Turkish-born cook wows with native, global dishes

Susan and Lola Senaydin

Nothing like a friendly neighbor who is a fantastic cook.

Just ask Casy Webb of Mount Pleasant, who has been invited with her husband to Suzan Senaydin's table many times. And she has come away mightily impressed.

Casy describes Suzan as one of "the best, innovative and delicious cooks I have ever met ... She cooks not only from her ethnic background but goes online to try different cultures' recipes. Her dolmas, shish kebabs, Turkish green beans (I can't get enough of them!), eggplant dishes, Noah's pudding, etc., etc., are wonderful."

So, let's meet Susan.

Name: Suzan Senaydin

Age: 58

Residence: Mount Pleasant

Occupation: Homemaker

Family: Husband, two adult daughters and two dogs.

Q. You're a native of Turkey. Tell us a little about your family and how you got to the USA.

A. I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, to a Turkish father and American mother. My parents met in the U.S. through their college years and moved to Turkey to pursue my father's academic career. My mother loved her life in Turkey and lived there over 50 years and returned to the U.S. after the death of my father.

Q. What were your early food and cooking influences?

A. My early food experiences were primarily Turkish, with a good mix of American/English flavors that my mother brought into the mix, as well as international foods and flavors from various experiences with my family.

Q. Your friend Casy says not only do you cook from your ethnic background but also have mastered dishes from many different cultures. How did you learn these?

A. My love and interest for food started at a very young age. Not only did I seek out opportunities to experience new flavors, I was also exposed to many cultures and their cuisines through experiences I had with my parents.

Q. Tell us a little about Turkish cuisine, and about a dish or two that best represent your country's cuisine?

A. The Turkish cuisine, which is considered one of the world's finest, is a fusion of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and the nomadic Central Asian Turks.

Braised lamb served over a smoked eggplant puree, artichoke hearts prepared in olive oil and topped with fresh dill are two dishes that represent the fusion of cuisines. The French influence is seen in the preparation of the eggplant and Mediterranean, particularly Portuguese as well.

Breakfast is typically savory, with feta cheese, olives, tomatoes and peppers eaten with bread that is very similar to Italian bread. The choice drink for breakfast is hot tea served in small glasses.

A formal meal would start with "meze," small portions of hot or cold savory appetizers and dips, followed by the main course of meat, poultry or fish; a starch, primarily rice pilaf; a side salad; followed by an olive oil dish served at room temperature; fruit; dessert; and Turkish coffee.

All meals include fruit at the end and desserts are reserved for holidays and special events.

Desserts are either milk-based custards and puddings that include nuts and dried fruits, or flour, butter and nut-based deserts such as baklava.

Q. Casy says you frequently invite friends for dinner. If you were planning a dinner for six this month, what would be on the menu?

A. Appetizer: sauteed shredded carrots with garlic-yogurt sauce served with toasted pita points.

Main Course: Braised veal or lamb with eggplant, peppers and tomatoes served over rice pilaf and a mixed green salad with a lemon and olive oil dressing.

Olive oil course: celery root prepared with carrots, potatoes, peas and pearl onions, warm crusty bread.

Dessert: fresh fruit platter and "Sekerpare," a shortbread pastry with almonds, soaked in simple syrup, plus Turkish coffee.

Q. The American food or dish I like most:

A: Dry rub BBQ and the fixings.

Q. In her letter, Casy named a few of her favorites that you make. So, what are Noah's Pudding, Turkish green beans and a carrot dish "that tastes like dessert."

A. Legend has it that Noah's Pudding is a dessert that has survived since the days of the ark. The folklore of the story is that on the last day on the ark, food has been depleted and the person responsible to prepare the meals comes to Noah's wife and reports the situation. Mrs. Noah tells everyone to gather whatever they find left, no matter how small the quantity and bring them to her. She puts all that is gathered in a pot and cooks this concoction for hours, adding in the little remnants of beans, nuts, grains, spices and fruits - all told 40 ingredients. When the members of the ark sit down for dinner, they find this delicious, nutritional pudding in front of them.

In Turkey it is customary to make Noah's Pudding (called "asure") once a year and give it to 40 neighbors.

What my dear friend Casy calls Turkish green beans are an example of the many vegetable dishes that are prepared with olive oil and served at room temperature.

The base of these dishes are olive oil, onions and tomatoes sauteed and together and then adding a vegetable to that base and cooking at a low temperature until the vegetables are tender.

These dishes are known as our "olive oil" dishes and originated in the Aegean and Mediterranean cuisines.

The carrot dish is actually an Indian dish, that I love and serve when I make Indian food. Its base is carrots, milk, butter and sugar cooked with spices and topped with nuts.

Q. One ingredient that is always in my pantry:

A. Bulgur, a whole wheat product very commonly used in the Middle East. Pairs beautifully with beans.

A favorite recipe or two:

Serve with soup, salad or enjoy as a snack. My family loves this for breakfast.

Ingredients

8 ounces feta cheese (pre-soaked in water to remove excess salt)

4 tablespoons butter

2 eggs

1 cup fresh parsley leaves

1/2 cup fresh dill

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon dried mint (optional)

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)

A pinch of paprika (optional)

Hearty bread

Directions

Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until combined to a spreadable consistency.

Slice a hearty bread (Italian or French baguette are best) into about 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place on a tray and toast under broiler on one side only. Turn the bread slices over and spread generously with the feta cheese mixture. Place back under broil until the spread is bubbly and a light crust has formed (some parts of the toast will be slightly browned).

This is a favorite Turkish recipe that I have adapted to the American palate. It pairs beautifully with a rotisserie chicken, pork tenderloin or grilled fish.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil (or butter)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cups raw rice

1/2 cup currants or black raisins

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

11/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

21/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth at room temperature

2 tablespoons butter (optional)

1/2 cup chopped fresh dill

Directions

In a heavy-bottomed pot on medium-low setting, heat the olive oil and stir gently to toast the almonds for 2 minutes. Add the onion and continue stirring, when the onions get translucent, then lower the temperature to low and add the rice. Continue to gently stir until the rice is nicely coated with the olive oil and slightly toasted. Add the currants and all spices, salt and sugar. Toast another minute and add the chicken or vegetable broth. Gently stir; when the rice starts to boil cover the pot and let cook for 20 minutes. Do not open the lid. When the 20 minutes are up, turn the heat off, add the butter, dill and gently toss. Cover and let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving.