gurme at the new Mahalle in Nişantaşı.
So here’s what our final menu for the Feast of 7 Fishes included:

  • Clams with white wine and garlic
  • Shrimp scampi
  • Lakerda
  • Uskumru
  • Soslu hamsi – cured anchovies in olive oil with pasta
  • Calamari Fra Diavolo – rings of calamari served in a spicy homemade marinara sauce
  • Roasted sarıkanat – (also known as medium-sized lüfer) stuffed and served over a bed of sautéd fennel, yellow onions and chard (Adapted from this recipe on Saveur Magazine.)
  • Linguine with garlic, olive oil, parsley and white wine
Kartal reveals the clams and calamari as part of our Feast of 7 Fishes in Istanbul.

Our menu certainly wasn’t traditional, but when you live abroad you learn (quickly) to adapt and be flexible. The meal had some family favorites such as the shrimp scampi and the clams – both are recipes from my mother-in-law, Mary.

Mary’s grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from southern Italy with his parents when he was just a baby in the early 1900s. Mary’s father (of the infamous grandparents who visited us in Istanbul) was raised in a household full of Italian traditions which he passed down to his three children. My husband grew up with some of the same Italian-American traditions, which is why we were celebrating the Feast of 7 Fishes.

Here’s what Mary had to say about the holiday:

“I continue the tradition because it reminds me of all the times spent with loved ones. I hope that my children and grandchildren will have the same memories.

When I set the meal out, I still can hear the laughter of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and brothers gathering around the table together and enjoying the good food and time together.”

While we weren’t with our family this Christmas, we certainly enjoyed sharing our traditions and good food surrounded by good friends. Our table was filled with lots of laughter and overflowing glasses of wine and champagne. I know this is one holiday tradition we will continue as we live abroad.

Happy holidays dear readers and Afiyet olsun!
Here's our casserole dish of shrimp scampi. My husband did all the cooking!
Shrimp Scampi Recipe
By: Mary, my mother-in-law
(We doubled the recipe for our 12 guests this year, and it was by far the favorite dish!)

1          lb.        (500 g.)            large shrimp, cleaned and deveined
4          ea.                                cloves of garlic, chopped
2          oz.        (56 g.)              unsalted butter
¼         c.                                 (Turkish) olive oil
Splash                                      Worcestershire sauce
TT                                            Salt, freshly ground black pepper
TT                                            ground paprika
TT                                            crushed red pepper or pul biber
1-2       Tablespoons                 fresh Italian parsley, minced
Splash                                      dry white wine
Juice from                                 ¼ to ½ a lemon

1. Preheat oven to 400 F/200 C.
2. In a large glass or casserole dish, combine the butter, olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Cook this mixture in the oven until the butter is melted and the garlic truns a light golden color.

3. Remove the dish from the oven and add the shrimp. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Place dish back in the oven, cooking until the shrimp turns pink.

4. Then, add the parsley and a splash of dry white wine. Cook until the shrimp is done, about 3 minutes. (The shrimp cooks very quickly!)

5. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the shrimp, stir the ingredients together and serve. Do not add too much lemon juice as it will overpower the other flavors of the dish.

Tip:      You can substitute scallops for the shrimp or cook a recipe with half shrimp and half scallops.
The three cooks - Murat, my husband and Kartal - worked together to put finishing touches on our Feast of 7 Fishes. 
Enjoying the night with two of my good expat friends - Anna (Excelleration Coaching) and Nicole (Istanbul Explorations blog)

Friday, December 21, 2012

This holiday season, I decided to take my cookie baking to a new level.

I had heard about these message-in-a-cookie letter sets and wanted to try them. Luckily, Tchibo in Istanbul has a plastic set on sale for only 17 tl. In Turkish, the cookie set is called Bisküvi Baskı Seti. If you are in the U.S., Williams-Sonoma has a similar set too. These cutters actually allow you to combine holiday greetings inside the cookie itself! What a brilliant idea!

Basically, you cut out the plastic letters, place them in a row (the letters snap together) and stamp away using your favorite cookie or biscuit dough. The only thing you have to remember is to spell your words backwards when you place the letters together so that they print out the correct way on the cookie dough. 

You don’t want to end up saying: SAMTSIRHC YRREM!
I practically squealed with delight as I was stamping away on stars, snowflakes and ornaments. I thought these cookies were some of the cutest things ever especially after I decorated them with royal icing and assorted sprinkles. I even spelled a few words in Turkish!

I’m sure children would love to play with these message-in-a-cookie stamps!
Plus, you’re not only limited to using these for Christmas. I’m already thinking ahead for Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day as well as personalized birthdays, weddings, baby showers, etc.

These holiday cookies would make the perfect gift for friends and family members!

Happy baking and afiyet olsun!
Old-fashioned Sugar Cookies
4          c. (640 g.)        flour, plus more rolling out
1          tsp.                  baking powder
½         tsp.                  salt
8          oz. (226 g.)      butter, room temperature
2          c. (440 g.)        sugar
2          ea.                    large eggs, room temperature
2          tsp.                  vanilla extract

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl.

In a separate large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in dry ingredients.

Cover, and chill dough for at least one hour (or overnight). To quickly chill dough, I like to divide the dough into small packets, flattened and wrapped in plastic wrap. Refrigerate.

Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface, adding more flour as needed to prevent dough from sticking. Roll out dough on floured surface 1/4 to 1/- inch thick. Cut into shapes with any cookie cutter. Place cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets.

(Later you can roll out the scraps once more. Chill again before using)

Preheat oven to 325 F/162 C. Bake cookies about 8-10 minutes until lightly golden brown on the edges in preheated oven. Cool completely before icing.
You can also use colored fondant and royal icing to decorate your holiday cookies.
Royal Icing for decorating
60        ml.       egg whites
285      g.         powdered sugar
¼         tsp.      cream of tartar

Using a paddle attachment on a mixer, pour the egg whites into the mixer bowl. Gradually add most of the powdered sugar and the cream of tartar. Mix until it forms a smooth paste, adding all remaining powdered sugar if necessary.

Beat on high speed for a few seconds to get it light and fluffy.

Divide royal icing into small bowls and add food coloring as desired.

Keep a damp towel on top of the icing, when not using, to prevent it from drying out.

** Or a good rule of thumb to remember is:
Add enough powdered sugar to 1 large egg white until the icing reaches the proper consistency with a pinch of cream of tartar, to prevent yellowing. Mix until icing is light and fluffy. This is normally what I do.

Yields about 180 ml (3/4 c.) of icing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I encountered many sympathetic faces and voices when I told friends we’d be celebrating Christmas in Istanbul this year.

‘Won’t you miss your family? What will you do?’ They asked me.

I have plenty to do, and several of our expat friends are staying here in Istanbul this holiday season.

On Christmas Eve, we will attempt to recreate my husband’s family’s tradition of cooking an Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes with a lil Turklish flair, of course. I think we’ll have Turkish hamsi and midye tava on the menu. On Christmas Day, we will have a simple Italian-themed get-together with friends. 
One of the traditional Feast of Seven Fishes dishes - mussels and clams served over pasta.
I’m happy to just stay put this year in Istanbul and make new traditions with my husband and our friends.

So let’s recap what an expat Christmas entails normally entails for us in the U.S.:

Take a 10+-hour flight from Istanbul to NYC where we spend 2 or 3 days with friends and recovering from jet lag. Then, we take a connecting flight to Nebraska where we spend a week freezing our butts off with my family that I love and only get to see once a year. The upside is that I do get to eat good steak and cheap Mexican food in Nebraska. 
October 2012 - me with my mom and dad at home in Nebraska.
Then, we normally fly from Omaha to sunny North Carolina to visit the in-laws for a couple days. This year, we spent an afternoon on a boat, going to the kids’ games, making BBQ ribs at home and celebrating my husband’s and niece’s birthdays.
Our niece and nephew showing off their new Beşiktaş soccer t-shirts we bought them for Christmas.
October 2012 - celebrating Christmas with my husband's parents and his brother's family in North Carolina.
From there, we either fly or drive back with the in-laws to Pennsylvania for a few more days of Christmas cheer and proceed to visit more family in nearby New Jersey. Then, exhausted, weary eyed and now catching colds, we take the train to Penn Station in NYC. If we’re lucky, we get to spend another day or two catching up with friends in the city and stuffing our bellies with NYC pizza, Chipotle, Ramen noodles and good beer before we catch the 10.5 hour flight back to Istanbul.
I almost always brave the crowds and stop at Macy's whenever I'm in NYC.
And that my friends is how we’ve basically spent Christmases 2010 and 2011 in the U.S.

I love our families and I do genuinely miss them, but doing this kind of travel over a short span of time is truly exhausting! I don’t think anyone understands what it physically and emotionally takes to plane-hop from place to place. After coming down with bronchitis this past January, I vowed that we’d never travel to the U.S. during December – EVER!

That’s partly why we spent most of October in the U.S. this year for an early Christmas get-together with family and friends. My husband also had to renew his driver’s license in person.

We still had the same travel itinerary, but there was no pressure, no holiday madness at the airports, no congested roads and not much battling of the mass commercialism that is a U.S. Christmas (unfortunately). It was the ideal answer to our expat holiday woes!

In Istanbul, we’ve decorated our small Christmas tree. We’ve been listening to Christmas songs now and then, and I’ve done some holiday baking. It feels like Christmas to me. 

Plus, I just have to walk up the hill to see: Christmas in Istanbul’s Nişantaşı neighborhood
Our humble Christmas tree surrounded by my cookbooks.
This year, we’ll celebrate Christmas with our families remotely via Skype.

Will you be celebrating the holidays abroad or at home this year?

After driving past impressive villas and slowly winding up the Kyrenia Mountains, we arrived in a tranquil village that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.

One look at Bellapais, located in the Turkish-controlled North Cyprus, and I thought I could easily spend a long holiday here. The village is also known as Beylerbeyi in Turkish.

The village offers breathtaking sea views, tiny streets to explore, charming cafés, small boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts as well as ancient buildings to admire.
The most notable ancient building here is the Bellapais Abbey or “The Abbey of Peace,” translated from French Abbaye de la Belle Paix.  Reaching back to my Spanish skills, I would translate it as “beautiful country.” I think the Spanish translation sums up this village rather nicely.

The Bellapais Abbey is known as one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean. The monastery’s first settlers were the priests of the Augustinian order who migrated from Jerusalem. They constructed the first monastery building between 1198-1205.
A side view of the Bellapais Abbey with the Mediterranean Sea in the background.
The monastery's beautifully restored exterior walls.
But most of the buildings that remain standing today were built by the French King Hugh III between 1267-1284. The pavilions around the courtyard and the refectory were constructed during the reign of King Hugh IV (1324-1359). After the Ottomans conquered Cyprus in 1570, the monastery was plundered and given to the Greek Orthodox Church.

The church, next to the courtyard with two large mandalina trees, is the part which appears to be in the best condition and is still used for special events. For some reason, the monastery and church were not open on the day that we visited back in February. You can learn more about the Bellapais Abbey’s interesting history here.
The courtyard of the church at Bellapais, North Cyprus.
We took our time taking photos of the monastery and then wandered around the old cobblestone streets of Bellapais with our Cypriot and Turkish friends. Cherry trees were blossoming as well as several colorful varieties of wild flowers. We bought a huge bag of local mandalina that we immediately ate along the side of the road. The day really was perfect!
While the village of Bellapais is only 4 kilometres from the city of Kyrenia, it is about 45 minutes away from the Ercan Airport. You’re pretty much required to rent a car.

After seeing what I have of North Cyprus so far, I would have no problem renting a car and spending a week or more exploring the Turkish side of this beautiful island.

For further reading, check out “Bitter Lemons of Cyprus,” written by author Lawrence Durrell who lived in Bellapais during the 1950s and chronicled his time in Cyprus. I’ve just downloaded the book to my Kindle.
The stone arches in front of the Bellapais Abbey.
My husband, Jason, posing with our friends: Umut, Huseyin and Ceren.
A single arch leading into the Bellapais Abbey.