One Fat Turk ... Make That Two

Mangal Ocakbasi
“I would be one fat Turk!” exclaims Boyfriend, as we waddle the two and a half miles home after eating at an ocakbasi restaurant in Dalston the other night.

Of the three major areas where I’ve lived -- the New York area, San Francisco, and London -- I have specific foods that I always plan to eat when I’m there. If I haven’t been to New York for a while, I look forward to poppy seed bagels, pizza, and Korean food. In the summer, it’s Long Island corn on the cob and boiled lobsters. West coast sushi beats east coast sushi nine out of ten times, so that’s on my San Francisco list, alongside carnitas soft tacos. In London, I have always looked forward to a vegetarian India restaurant called Chutney’s near Euston Station. But now I have a new addition to my must-eat list when in England’s capital: ocakbasi.

We heard about Mangal Ocakbasi first in a January 2008 edition of Time Out London, which featured 50 restaurant recommendations. The article wasn’t meant to be a guide to the finest dining in London, but rather a list of places where the food editors genuinely would want to eat again and again and would recommend to friends, co-workers, visitors, and so forth.

Mangal Ocakbasi made the list, and since it’s situated pretty close to our neighborhood, Boyfriend and I made a mental note to check it out sometime, without much more commitment than that.

Then, about a week or so later, the same restaurant appeared in an eating-out sidebar in the newspaper as a BYOB spot with no corkage fee. Our interest level suddenly shot up another six or seven notches.

So when plans to go to dinner with some friends fell through a few days later, Boyfriend and I arranged to meet up after work and school, head to Dalston, and find an off-license market where we could pick up a cheap bottle of red wine along the way.

It was a Thursday night, and though the restaurant was fairly busy at 7:00 when we arrived, we got a table right away. There are no menus for eating in, so newcomers must look at their options at the door, where a menu hangs unceremoniously on the window. The vague English translations make it difficult to distinguish between at least half the dishes; alternatively, you can just ask a server for recommendations. Nothing costs more than £11, with most main courses about £8 or £9.

Ocakbasi is a Turkish style of food that basically consists of grilled meats. Most restaurants are set up the same: a cold deli case at the front displays the raw skewered meat, and just next to it, there’s a long pit barbecue filled with ashen gray charcoals where the food is cooked as you order.

The smell -- which you can catch just walking up and down Stoke Newington High Street, where ocakbasi restaurants and Turkish bakeries dot every corner -- reminds me of going to Sunken Meadow Beach on the north shore of Long Island as a kid. In the late summer, Puerto Rican and Dominican families take over the parking lot at this state park and make use of simple pot-bellied charcoal grills. Unlike Puerto Rican food, of course, there’s no pork in ocakbasi, but that distinct smell of smoldering coals charring skewers of meat, blistering tomatoes and long green peppers hits the same memory circuit for me.

At Mangal Ocakbasi, the choices are about 15 variations on lamb chop, doner kebab (which is also lamb), chicken, and beef. Though I had my heart set on ordering a skewer of minced spiced lamb layered with sliced eggplant (I am a glutton for eggplant, especially when grilled by open flames), one of the many servers told me they were out. Boyfriend and I debated momentarily about whether we should just split the mixed grill, before I shut him out and demanded, "I’m getting my own." I chose the doner kebab in yogurt sauce, and he got the mixed grill for himself anyway.

We sit. We sip that £4.50 bottle of Australian red, which turns out to be 14 percent ABV -- bad news for me since I have a little work to finish up when we get home. A basket of warm flat bread arrives. We enviously eye another table that has ordered starters, and Boyfriend finds a server to bring us some hummus. We sip. We swirl torn bits of bread through the smooth hummus. We sip. We refill our glasses. We try not to eat too much bread (it’s meant to be part of the main course as well). We glance around at other tables, and I covertly decide that next time I’m going to order the starter that looks like a plateful of salsa, whatever it is.

Our food arrives! Well, Boyfriend’s food arrives, and my salad hits the table, but my meat is not quite ready yet. His plate is enormous. Surely, we could have split this and had more than enough food for two. There’s a long skinny leg of chicken, a doner kebab, a lamb chop, and something else that he wolfs down too quickly for me to identify. We each have a mound of salad with iceberg lettuce, arugula (“rocket,” as it’s known in England, is a staple green seen in just about every salad or sandwich) carrots, red cabbage, onions, vinegar, oil; and on Boyfriend’s plate, but not mine, there is a pickle. Now I’m not only jealous that his food came first, but I’m starting to keep score.

Then, a waiter swoops my dish down before me. Joy of joys! It comes in a crock, the same kind you’d use to serve manicotti straight from the oven. There is nothing greater than when I am served food that is genuinely hot, and this is what the crock signifies to me. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but the meat hot, yet it’s nested in a warm, but not hot, sauce of Greek-style yogurt. Spices abound. Juice and oil from the meat creates small puddles in the yogurt crevices. This is heavenly.

We drink. We eat. We dip. Likely horrifying fellow diners, I use my hands profusely to scoop with the bread, alternating between meat and yogurt, yogurt and salad, meat and salad, salad and yogurt, hummus and meat. It’s divine. I’m loving the whole experience.

The Midway Point
Then, I hit the midway point. I’ve eaten half my meal and I’m clearly not hungry any more. I wouldn’t say I’m full exactly, but I could, and should, stop now.

My one true passion in life is food and writing about it. Every so often the thought crosses my mind that because of this dedication, I really ought to be fatter. In our modern obesity-epidemic world, there are only a few people who are accepted despite their girth: chefs, food critics, sumo wrestlers, and Polynesians, who are genetically supposed to be more rotund than the rest of us. And sure, we will turn a blind fat-phobic eye to the stout Italian grandmother, who essentially falls into the “chef” category anyway.

Recall for a moment the saying, “Never trust a skinny chef.” Of course, there are ample chefs and food critics (and Polynesians) who are not fat. They’ve mastered the art of tasting without gorging. But generally, it’s acceptable to be a chef or food critic and be a bit on the pudgy side.

As I’m having this debate with myself about whether I’m supposed to be fatter, I decide, “I am going to pig out tonight.”

So I keep eating. A waiter comes along to ask if he can clear the plates, and firmly, I say no. Not yet. In hindsight, I might have growled.

I eat and eat, slowly, but steadily. I gab about how good the food is. I drink more. And when I finally stop, I take stock of what’s left on the table: a few pieces of rocket on my salad plate, about a cup of mixed salad on Boyfriend’s plate, a half cup of yogurt sauce (it’s too rich even for me to eat much more of it), three pieces of bread, and a few smears of hummus. For all the eating we did, this still seems like a lot food to be left over.

My belly is taut. My head is a little swimmy from the strong wine. And the waiter brings us the bill: 22 quid. A steal. However, as he leaves the check, he says, “I’m sorry, but we need this table.”

You never hear this sort of thing in Europe. Paying for a meal means you’re paying to sit at that table all night if you please. But his eyes say, “Business has suddenly been very good, and we can’t pass it up, and I’m truly sorry to hurry you along.” So we go, happy and full.

This is the point when I decide we need to walk the full two and a half miles home, and when Boyfriend declares he would be “one fat Turk.”

Mangal Ocakbasi
10 Arcola Street, London

Handmade Pasta

The first check mark on my New Year’s Cooking Resolutions

One of my New Year’s resolutions for cooking was to make pasta by hand. It’s a technique I’ve seen done on television, on web sites, and in books many times over, and usually, the cook uses a hand crank pasta-rolling machine. Though heavy, the machines aren’t unspeakably expensive; still, it’s not the kind of equipment I would want to lug around from place to place (I have a history of moving pretty frequently). Needless to say, I don’t (and don’t plan to) own one.

A friend of mine and reader of this blog suggested I try making fat noodles, loosely translated from the Italian as “worms” because they require no special tools at all. The recipe is for these pudgy strings to be coated in toasted breadcrumbs and olive oil. But rustic Italian wasn’t quite what I had in mind either.

In Bill Buford’s book Heat, he writes about an apprenticeship he creates for himself in Italy with a woman who teaches him pasta-making techniques. As I read the section in which he learns the true definitions of tortellini and ravioli (it’s not just the shape, but the words historically distinguish between the pasta casing and the filling, respectively), I felt I had finally come across something I was thoroughly interested in.

I have actually made raviolis once before, but not entirely from scratch, using wonton wrappers for the casings. In other words, it’s not a recipe that I’m 100 percent inexperienced at making. The wonton wrappers were sticky and temperamental. When cooked, a few of them leaked their rather expensive crab filling into the pasta water. And I incorrectly froze the leftovers in one big stack separated by layers of cling film (this was before I learned the secrets of the “flat flash freeze and transfer” method). But overall, I learned a lot from that first experience about how to handle the dough, how to seal in the filling, and how to cook and store them.

I looked up recipes for papparadelle online. I initially thought I might just make wide flat noodles instead of raviolis, but the recipe seemed like it would work in either direction. I settled on one calls for nothing more than eggs and ‘00’ flour, just like Bill Buford’s mentor’s recipe. I didn’t even want to bother with fine semolina, which most recipes call for to use to dust the pasta as it’s rolled. Just eggs and flour.

You start with 1 3/4 cups ‘00’ flour, which is just a special pasta flour. I used the same flour to make an accompaniment of bread (an old recipe for pizza dough to which I added black pepper and dried thyme and let rise a second time), and it worked fine. If I have to buy a special ingredient to make one special recipe, I have to be able to invent another use for it, too. That’s just a rule of mine.

So 1 3/4 cups of flour and 2 eggs. I bought large eggs, having read that one of the problems with pasta recipes is that today’s eggs don’t always contain enough water. Larger eggs means more liquid, right?

Mound the flour on a work surface (I used my bamboo cutting board). Make a well in the middle and crack the eggs into the well. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, and incorporate the flour into the middle of the well slowly, using your free hand to secure the walls of the well until a dough forms.

These first few steps sounded easier and cleaner than they were. Here’s how it came down:

My first egg nearly overflows the walls, so I inch out a little more flour to make room for egg number two. Egg number two immediately spills over (these are much bigger eggs than I usually work with) onto the cutting board. I use my hands to try to “secure the walls,” but wind up with egg white smeared all over me. Things are getting sticky. I remember the fork and try to use it to pull the eggs, which are now heading toward the edges of the cutting board, into submission. This does nothing but aggravate me. Using only my hands, I pull the flour and eggs toward the center. The egg white very clearly is not interested in becoming one with the flour. It creates a layer of soft and slippery goo that actually allows a whole heap of flour to slide off it.

Slowly, I fold and knead the flour with the eggs until they become one. After many minutes of rubbing sticky bits off my hands and fingers, I finally produce a ball of dough. It’s got that great color of homemade pasta, which allows my confidence to regain.

I knead the ball and it becomes a little stiffer than I’d like. I worry about this for a few minutes and try to remember what happened when TV chefs made pasta. Did they say the dough would be stiff, and if so, how stiff? Should it be supple and warm, like bread? In fact, the very same unease hit me when I made the bread (which is in the oven and smelling lovely at this point). The more I kneaded it, the stiffer and colder it got. I have virtually no heat in my extremities, so there was no body heat from my hands to help. Although most bread baking instructions will tell you to knead the dough for at least five minutes to “develop the glutens,” I actually stopped kneading this time after about a minute and a half because I wanted to maintain that soft skin-temperature feel. (The resulting bread was just fine, though I still have problems with the yeast in England giving me an adequate second rise.)

I wrap the ball of pasta dough in some plastic wrap and set it aside for 30 minutes. In the meantime, I pour a glass of wine, nibble the bread, and do a Sudoku puzzle. The wine is a good idea. It makes the next two steps -- rolling and cutting the dough, which takes more than an hour -- much more tolerable.

In addition to the pasta flour, I made one other special purpose for this event: a rolling pin. For years, I’ve prided myself on being the kind of cook who makes do with only the bare essentials, and I’ve never seen the need for a rolling pin. “But what about pie dough?” you ask? My mom taught me an old trick that her mom taught her: Fill an old glass mayonnaise jar with ice water and use that to roll pie dough. It keeps the dough cold and works just fine.

The rolling pin I got is very basic. It cost £1 (about $2) and is wood. Unfortunately, it does have tapered handles. I would have preferred a straight French pin, but I wasn’t going to get a better bargain than £1.

I cut the dough, which is now noticeable less stiff, into fourths, dust my work surface with the flour, and begin to roll from the center outward, rotating the sheet in quarter turns as I go. I begin to worry that I’m unnecessarily rolling too thin. How thin do ravioli sheets need to be? At what point will they be too thin? When I can barely see through the dough, I stop. I cut out roughly 2 1/2 - to 3-inch squares and lay them on a Silpat loosely covered with a sheet of plastic wrap.

Earlier in the day, I made the filling. I took some left over smoked salmon that neither Boyfriend nor I wanted to eat anymore and pan-fried the crap out of it until it tasted good again, with golden crisp edges. To the fish, which I broke into small pieces using a wooden spoon, I added peas and leeks sautéed in butter. A little salt, a little pepper, and there you have it.

Filling the ravioli, sealing them, laying them gently back on the Silpat, and covering them takes another 45 minutes. But this is basically how I planned to spend my night, and by 7:15 when Boyfriend gets home, everything is nearly finished. He helps me by putting a pot of water to boil and setting the table. I give him the “spider” (large basket-like straining spoon, often seen in Chinese restaurants for fishing food out of hot oil), tell him to salt the water, and drop a few raviolis into the pot for him to watch. Meanwhile, I set up another large pan over very low heat and toss in a nob of butter and some basil leaves that I tear off a plant on the windowsill.

I drop raviolis in, and a few minutes later, Boyfriend pulls them out and transfers them to the butter pan. We do this for about 15 minutes until all the raviolis are cooked and coated in basil-scented butter.

When we sit down to eat, I pull a ravioli from the shallow pasta bowl with my hands. I want to feel the pasta itself. How thick is it? How toothsome? How soft? I nibble using only my front teeth and find it has a very subtle yet exquisite flavor. My worries about whether the dough was too thin turn out to be valid, as some of the pasta is chewier than I’d like it to be, namely the thicker pieces. Still, they’re good, and I’m proud, and Boyfriend is impressed.

We garnish our plates with a few pieces of Gran Padano cheese that I cut using a carrot peeler so that they would be thick. To the side we have some simple brussel sprouts and the bread I made earlier, with olive oil and torn basil for dipping. The wine is good, but my palate is cursing me for be a committed drinker of reds; between the butter and the leeks and the salmon, we would have been much better off with white.

Nuts for Georgia

(Georgia the Country, Not the U.S. State)

A trip to Mimino Georgian restaurant in London

There are very few moments in my eating history when I have been proved completely ignorant. But such was the case last weekend when I was invited out to a Georgian restaurant called Mimino with a group of masters students all studying international politics. They are, of course due to their educational background, hip to the precise geographic location of the country itself, whereas I figured, “It’s near Russia, right? And kind of near Poland? I bet the food will be in that same pierogi-pieroshki family.”

Despite my complete ignorance, I was blessed throughout the excursion with a series of fortunate circumstances.

Fortunate Circumstance No. 1. I kept my mouth shut.

This little fact is indeed a fortunate circumstance, seeing as that when it comes to food, I am usually willing -- and more often than not able -- to talk a good game. So it is with complete and utter luck that I kept my comments about the food “probably being like Russian or Polish” to myself.

Though I did tell Boyfriend, who informed me, “Actually, Georgia is closer to Armenia than Poland, so maybe the food with have a middle eastern influence.” He can be quite kind at times.

Note the map image on this page. Georgia borders the Black Sea, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and to its north, Russia. It is nowhere near Poland.

