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|The New York Times|
August 1, 2011
Braising Vegetables, a Turkish Delight
By JOHN WILLOUGHBY
AMONG the culinary crimes committed by mid-20th-century American cooks, few were more heinous than the long, slow torture administered to boiled vegetables: green beans cooked to a gray mush, zucchini so squishy it was barely recognizable, tomatoes “stewed” into a formless mass.
But salvation did eventually come. In the wake of nouvelle cuisine’s pared-down aesthetic came the glory days of “crisp cooked” vegetables. Barely more than blanched, full of snap and bright flavor, they ushered in a new appreciation of the vegetable world, and their long-cooked cousins were banished to the scrap heap of culinary history.
Or at least that’s what I thought until, on a visit to Istanbul, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s house. It was somewhat of an occasion, since the elderly man who had been his family’s cook in the early post-Ottoman days was preparing the meal.
After elaborate mezze and a pitch-perfect version of the lamb and eggplant dish known as hunkar begendi, he brought out a dish of green beans. They violated every rule of modern cookery: not only had they obviously been “cooked to death,” as we all used to say about our mothers’ vegetables, but they were also served at room temperature.
And guess what? They were wholly delicious. Tender and succulent, complemented by the sweet acidity of tomatoes and the mellowed bite of onions, these long-cooked beans had a rich lushness that crisp vegetables could never approach. Rather than being boiled in roiling water, they were gently braised in olive oil (a substance restricted to the “pharmacy” aisle of supermarkets back in those bad old days).
I found that those beans were in fact representative of a traditional Ottoman approach to cooking vegetables. This method is described by linking the name of whatever you are cooking with zeytinyagli, the Turkish word for olive oil -- so the method itself is sometimes called "zeytinagli.As the name implies, vegetables (and sometimes beans) are cooked in plenty of olive oil — usually with tomatoes, onions and one or two other ingredients — until they have almost lost their shape. Then they are cooled and served at room temperature, when their flavors are at their fullest. Very often an herb or citrus juice is added just before serving for a little spark; thick yogurt and lemon wedges are standard accompaniments.
As I tasted each of these, I felt as if I had discovered new vegetables, not just a different way of cooking familiar ones. Rich with the mellow undertone of the oil, plush and full-flavored but still somehow delicate, they inhabit a different taste universe than their crisp counterparts.
It’s probably obvious that these dishes are pretty much ideal for warm-weather meals. They not only can be made in advance, but also must be, so they can cool down. Even a day or two ahead is fine; just take them out of the refrigerator about 45 minutes before serving.
In the Turkish tradition, these dishes are a course to themselves, often served after rather than alongside the meat course. You could serve several of them, with bread to sop up the juices, or over rice; a bit of rice is often cooked in the same pan with the vegetables.
Most Mediterranean vegetables lend themselves well to this technique, but my particular favorites are green beans and eggplant, as well as leeks, which often don’t get the stand-alone attention they merit. This approach tempers the slight fibrousness that sometimes mars leeks’ texture when cooked other ways.
So, unhook the hidebound association of long cooking and watery, flavorless vegetables. Look at it this way: If they were good enough for the Ottoman nobility, they just might be worth a try.