The cooks in Gaziantep, the gastronomic capital of southern Turkey, are skilled in handling vegetables and legumes, from humble hot chickpea sandwiches at the central market to exquisite stuffed tiny eggplants and grape leaves at the city’s finest restaurants.
Often, the dishes are simple and owe their excellence to the hallmarks of good cooks everywhere: vegetables used fresh and in season, careful cooking and judicious seasoning.
I was pleased when Ulker Dogan, the wife of the head of Gaziantep’s tourism office, gave me one of her favorite vegetable recipes for carrot cacik (pronounced “jajik”). Until then, I had been familiar with two basic ways to make carrot salads: using raw shredded carrots, the American way, or using carrot slices cooked in water, a method popular in Morocco and Israel. However, Mrs. Dogan used a special technique. She grated the carrots, then sauteed them in olive oil so their flavor was intensified.
Her friend Filiz Hosukoglu, an expert in Gaziantep cuisine, explained that this Turkish classic usually calls for dressing the carrots with yogurt and fresh garlic. Mrs. Dogan’s version is more lavish; she enhances the creamy garlic dressing with a touch of mayonnaise and coarsely chopped walnuts.
The dressing was further enriched by the olive oil used to saute the carrots. The pastel orange-hued appetizer salad was delicious and perfect for cooks in a hurry.
Treating carrots like this is a great way to boost their flavor. The concentrated carrot taste gives the salad a natural sweetness, which is accented by the tangy yogurt and the savory notes of garlic and walnuts. Around Turkey, flavorings for the salad vary.
Ghillie Basan writes in “The Middle Eastern Kitchen” (Hippocrene) that a version made in the mountains of east Turkey calls for raw grated carrots with mint and pomegranate seeds added to the yogurt-garlic dressing. Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman, authors of “A Taste of Turkish Cuisine” (Hippocrene), drizzle their carrot yogurt salad with red pepper oil and garnish it with olives.
Yogurt and garlic seem to have an affinity for each other, and I came across several illustrations of Turkish skill in making use of this pair. At a small Istanbul cafe, I sampled a flavorful, garlicky eggplant salad that was light in color and texture. I learned that the eggplant was combined with yogurt, extra-virgin olive oil and a drizzle of vinegar.
Throughout the Middle East, creamy garlic dressings are popular and can be based not only on yogurt but also on mayonnaise, olive oil or tahini. Lemony garlic mayonnaise is loved in Israel for grilled eggplant puree, but mayonnaise is used far less in the Middle East than in North America.
A renowned Lebanese creamy garlic dressing made with olive oil and lemon juice is traditionally thickened not by egg yolks but by a robust dose of raw garlic; the olive oil and lemon juice are pounded into it in a mortar.
A frequent partner for grilled chicken, it’s also very good with vegetables.
Even more widespread in the Middle East is sesame garlic dressing made of tahini, or sesame paste, which turns into a creamy sauce when blended with lemon juice and water.
Although it’s best-known uses are for eggplant salad (baba ghanouj) and chickpea puree (hummus), it’s also wonderful with steamed greens, cooked cauliflower, potatoes and raw vegetables.
Good cooks often integrate more than one of these dressing principles. Some people lighten their tahini-dressed vegetables by stirring yogurt into the sesame sauce. The next time you prepare potato salad, try substituting a blend of equal parts yogurt and mayonnaise for your usual dressing. The salad will be more refreshing and will still be creamy. So will old-fashioned American carrot salad with raisins and mayonnaise.
Even lighter is a sauce made primarily of yogurt and enriched with a hint of mayonnaise, a touch of olive oil or both, as in Mrs. Dogan’s carrot salad. Remember this delicious dressing when you want to add pizazz to cooked vegetables, whether broccoli, chopped greens, beets, potatoes or grilled eggplant.
You can use the dressing with zucchini or yellow crookneck squash, too, grating the vegetable and sauteing it the same way as the carrots. A sprinkling of chopped nuts, any kind you like, further enriches the medley and contributes a pleasing texture. Add some to the dressing, and save a few for garnish.
Related to the carrot salad is cucumber cacik, a popular Turkish salad better known to Americans by its Greek name, tzatziki. This light, cooling salad dressed with yogurt and garlic can be enhanced by a spoonful of mayonnaise and a garnish of walnuts. I find that the time-honored Mediterranean diced-tomato-cucumber-onion salad also benefits from the same sauce. After tasting a salad tossed with this delicious dressing, nobody will ever complain about bland veggies again.
Ulker Dogan’s carrots with yogurt and garlic
You might think yogurt dressings sound like dull diet food, but you’ll change your mind after you’ve tasted authentic Turkish versions.
For her dressing, Mrs. Dogan recommends strained yogurt, which is thicker and richer than the usual yogurt, varying in consistency from sour cream to spreadable cream cheese. You’ll find it in natural-foods stores and Greek and Middle Eastern markets, where it is called labneh or kefir cheese. Goat’s-milk yogurt is another tasty option, and so is whole-fat cows’ milk yogurt, but even nonfat yogurt is fine.
3 to 4 cups coarsely grated carrots
2 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
1 to 11/3 cups yogurt, preferably strained yogurt or labneh (kefir cheese)
1 tablespoon mayonnaise or more, if desired
4 to 6 tablespoons coarsely chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, whole or coarsely chopped, for garnish
Heat oil in a medium skillet. Add carrots and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 to 7 minutes or until tender. Transfer mixture to a bowl and let cool.
In a small bowl, mix garlic, yogurt, mayonnaise, half the walnuts and salt to taste. Mix well. If using labneh and the dressing is too thick, gradually stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons cold water. Gently fold dressing into carrots.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve cold or at room temperature, garnished with remaining walnuts and with parsley. Makes 3 or 4 servings.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES