Quinces and Ruby Onions

Quinces and Ruby Onions

AYLİN ÖNEY TAN - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Quinces and Ruby Onions The taste of fall is in full swing. Having just spent two days in Gaziantep, I had the chance to savor all fall tastes in an exquisite way. One special thing about Gaziantep cookery is making extensive use of fruits in kebabs and savory dishes.

I believe there is a natural affinity with certain fruits and meat. Quinces, apples, plums, and especially dried fruits like prunes go well with grilled, baked or stewed meat. The sweet-sour flavor of fruits harmonizes marvelously with the rich umami flavor of the meat. There are dried and fresh fruits for every season to go on a grill or in a pot. In the winter months dried apples and quinces are the most popular, followed in spring by green almonds and crisp green plums (the variety known as can erik).

Loquat kebabs in early May are to die for. When the spring fruits are over their place is taken by wild apricots (zerdali) in early summer, then by sour cherries later in July and August. The fall favorite of mine is surely quince, together with the char-grilled small onions drizzled with pomegranate molasses.

Kebabs are an important part of Gaziantep cuisine, loved not only for the wonderful taste of the charcoal grill, but also for the social occasion a barbecue creates. Every Gaziantep man is sultan of his barbecue, whether in the garden, the vineyard, on a picnic or simply set up on the terrace. All kinds of meat, seasoned in a marinade and interspersed with onions are skewered ready for the hot embers to conjure up magical flavors.

However this time, we were in the town solely for its kebabs. The occasion was to witness the opening of a “meyhane,” the Turkish equivalent to a pub or bar, a new modern one, a place way beyond the usual drinking hole. The modern meyhane concept developed by the Mey group, the leading producer of raki in Turkey, is a criss-cross between a restaurant and a bar, a place to enjoy little tit-bits and mezes along with the national anise-flavored spirit. The newest venue is opened ironically in Bayazhan, an old Gaziantep han, once used as a manufacturing place for raki. A part of the han was turned into a make-shift manufacturer of raki by Amil Müslim Ağa, in 1922, and then bought off by Tekel in 1930, the then State Monopoly of all liquors. Apparently drinking was kind of a national sport in the city, as a daily paper of the time reports: Gaziantep became the top alcohol consuming town in Turkey, as Akşam newspaper dated Jan. 10, 1938, writes, followed by Adana, and Istanbul as the second and third runner-ups. The local brand Gaziayıntap Rakısı, produced by the indigenous grapes was considered one of the best in the market, surely much appreciated by the devoted drinkers of the town.

Bayazhan is now restored, with upper storey converted to the City Museum, and the ground floor occupied by a café-bistro, a fine-dining restaurant, and shops by local artisans. The new Bayazhan Meyhane will be run by the same owners of the fine-dining restaurant, and it appears that it will draw in devoted fans of meyhane culture. The menu is all chosen from local favorite dishes, wonderful mezes, and carefully adapted to the modern meyhane concept by chef Aydın Demir, by the supervision of local cookbook writer Özden Özsabuncuoğlu. The tasty meze spread is great, but the surprise wow is to find the fruity seasonal tastes in mains. I just cannot say no to those mellow sweet tart quinces and ruby-colored pomegranate-soaked caramelized onions, all worth the long way down to Gaziantep!
Recipe of the Week: This week the selection was tough, so I came up with two recipes: Lamb chops with quinces and onion kebab. For the quince and lamb chop stew, lightly grill 1 kg lamb chops. Cut 2 large unpeeled quinces into slices and remove the core. Finely chop 2 onions. Melt 2 tablespoons clarified butter in a saucepan and sauté the onions over a low heat until soft and transparent. Add the chops. Add 1 tablespoon of home-made tomato paste diluted in a little water and sufficient water to cover. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, cover and simmer until the meat is well cooked. When the meat is done, add the sliced quinces and 1-2 tablespoons of sour pomegranate syrup. Cover and cook until the quinces are tender. Sprinkle with a little more black pepper before serving.

For the onion kebab, slice off the ends of 1 kg of smallish onions, remove the thin outer skins and wash. Make walnut-sized balls by kneading hand-chopped minced meat (about 750 g) with a little bit of water and salt to taste. Alternately thread an onion and a meatball onto skewers. Dip your fingers in water and carefully shape the meat to match the onions. Grill on a moderate charcoal fire, turning frequently in the same direction. Be careful not to scorch the onions too much. Remove from the skewers and arrange in a heat resistant dish. Dilute 3-4 tablespoons of quality sour pomegranate molasses with half a cup of warm water and 1 teaspoon of salt, and pour over the grilled onions and meat. Cover and place at the edge of the charcoal fire to sweat for 8-10 minutes. The secret of this kebab is sweating the onions after grilling to develop their flavor.

Bite of the week

Fork of the Week: If you ever go to Gaziantep before spring; wherever you eat, be sure to order a “Soğan Kebabı,” a kebab of minced meat and whole onions. A good place to have it in Istanbul is either Mabeyin in Üsküdar, Kısıklı or in one of the Develi restaurants, preferably the one in Samatya. However it is also easy to make at home. Check the recipe of the week!

Cork of the Week: I wish the local rakı of Gaziantep, the legendary Gaziayıntap Rakısı was still available. The drink was dubbed as aliyül âlâ, meaning best of the best. With our recipes, I’d skip the rakı, and head for a good Buzbağ Reserve to match the quince and onion dishes, but the whole meze spread of Bayazhan deserves the best, so order a bottle of Âlâ, at least the name resembles the nickname of the old Antep favorite.