Fortunate Circumstance No. 2. I sit with a good group. There are 20 people in our party, and everyone whom I’m sitting near is completely wonderful. The young woman opposite me, Nata, is from Georgia, and she seems to have a timid pride in explaining how we will order (family style) and what all the dishes are.

David, the organizer of the outing, is also from Georgia. He had been to the restaurant before and assures us that because he is Georgian and has talked to the staff, we’re in good hands. He orders a few bottles of Georgian wine for the table (I drink the red) and proclaims that Georgia is one of the oldest wine-making region in the world.

Unlike the bright, juicy, fruity Riojas and Nero d’Avolos I’ve been drinking lately, this wine is smooth and calm by comparison. It's deliciously mellow, not too acidic and with almost no tannins, and as I swirl it in my glass, I dreamily stare at the long streaky legs it leaves behind. I wish I give more detail about what wine this was that we were drinking (you know, the name of the grape or the label perhaps), but I relinquished all control over this meal and simply consumed whatever was in front of me.

The wine list appears on Mimino’s web site, if you’re curious to browse around.

Fortunate Circumstance No. 3. We eat family style.

This allows me to try nearly every single dish the restaurant offers, and because I’ve never had Georgian food, I am very grateful. There are a few menu items that do indeed sound Russian, and Nata confirms this. Borscht seems to be the notable offender, though Nata claims that another dish “is Russian, and I don’t know why they serve it here.”

Fortunate Circumstance No. 4. No nut allergies.

The moment we all take our seats and start perusing the menu, David looks up and announces, “I hope no one has any problems with nuts. If you have a nut allergy, you’re in the wrong restaurant.”

You know how there are certain restaurants where you just can’t bring a vegetarian because there is literally nothing on the menu that does not contain some kind of ground meat or fish stock, or because everything is cooked on one meat-crusted grill? Georgian food is like that for people with nut allergies.

With this new knowledge, I begin to take stock of the starters that were on the table when we entered and am now a little shocked and amazed that David did not mention this little fact when he first invited everyone out. Everything has nuts. In dishes where, in other countries, you might find olive oil or some other staple ingredient, here there are ground, smashed, or pulverized walnuts. It's something of a miracle that no one at the table has a nut allergy, not even a mild one.

Any time anyone asks the two Georgians at the table, “Is that like a hummus?” or “What’s in the dressing?” the answer is invariably, “It’s nuts. Probably walnuts.”

The Food

Table bread similar to naan but without oil (which I’m told is usually puffier than naan but was not on this occasion).
Chicken in walnut sauce with a texture like thin hummus.
Eggplant with hummus-like walnut paste and pomegranate seed garnish -- one of my favorites of the night.
Red kidney beans with ground nut dressing and pickles, served cold. Yum.
Tomato, cucumber, and onion salad with ground nut dressing.
Fried mystery bread -- Nata says this is a “maize bread,” though this doesn’t seem quite right. Imagine a piece of pressed chicken, coated with cornmeal and deep fried, but that when you bite into it, it is definitely not chicken, and maybe it’s bread, maybe it’s a mild haloumi-like cheese, but who can really say for sure? It’s completely delicious, crunchy and almost chewy, though bewildering.

Mid meal
Georgian pizza. We kept calling it “Georgian pizza,” but this delicious and piping hot cheese pie item was closer to a simple quesadilla. Though not much more than a thin circle of bread stuffed with mild gooey cheese and cut in eighths, this dish was easily one of my favorites. It was hot off the griddle, barely charred in spots, and had a touch of oil to it. And the cheese was incredible.

Lamb stew, almost purple in color most likely from red wine.
Chicken stew with tomatoes, which I find a bit oily.
Whole trout (I missed out on this one), lightly breaded and skillet fried.
Pork chunks cooked with onions and chips (i.e., fries), all lightly coated in a grill sauce.

Georgian food is like nothing I expected, and nothing I could have expected. The wine in particular impressed me, and I would return (though David warned me not to without him or another Georgian to safeguard the quality and service) specifically for the first-course eggplant, cheese pie, and lamb stew. It leaves me very curious to try other foods from that geographic area east of the Black Sea.