Sunday, March 31, 2013

I love cute, cuddly bunnies!

I couldn't resist these fluffy little guys at the Swissotel in Istanbul where we had brunch this morning. Unfortunately, they were fenced off to prevent children (and big kids like myself) from playing with them.

I grew up having rabbits as pets my whole life in Nebraska. First, there was Bugs Bunny, then Snowflake (who lived about 15 years) and then a floppy-eared rabbit my brother named Pepper. In college, for some reason, I thought it was a brilliant idea to buy a dwarf bunny. I named him Spaz because he would hop around my apartment so fast. Needless to say, Spaz went home to live with my parents after less than 2 years.

Wherever you are today, I hope you find some joy in either real Easter bunnies or some chocolate covered ones.

Happy Easter from Istanbul!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

If you want to see tulips and historical buildings in the same frame, go to Sultanahmet now.

Earlier this week, I had to run some errands in the Sultanahmet area. Luckily, I grabbed my good camera as I was heading out the door.

The springtime tulips I shared the other week on My Turkish Joys Facebook page are now fully open. I’ve also heard from a friend that many of the tulips in Emirgan Korusu (Park) are blooming as well. Normally, April is the peak time for Istanbul’s tulips, but it looks like everything is blooming a bit earlier this spring.

When I was by the Blue Mosque, I had to crouch down low so I could get the pastel tulips in the same frame as the mosque. 
Of course as I was doing so, I had two cute street kitties wander into the photos. I can’t resist taking photos of the abundant Istanbul street cats as seen here in the Çukurcuma neighborhood.
I almost wish I could be chilling about in the grass and flowers like this cat.
Here are a couple more tulip photos from my outing. Enjoy!
Another view of the Blue Mosque and tulips from the Hippodrome area.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Last night, we had one of the most bizarre meals that I’ve cooked for us at home.

I’ve been cleaning out our freezer in Istanbul, and I’ve stumbled across all sorts of strange foodie items from our travels.

Lemongrass and fresh turmeric from Bali.

Raclette cheese from Zürich.

Spicy pork salami from Budapest.

Cheddar cheese from London.

As you know, whenever we travel, I always bring back food items and spices that I can’t readily find here in Istanbul. And I know I’m not the only expat that does this either.

Last night, hubby also enjoyed our last Brooklyn Brewery Stout that we smuggled back from our last trip to NYC while I had a small cocktail using our leftover homemade strawberry-vanilla vodka from the summer.

For dinner, we started with a totally Turklish salad made from lettuce, roka, tomatoes, cucumbers and beyaz peynir, drizzled with Turkish olive oil from the Ayvalık area and aged balsamic vinegar from our Bologna trip.

That sounds sort of healthy, right?

Well, for our main course, things got rich.

I slathered an Asian peanut marinade all over a defrosted pork tenderloin purchased from the mysterious, lone Istanbul pork butcher. Then, I made a small pot of grits brought back from Charleston, S.C., with a homemade parmesan cheese broth and garnished with sautéed taze sarmısak (fresh spring garlic).
Finally, I boiled some quartered, peeled potatoes until tender. Then, I placed the potatoes on a baking tray, topped with pieces of the truffled raclette cheese. This went into the oven under the broiler for just a couple of minutes until the cheese got all oozy and gooey.
The truffle scent made my head whirl! One bite of these potatoes and I was in heaven!

There was no room for dessert after all this!

Afiyet olsun!

Have you ever made a meal like this – using whatever non-compatible ingredients you have on hand?

Raclette Potatoes with Truffled Cheese
Basic ingredients:
1          pound              small potatoes, or normal potatoes, peeled and quartered
1          package           Swiss Raclette cheese
To taste                       freshly ground black pepper

In a medium sized pot, boil the potatoes in salted water, until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain.

Place potatoes on an aluminum-lined tray, lightly brushed with olive or vegetable oil.

Place pieces of the cheese on top of the potatoes. Season with a little black pepper.
Make sure your oven is turned onto the broiler setting or about 200 C. Place tray of potatoes into the oven. Let cheese melt. This only takes a few minutes so don’t step away too far or you could burn your cheese.

Serve immediately.

Note: To eat Swiss raclette the traditional way, you would use an open fire or special grill pan to melt the cheese. I don’t have either of these options so this is how I did it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

I don’t know why it took me so long to discover one of the most darling Turkish gift stores in Istanbul.

Located in the heart of Taksim, just a few steps from bustling Istiklal Caddesi, you’ll find the small storefront of Nahıl Dükkan. Here you can buy all kinds of homemade gifts, such as aprons, table cloths, lavender sachets, children’s toys, coin purses and natural soaps, and support a great cause.
Since 2008, Nahıl Dükkan in Istanbul has been selling products made by low-income women in Turkey. The store is supported by Kadın Emeğini Değerlendirme Vakfı (KEDV), a non-profit organization, established in 2003. KEDV’s goal was to establish a platform from which women throughout Turkey could sell their handicrafts, which would then help empower them economically. The Istanbul store also sells vintage and second-hand clothes and books.

The word Nahıl means to help each other and also is the name of a tree which symbolizes bereket, a Turkish word that translates loosely as bountiful blessings. 

At Nahıl Dükkan, I stocked up on several lavender sachet bags featuring cute designs such as the historic Tünel tram, Turkish tulips, Galata Tower and cats for only 4 tl each. I always like to keep a variety of gift items at home so I quickly can put together small gift bags for friends.
In addition to these lavender sachets, I found a sweet purple cloth-covered headband for my niece.
I also picked up a darling handmade cotton apron with a hand-stitched angel on it for only 30 tl. I love aprons! I try to buy one wherever we travel to remind me of that destination. My collection includes ones from our trips to Bologna, Rome, New Orleans (where we were married) and of course, Istanbul.
Nahıl’s bright designs are a mix of modern and traditional, with all items being handmade and hand-loomed. You’ll find some beautiful, colorful Turkish peştemal (light hamam towels), hamam accessories, hand-embroidered scarves, Turkish olive oil and natural olive oil soaps, which are made in Mardin, a city in southeastern Turkey. If you’re a tourist, this a wonderful place to buy some Turkish “must buy” gifts to take home – at reasonable prices - and to support a great cause!
These larger lavender sachets will make great gifts for my kitty-loving friends.
And if you live in Istanbul like I do, you should definitely stop by Nahıl Dükkan to see what homemade items you can’t live without too!

Happy shopping!

According the website, KEDV has established a number of workshops and cooperatives throughout Turkey, assisting more than 10,000 women and children, with a focus on low-income areas that have limited economic opportunities. The profits from these projects are then used to provide children’s education materials, to open new children’s nurseries and handicraft workshops and support social entrepreneurship.

İstiklal Caddesi, Bekar Sokak No.17, Beyoğlu
(0212) 251 90 85 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Today it is officially spring according to my calendar.

In the Northern Hemisphere, spring begins with the vernal equinox at 7:02 a.m. (EDT) on March 20, which is today. In Istanbul, it's already been looking like spring for the past few weeks as evidenced in several photos I've shared with you here.

On Monday, I met a friend in Ortaköy and was greeted with an abundance of tulips already in bloom! I was surprised to see all these tulips in the middle of March.
That means the millions of tulips that are planted every year at the Emirgan Korusu (Park) will soon be blooming too. Be sure to arrive at the park early and bring a picnic with you. The beautiful tulips are worth seeing, but the traffic along the shore road is always horrendous. 

Hopefully, the first day of spring wherever you are brings you flowers and sunshine. Unfortunately, it's been snowing off and on these past few days back at my parents in the U.S.

Happy Spring!
Red tulips in Ortaköy.
Last week, these tulips and pansies were blooming in Sultanahmet.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

As much as I like cooking by myself, cooking with friends is much more fun!

Recently, I met up with a couple friends at our Turkish friend’s house to learn how to make three types of Turkish hamsi (anchovy) dishes. I like eating hamsi at the meyhane, so I figured I finally should learn how to cook it too.

My Turkish friend, Ayşe, and I met through a mutual friend a few months after I moved to Istanbul in 2010. I was new, and my American friend, Sharon, was good at connecting people together. She was like, “You bake, and Ayşe cooks, so you two should meet.”

We’ve both learned a few tricks in the kitchen from each other since we met.

Ayşe, who lived in the U.S. for 20+ years, is an amazing Turkish home cook. Every day, she sends her husband off with a home-cooked lunch for his staff and himself. You can find her teaching cooking lessons through the International Women of Istanbul as well.

I recently hoped she was going to help us demystify the Turkish hamsi, which comes from the Black Sea region of Turkey. As I said, I enjoy eating hamsi, but I can never quite bring myself to buy these little suckers to cook at home myself. These delectable fish are small, and they scare me. (Remember I grew up in Nebraska – the land of cows.)

Ayşe’s menu for that day included the popular hamsi tava (or fried anchovies that arrives at the table like a crispy plate of little fish), hamsi baked in the oven with tomatoes and onions, and hamsi stuffed with Turkish cheddar cheese and parsley and then fried. Anything fried always tastes better, right?

We all took turns trying to clean these little suckers. Ayşe’s helper, Elif, made it look so simple. Break the bone by the head and then pull down, basically deboning and degutting the fish all in one easy stroke. 
Cleaning Turkish hamsi is a messy job, but someone has to do it.
I badly cleaned about seven hamsi and then gave up. If I had kept cleaning them, we would have been eating a hamsi soup instead of hamsi tava!

Spending the day with international friends and cooking together was fun! My favorite dish of the day was and still is the hamsi tava.
Left, hamsi baked with tomatoes and onions, and hamsi tava on the right. All served with traditional cornbread.
Even though Ayşe was a patient and generous teacher, I can honestly say I will never be buying hamsi to cook at home. The deboning, degutting and deheading process was a little too much for me.

But if you want, you can pay the fish guy a few extra lira to do that disgusting work for you.

And if you don’t want to cook hamsi, go to your favorite meyhane now and order them before the season ends. This is what I’ll be doing.

Afiyet olsun!
Rough directions for Hamsi Tava or Fried Anchovies
1          kilo                  fresh hamsi (anchovies)
1          Tablespoon      vegetable oil
As needed                   salt
As needed                   cornflour

Wash the fish, break off the heads and degut the fish.
Briefly rinse and drain on paper towels.
Add the oil to a large non-stick pan. (In Turkey, you can even buy special hamsi tava frying pans.)
Season the cornflour with salt. Lightly dredge the fish through the cornflour.
Carefully, lay out the hamsi in a circle, filling the pan, in one single layer.
Over medium-high heat, fry the fish on one side till golden brown (about 3-4 minutes).
Then, carefully flip over the fish (as demonstrated in the photo above) and continue frying the other side until golden brown.
Serve with lemon wedges, a salad and cornbread. 
Stuffing the hamsi with Turkish cheddar cheese and parsley.
I'm very thankful for meeting friends like Ayşe here in Istanbul.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

There are few places I return to time and time again to eat at in Istanbul.

Selvi Lokanatası – a non-descript Turkish buffet-style restaurant located off of Taksim Square – is one of those places I have frequented many, many times. And it’s one you should put on your list if you’re looking for an inexpensive, home-cooked meal while you’re in Istanbul.

When I was taking Turkish lessons at Dilmer, I stopped in for lunch at least twice a week at Selvi. At least I would eat a delicious meal before I started crying again or pulling my hair out over my dreadful Turkish homework.

What I like about Selvi Lokantası is the food is always fresh, there’s a nice variety of menu options, the service is fast and friendly, and there’s always soup on the menu. I love soup even when it’s 90 F outside! It’s one of places where you simply point to the food that you want even if you don’t speak Turkish. However, usually, one of the workers speaks a little English.
Just walk up to the counter at Selvi Lokantası and point to what you would like to order.
Breakfast service starts at 6:30 a.m. with two kinds of soup in the summer and four kinds in the winter, or a traditional Turkish breakfast also is available. Lunch service begins at 11 a.m. The sign says the restaurant also serves dinner until 1 a.m. to catch the late night revelers in Taksim, but I haven’t been by that late. At that time of night, I’m more in the mood for tantuni or a late-night döner kebap.

Selvi Lokantası is a longtime family-owned restaurant. In the 1950s, the father, Ayvaz Hacızade, started out with a pudding shop and later started his first restaurant with his four siblings. In 1970, the restaurant was the first to introduce the idea of self-service in Turkey. (You go up to the counter, select your food, place on it on a tray and then you pay.) Today, the son, Metin Hacızade and his wife, Çiğdem, run the restaurant. Apparently, the family has even used the same butcher for 40 years.

Recently, my husband and I stopped at Selvi for lunch at 11:45 a.m. The buffet trays looked like they had just been refreshed. The four soup kettles were steaming hot. I ordered one of my favorite Turkish soups - mercimek çorbası (lentil soup). The employee pointed out the main dishes, which ones contained tavuk (chicken) or dana (beef). Our total bill, including drinks, was under 30 tl. A great bargain!
When you’re done eating your home-cooked Turkish meal, one of the friendly employees will usually come around and offer you çay. I have even stayed long enough to drink two glasses of çay. I like to leave a few lira on the table for the good service.

The restaurant is always busy with neighborhood locals stopping by for a quick lunch and the occasional tourist. If you arrive during the noon rush hour, you may even have to wait for a table.

Selvi Lokantası is one of those foodie gems that I’m glad I found in Istanbul

Katip Mustafa Çelebi Mah., Sıraselviler Cad. 6/I, Cihangir, Istanbul.
If you exit out of the Taksim metro stop at the square, turn left down the street by the Burger King and row of döner kebap places. Selvi is about 10 doors down from the corner.
Phone: +90-212-293-8964

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I’ve traveled from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side and back again, and I’ve seen signs of spring in all its glory everywhere I look.

Trees are blossoming with white and pale pink flowers.
 A few daffodils are blooming near the Dolmabahçe Palace.

Then, last week I happened to stroll by the Ihlamur Kasrı (Pavilion of the Linden Tree) in Beşiktaş, and I saw the tulip (lale) trees in the park. The trees’ pretty pink buds are just starting to open, which seems a bit earlier than last year. (I took similar photos last April in the park.)
This park may be small, but it's a delight to walk through.
That may be because we’ve had a fairly mild winter here except for a few snowfalls that blanketed Sultanahmet and the rest of the city as you can see in this photo post: Istanbul Covered in Snow in Instagram Photos.

I love the flowers, but my allergies don’t. For the last week or so, I’ve had itchy, watery eyes and I’m often sneezing. Such is the price I pay for springtime beauty.

Oh well.

I can’t stay cooped up in our apartment. The weather here really has been gorgeous with a little springtime rain here and there. I’ll take the rain and early blossoms over snow any day!

If you’re in Istanbul, get out there and enjoy spotting the flowers around the city like I have.
A Turkish cat sunning herself against the vibrant turquoise background.
The peacocks have returned to the park in Beşiktaş.
More lale blooms in the park.
Purple wildflowers spotted around the city.