Cucurbits are a summer lifesaver
Cucurbits are a lifesaver in summer months. The other day, I was thinking what the summer would be like in Turkey without cucumbers, squashes, melons, and watermelons. It would be quite dry and dull, lacking this precious freshness one needs in the heat of summer. Except for the pumpkin, which surely belongs to autumn, almost all cucurbits are associated with summer evoking feelings of sunshine, sea breeze, fresh cool water, open air, and all this rejuvenation and vitality that comes along with summer.
Cucumbers must be the forerunner in the cucurbit family when it comes to conquering hearts. Cucumbers appear on the Turkish table from breakfast to dinner. Sliced cucumbers are a must for Turkish breakfast, adding a nice crunchy contrast to white cheese, and a bland but thirst quenching companion to salty black olives.
Later in the day, they complete a light lunch in a quickly fixed cacık, which is a cool yogurt soup-salad, a must to accompany the ubiquitous eggplant dish that seems to appear at every course, every single day during summer. When the evening sets in, it is time for happy hour.
Cucumber sticks dipped in lemon juice used to be a classical drink accompaniment in my childhood, always placed in a short-stemmed glass.
Later at night, the elevated and thicker version of cacık appears as a meze on rakı tables. When one is having a kebab feast, there is nothing more refreshing than çoban salatası, the all-time popular shepherd’s salad, made with chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions laced with vinegar and olive oil. The best part is to dunk chunks of fresh bread in the salad juices and that moment is the real feel of summer.
When it comes to squash, a typical summer dish is kabak dolması, stuffed squash, with a dollop of yoghurt. The tasty mincemeat and rice filling enlivened with fresh mint and dill is lovingly cuddled in soothing squash, creamily cooked, while still retaining its liveliness. There are so many regional variations to this humble dish that it must be one of the summer favorites for many Turkish families, especially for lunch.
Every child becomes excited when stuffed squash is served for lunch, not that they are particularly fond of the stuff, but they know very well there will be happy moments later at tea time or dinner. The inside of the squash, which is scooped out, will be transformed into mücver, the most tasty squash fritters of all time. Together with fresh, parsley, dill and mint, and a generous helping of chopped spring onions, and perhaps another one or two of grated squash, it is all turned into a rich batter with eggs, white cheese, and some flour. The rest is fried poetry if well done.
The soft and juicy inside, crunchy and crisp outside, with fringy bits of onions and squash slightly burnt on edges, is the ultimate guilty pleasure of a summer evening; guilty for me, because I tend to eat a whole heaped plate of it in one go, of course with plenty of cold beer or even better, some crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
Cucurbits also stand for fertility and abundance. The pregnant form of a watermelon gives a strangely comforting sense of nourishment. Again, a Turkish summer would be incomplete without watermelons.
The typical Turkish summer slimming diet is based on watermelons and white cheese only, nobody seems to know if it really works or not, as the diet is usually applied only for lunch and broken at dinner.
Of course, the dinner cucurbit fruit is the melon. Again with white cheese, it makes an iconic duo accompanying a glass of rakı, anise infused Turkish national spirit. The melon must be the white fleshed variety, slightly greenish yellow, with a faintly perfume scent contributing to the anise aroma of rakı, and slightly sweet with a firm bite, cutting the salty briny taste of the tangy white cheese. Surely the rakı, melon and white cheese trio is what one needs to chill out on a midsummer night.
That unique cooling effect of cucurbits is definitely what we need in the summer, pretty much like longing for the sea breeze in sultry weather. They are surely a lifesaver in summer days.
Recipe of the Week:
Even if you do not make stuffed squash for lunch, you can still have your mücver for happy hour. Grate 2 medium sized squashes, toss with a good pinch of salt and leave for a couple of minutes for the salt to extract its juices. Squeeze the squash in between your palms firmly to extract as much juice as possible. Finely chop a handful of parsley and dill or only dill, which is crucial to the fritters. You may also have some fresh mint to add extra
Add about 3-4 spring onions, ½ cup of crumbled white cheese and toss. Add 2 eggs and 2 tablespoons of flour. Mix thoroughly with a fork. Heat some olive oil in a pan, enough to shallow fry. Salt and pepper if necessary, but the salt added together initially with the salt of cheese would probably be fine. Drop a spoonful of batter to hot oil and fry until golden on both sides. Enjoy with your happy hour drink.
Cork of the Week:
One of the coolest corners in Istanbul is not on the waterfront of the Bosphorus, or up in the hills, but at an unexpected urban corner of town. The most chilling air currents seem to hit Bomonti Ada, an entertainment and food multifunction venue hosting several food places at the renovated grounds of the old beer factory Bomonti.
For the coolest spot and the coolest drink in town, head directly to Kilimanjaro, and order a pitcher (and yes, not a glass, a pitcher) of GinGin. The refreshing combo of Beefeater Gin, ginger, and cucumbers will revive you like no other. Kilimanjaro has the privilege of having a terrace overlooking all the other places in the crowded courtyard, and catches the breeze so well you may even need a shawl to cover you while you enjoy your pitcher of cool booze.