Sunday, May 5, 2013

Turkey Revisited

I often think about how lucky I was to win Sabra Dipping Company's Taste Intervention Contest and the Grand Prize of a trip to Turkey where I learned to cook some amazing food, gain great kitchen skills, & experience the trip of a lifetime.

Here is my original blog from my trip. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

Day 1

Hi Everyone. Greetings from Istanbul, Turkey! Wow. What a day. Ten hours on a plane and not long after I arrived we began a seven hour guided walking tour of Old Istanbul.

I visited the Hippodrome which used to be a place where chariot races were held. After that I was whisked over to the Blue Mosque where I saw some of the most amazing tile work in the world.

Next up was the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia at once was an Orthodox church which later became a mosque after the Ottoman's seized Constantinople (now Istanbul). Now this is a national museum. It is amazing to see the mosaics and frescos in the Hagia Sophia. Many were plastered over by the Ottoman's and are only being rediscovered now

We then walked across the street to Topkapi Palace, which was the home and workplace ofmany Sultan's of the Ottoman period. This palace is now a museum showcasing many artifacts of the Ottoman Sultans. Not to be missed is the Treasury Room where the Topkapi dagger is on display and the Hall of Relics which contains a sample of Mohammeds hair, the hand and head of John the Baptist (supposedly), King David's Turban & supposedly the staff that Moses used when he parted the Red Sea. The day ended with a traditional Turkish Bath at Cemberlita's Hamami which is the oldest operating Turkish Bath in Istanbul. It's history dates back to 1584.

Well, that's all for now. I am a bit wiped out. Check back tomorrow to see what I'm up to.

Until then...

Day 2
Today was a free day for me so I decided that today I would try to expand my horizons and go out in Istanbul on my own. My day started with a breakfast on the roof of our hotel. Being that I am in Turkey I felt that I should eat what the people of Istanbul would have so I had raw quail eggs for breakfast! It was really pretty good.
Then I headed down to thBosphorus Strait and found about forty different restaurants right on the pier area and many nice people who were happy to give me directions. After this we crossed the bridge and headed to the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. The Egyptian Bazaar sells all kinds of spices and herbs along with many different types of souvenirs and clothing.
For lunch we headed back to the Bosphorus Strait and I had a really great lunch consisting of a small salad and fresh fried anchovies.
After lunch, we wandered aimlessly through the EminonuSultanhmet&Taskim areas meeting local folk and experiencing their culture. What a rewarding experience that was. Ok, that's all for now. It's time to go to the airport for the next leg of the journeyAyvalik.
Talk to you all tomorrow!

Day 3
Hello and greetings from Cunda (pronounced Junda) Island. Once again, we are headed back to the olive grove. Yesterday I worked alongside the professional workers who pick the olives and today I learned the process of pressing out my own olive oil.

First the olives are brought to the processing center. The olives are then loaded into a hopper and cleaned. Next the olives are separated from any remaining branches and leaves. If any leaves remain after this process they are removed by hand. Next, the olives are split in half and then crushed and refined into a paste. Once the paste process is complete the oil begins to rise and separate from the paste. The 
oil is next purified and cleaned with a water purification process and then bottled. I am not sure why but my olive oil is the BEST I have ever tasted, hands down!

Our next stop was at a rural village where we were welcomed into the home of a local sheppard whose name was Vildan. She welcomed us with Turkish tea (my new favorite drink in the world) & pastries. Vildan is a warm and wonderful lady whose hospitality was unending. Vildan took me to see her sheep and other farm animals and then showed me the summer pen where the sheep are kept. It was like a lean-to type structure built around a tall tree composed mostly of wood and palm branches. We then walked around her farm area as she showed me the azalea plants that she was growing that will eventually become azalea shrubs. Soon after it was time to part company & even though Vildan did not speak any English and I do not speak any Turkish, I felt we had an understanding of each other by the time we departed company. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.
After leaving Vildan’s farm we stopped for a visit with our new friend from the olive grove,Ismaial. We were welcomed into Ismaial’s home like were were old friends. His wife prepared us more Turkish tea and corn on the cob. She then showed us her needlework whose detail absolutely blew me away. It was truly like a work of art. Ismaial and his family are true ambassadors of the Turkish culture.

Our last stop of the day was back in Ayvalik for a light dinner of mezzes. Mezze means “starter” in the Turkish language. Our tour guide, Chimen, explained all the dishes as they were brought to the table. A majority of the dishes were yogurt based and included one which had a dill weed flavoring and one which was flavored by cooked radish leaves and red pepper flakes. Other dishes included a grilled eggplant which was diced and mixed with olive oil and a diced eggplant in a tomato & garlic sauce. Also, I got to try mashed fava beans.
Well, that’s all for today. I’ll be cooking tomorrow, eating my creation and having dinner with a local Turkish family. Have a great day and I will see y’all later.

Day 4
Hello and once again greetings from Cunda Island!

This morning our day started off with
 a swim in the Aegean Sea. The water was a bit brisk at first, but was more than tolerable. The clarity of the water was unbelievable! At a depth of eight feet, I could easily see to the bottom.
After swimming we returned to our hotel for a quick breakfast and then it was off to cooking class. Today, with the help and guidance of Master Chef Adile and her two capable assistants, Sultan & Pinar & our tour guide, Cimen, I prepared a six course meal for ten people. The meal included artichoke hearts in olive oil with peas and carrots, lamb with yogurt, stuffed, steamed fish stew, stuffed pumpkin blossoms, gummy rice pudding & roasted pumpkin wrapped in filo dough. After the meal was complete, we sampled my cooking and I received many compliments for good efforts and a job well done.
Soon after sampling lunch, we left Cunda Island to be the guests of Emir, Sabira, Hussan & Hussien who live in the mountainous area just outside of Ayvalik. After stopping along the way for some panoramic still photos we arrived at our destination and were welcomed into their home where they hosted us for dinner. Immediately I was made to feel like one of the family. I was treated to a dinner feast that would impress anyone. We started off with a tomato broth soup which was followed by fresh fried sardines, babaganoush, a bounty of olive dishes and many others too numerous to mention. I was treated like royalty and I felt a warmth from them that I still feel now as I write this entry. Soon it was time to head back to our hotel and we departed company. Before I left, Emir and I prayed together wishing each other health, & happiness for years to come. As we drove back to the hotel in our bus, I couldn't stop thinking about how warm and open these people were to me.
Oh, one more thing. Apparently, I may have hit the oil well my first time out. The owner of the olive grove told me that the olive oil that I picked & pressed had turned out to be quite the bottling. He suggested that I send some to the LA County Fair Olive Oil Competition. He seems to think that I could win a medal!
Well that’s all for now. I have an early wake up tomorrow as we need to catch a plane and head to Istanbul.

Day 5
Good morning! 

Today was an early start. We were up at 4:45 am thi
s morning to catch our flight back to Istanbul. We have landed at the airport on the Asian side of Istanbul and we are traveling to the European side via the 1st Intercontinental Bridge. Did you know that Istanbul is the only city in the world that touches two continents? 

Once back in the European side of Istanbul we will be traveling to the Spice Bazaar to purchase some spices that I will use in my cooking class today. 
Ok, a forever memory moment is occurring right now. I am about to cross the 1st Intercontinental bridge back into European Istanbul. It’s kind of funny because before I won the Taste Intervention contest that Sabra sponsored I had never left North America. Now in a period of a few days I have left my mark in Europe & Asia.
I am now at Feriye Restaurant right on the Bosphorus Straight. I am waiting to meet Mr. Vedat Basaran who is the restaurant’s owner and a Master Chef. Mr. Basaran will be teaching me a two course meal in the traditional Ottoman Style. I am stoked to meet this legend of Turkish cuisine and I am sure that I will benefit from his knowledge and experience.
Our class today consisted of learning a entrĂ©e and a starter. I learned how to prepare sea bass in yogurt and wild herbs and also mashed eggplant with yogurt and olive oil. Mr Basaran is an excellent teacher and was very patient with me as heexplained everything in great detail. Before I left I had the opportunity to present Mr Basaran with a tee shirt from the Philadelphia Fire Department and ironically, the colors of the shirt were the colors of his favorite futbal team.
I had to sit for a “formal interview" with the camera crew today to talk about my experiences while here in Turkey. I thought that this was going to be the most difficult thing I did while here in Turkey but to be honest, it went smooth as silk.
Next, we headed back towards “Old Istanbul” for a side trip to the Underground Cistern. This was a multi purpose visit. Of course there is the historical aspect of the visit. You know, seeing a below ground room that at one time was a water collection and storage facility for the Istanbul of centuries ago. The other angle was from an educational perspective. While at the cistern, I was introduced to the rhythmic hand drum and took a belly dancing class. Yes, I said belly dancing class. Although I was not really very good at either of the activities, I did enjoy myself.
The day ended with a nice dinner at a restaurant located in the middle of the Bosporus Straight. The view and the food wasincredible. The dinner included some authentic Turkish meze and some superbly prepared lamb kebabs.
Ok well that's all for now. Tomorrow is my final day in Turkey & I have the day to myself. I think I will just play it by ear and I will go exploring Istanbul on my own and see what I find.

Day 6
Today is my last day in Istanbul and I am here on my own.

Just me and Istanbul.

Just as I was getting used to the film crew and the rain, both departed from Istanbul early today.

Since I had the day to myself and the sun had decided to return I decided to do a few things that I did not have time to do in the previous week. First up was a cruise on the Bosporus Straight. You purchase your ticket at the Eminonu pier which is practically at the base of the Galata Bridge. Stops along the way include Besiktas, Kanlica, Yenikov, Sariyer, Rumeli Kavagi & Anadolu Kavagi. On the way up I just sat inside on the first deck, relaxing, drinking coffee and soaking up the atmosphere. Once in Anadolu Kavagi which is on the Asian side of Istanbul I walked around on the waterfront, meeting local merchants and checking things out. I then decided to try to conquer the walk up the mountain to Yoros Castle. Twenty five minutes later I had one of the most spectacular views of the Bosporus Straight possible. The view from the castle is impressive to say the least. You look directly out on the Bosporus and on a clear day you can see straight to the Black Sea!

By the the time I descended the mountain it was time to reboard the ferry. Since I relaxed on the way up I decided to return on the top deck of the ferry and take as many pictures as possible. The homes along the waterfront of the Bosporus are quite impressive to say the least. Stately, elegant and ostentatious are words that come to mind. Many palaces of the former Sultans of Turkey are clearly visible from the cruise.

Once back in Eminonu I decided to hoof it over to the Grand Bazaar which may be the most intimidating place that I have visited while here in Turkey. To say the least the Grand Bazaar is overwhelming. In business since 1461 the Bazaar has something for everyone. With around 4,000 shops in a covered, enclosed marketplace, navigation is just impossible. For the most part, the bazaar is mobbed. It’s like an indoor mall on steroids! If you go, just go with the flow and don’t have a plan. If you just stumble around, you are sure to find what you are looking for. From souvenirs, to Turkish carpets to copper cookware, the Bazaar has it all. One more thing, you will get turned around easily in the Grand Bazaar and you can almost count on leaving from a different gate than you arrived in. There are twenty five entrances in all.

Once done at the Bazaar I headed over to the Basilica Cistern. Built in the sixth century, the Basilica Cistern provided water supply for early Byzantine leaders of what is now Istanbul. Water traveled via the Valens Aqueduct to the holding tanks of what would later be called an engineering marvel. In the far corner are two support columns whose bases are the stone replicas of the head of Medusa. Funny thing is, no one knows why. The Basilica Cistern is something that I definitely recommend. Well goodnight all. Tomorrow I return home. I have an early wake up to catch my flight back to NYC then my shuttle ride back to Philadelphia so I am calling it quits for the night.

Day 7
Well today is my traveling home day. I was awoken at 6:00 am Istanbul time and my driver had arrived at the hotel by 7:00 am to take me to the airport for my 12:00 pm flight home.
So as I write my final journal entry about this trip we are at 34,000 feet in the North Atlantic somewhere a little north of St. John’s, Newfoundland and a couple of things come to mind.
Today I return to Philadelphia with mixed emotions. On one side, I have learned & experienced much here. Culturally, historically & educationally, this has been one of the most diverse weeks of my life. The parts of Turkey I visited have burned an impression in my mind that will never be forgotten. The other side of the coin is that it’s now time to return home. I miss my family and friends & I also wish to share my experiences and put my new culinary skills to work.
This has been an incredible week! I have learned & experienced more in the last week than some people get to experience in their entire lives! This trip for me has been more than I could have ever imagined. Thank you Sabra for helping me to get out of my food rut and finding me worthy of a taste intervention!

Cooking For My Firehouse Family
Today is the day that I will get to show off the cooking skills I learned while on my Taste Intervention trip in Turkey. Right now I am at the firehouse awaiting the arrival of the film crew who will be following me around today throughout Philadelphia as I shop for what I need to create this incredible meal tonight.

The meal will be three courses. The first course will be a mezze tasting. Mezze is Turkish for starter. I will be making mashed fava beans, babaganoush, red pepper/pimento paste & a yogurt, dill and olive oil dip. Also, the olive oil I made in Turkey will be on the table for tasting.

The second course will be lamb kebabs with eggplant, squash & zucchini. I will be making a quick marinade of my olive oil, some fresh dill and oregano for about 20 minutes. After shaking off the excess olive oil I will be coating the lamb with Sabra Classic Hummus and then skewering the lamb and veggies and broiling.

My third and main course is chicken and vegetables cooked in a clay pot and artichoke bottoms with peas and carrots cooked in water and olive oil.

Ok, it's now time to put up or shut up. I have called in the cavalry to help me out in the kitchen to get this meal underway because there is a ton of prep work to do. Brian is here helping (I hope he remembers some of the stuff we learned in Turkey) and so is my co-worker Sharon. They are cutting & dicing veggies as I prepare the mezzes that will next go in the refrigerator to meld together as the other parts of the meal come together.

Well we are a little behind now. While the prep work was being done we received a dispatch for an activated alarm at a nearby hospital. Thankfully for all, it was an accidental activation and now we are back in the kitchen of Engine 56 working our butts off to get this meal finished. Brian has been thrown out of the kitchen because he has reached the end of his usefulness. 

It's dinner time and everyone has assembled in the kitchen and I am explaining what we are having for dinner to our invited guests, Deputy Chief Robert Wilkins and his aide, Mark Royal, Battalion Chief James Renniger and his aide, Jim Kneile, firefighter Bill Mitchell and firefighter Phil Poindexter.

You know, meals at the firehouse kitchen table are like no other. There is a spirit of camaraderie, friendship and humor that you will not find anywhere else. Everyone is enjoying the meal and there is a very lighthearted atmosphere in the kitchen.

Well, the meal is now over. I received many compliments and everyone enjoyed themselves. Tonight was a turning point for me. I was able to cook a three-course meal for ten people in our tiny firehouse kitchen and bring it all together in the end. Time management is no longer a problem for me and by cooking this meal I now have a confidence that I did not have before. Also, I allowed others into the kitchen to help me out with the meal preparation which I have never done before. 

When I was in Turkey, I was the student. By cooking this meal tonight for my coworkers and explaining it for the camera crew as each step was completed I feel that I am now the teacher. The circle is now complete.

Thank you Sabra. By selecting me as your Taste Intervention Contest Winner you have turned my life around.

Video from my trip which was shown as webisodes can be viewed here:


  1. What an amazing trip. I love their roasted red pepper hummus. I want to go to Turkey even more now.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. My trip was what dreams are made of; legendary even. I will never forget Turkey, it's kind & generous people, or my experiences there. I too would like to return to Turkey at some point in the future.