Cuisine at the Crossroads:
For the Love of Beets
I had a fairytale grandmother, a German immigrant with a wave in her short dark hair (set with bobby pins) who might have stepped from the pages of the Brothers Grimm. Grandma Grete liked to dress up when she went out, often in a fitted button-front dress, a matching coat, a hat (a rather homely black cloche), and gloves. At home, she wore flowered housedresses and an apron.
Grete and Grandpa Erich were born in 1903 and 1905, respectively, and grew up in a spa town northeast of Berlin in what was then Prussia. Bad Freienwalde means literally Bath/Free in the Woods, and when I was small I pictured Grandma and her friends playing hide and seek in a deep green forest before soaking in marble baths of great splendor. Why, I wondered, would anyone leave such a place?
My great-grandfather Karl fought in World War I, “The Great War,” lost a lung on the battlefield, and became a pacifist. In Germany, the years that followed were a period of high culture and creativity, but they were also marked by inflation, rising unemployment, and the Nazi movement. Karl hated the Nazis and was happy to see his son Erich, who was trained as a carpenter and who couldn’t find work, immigrate to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Uncle Lehman had a paint and wallpaper-hanging business.
Paperhanging wasn’t for Grandpa, but through a distant relative he got a job on the factory-floor at Vilter Manufacturing where he stayed until he retired at 70, gaining three things of which he was very proud: a gold watch, a pension, and Social Security. He was one of the lucky immigrants who loved America and his work. During World War II he was part of a team that built pack ice machines for steam ships carrying food to troops in Europe and the Pacific. Vilter also produced 105-millimeter howitzers for the army and earned praise for turning out in Vilter’s words, “these important weapons,” in much less time than was required by U.S. arsenals.
America grew brighter and shinier in the years after the war and Grete and Erich’s two daughters, my mother Dorothy and her sister Margaret went on to have six children between them: me, my siblings Mark, Amy, and Kay; and cousins Heidi and Erich.
I, being the oldest of the lot, never lost my connection to Grete’s world. The stories she told were tinged sepia: the beer garden where she and grandpa danced in summer – du liebst im herzen – the wagon my great grandfather drove to Berlin to deliver butter and milk from their farm. When she was growing up in Bad Freienwalde, my grandmother, also an oldest, took care of her younger siblings and became a superb cook and seamstress, passing those skills to my mother and me.
Yet, my grandmother had more in common with the darker side of Grimm’s Fairytales than I realized. While her house was filled with porcelain Hummel figurines (a cherub-cheeked girl and boy sitting beneath an umbrella, another carrying a beer stein, yet another in lederhosen) and a crystal candy dish holding cream-filled, hard-shelled sweets, she also carried loss and a longing for her homeland. To add to Grete’s burden, on the weekends, my moody and loquacious grandfather drank and socialized too much in the local tavern.
Like the women in New Yorker cartoons I would later find sort of funny, Grete walked down to the tavern in her housedress. In my mind she carried a rolling pin in one hand and yanked Grandpa out by the shirt collar with the other. I often heard them bicker, but I never heard her complain, at least not in English. By her own admission, she had wanted to come to America, to be an American, wanted a bit of that shininess for herself. And while the Midwestern sun shone on Grandma, in East Germany her family slipped behind an Iron Curtain.
My siblings and I adored her. She still comes to me in dreams calling me Yoy in her German-accented English. I can conjure up her kitchen with its white enamel stove, butter-yellow walls, Formica table covered by a plastic cloth, the white Frigidaire, and the wood-framed windows that looked out on a small garden where she and Grandpa grew cucumbers and carrots, and rows of curly-headed parsley. They didn’t grow beets, but Grandma Greta made her beet salad every Sunday.
The beets came in a 16 oz can. Egg-shaped red globes an inch and a half in diameter, and swimming in magenta liquid. They were beautiful and disgusting in equal measure. Grandma would drain the beets, cut them in quarters, set them into a bowl, add a mixture of apple cider vinegar, Wesson Oil, sugar, salt, pepper, dried dill, fresh parsley, and voila, marinated beet salad.
The texture of the beets was rubbery and no amount of her delicious dressing could change that sad fact. But beets were only one of many dishes at Grandma’s Sunday afternoon dinners. On the white lace tablecloth, while we ate our first course, “shicken zoup mit Farina dumplings”, the beets glowed jewel-like and tantalizing next to the creamed kale, my favorite, and which my grandmother called grunkohl.
Fast forward to the Reagan eighties. My family had moved to the brighter lights of the East Coast. New Jersey to be exact, just outside of Philadelphia leaving Grete and Erich behind and bereft, waving good-bye from their front porch as they always did after those Sunday suppers.
In my twenties, as the Clash, Duran Duran, and Techno Pop filled the airwaves, I set out to see the world with my friend Wendy, landing on the southern Aegean island of Kos, one of the Dodecanese or Twelve Islands that hug the Turkish coast. On our first morning, while eating breakfast in a taverna overlooking the sparkling Aegean with a bruised-blue crown of Turkish mountains before us, we met Andreas, a dead ringer for John Travolta only with caramel-brown eyes. Andreas’s mother and father owned the taverna and Wendy and he fell quickly into lust.
While Andreas and Wendy leapt into a mythic love affair replete with passionate sex, tears, a few break-ups, and declarations of love beyond time, I became reacquainted with beets, and developed my own passion for the crisp, sweet, vinegar-sharp vegetable, roasted and bathed, not in grandma’s Wesson Oil, but in olive oil from Andreas’s cousin who lived on the island of Crete.
I watched as Andreas’s mother sautéed the beet tops, horta, with olive oil, garlic, and lemon. She served them with a yogurt and dill dip called tzatziki. This was, I realized, a tricked-out version of grandma’s grunkohl.
With a fleeting thought to grandma’s canned beet salad, I felt my heart bid farewell to my German heritage and open up to everything Greek, including Andreas’s friend, Phillipos. I would do it all over again: days spent sunbathing in the gorgeous light, swimming in tantalizing water, diving from epic rock formations that appeared at dawn and faded into twilight, cavorting with sexy boyfriends in tiny European Speedos and galpals in string bikinis. Celebrating e Zoe – the Life!
A year later, Wendy, who was determined to live on the Mediterranean, started a travel business and I briefly worked with her. For one of our reconnaissance trips, Wendy had booked a Turkish sailing vessel called a gulet that would travel from the Greek port city of Rhodes and sail along the Turkish coast where we would view Lycian ruins tucked into rock-slick coves.
By now it was the mid-nineties. I had been studying the roots of religion, particularly the early goddesses of Greece and Anatolia and was curious to explore a country I knew only through the movie Midnight Express. So, I boarded that gulet owned and piloted by a Turkish crew. While not as boisterous as the Greeks I knew and loved, they were charming and courtly, and amazing cooks.
One evening, at sunset, we glided into the bay of a port city called Kalkan, once a Greek fishing village where eighteenth century Greek houses rose up the hillside. We sat at a locanta in the harbor and ate yogurt with mint and stuffed grape leaves. Except for the language, this could have been my beloved Greece.
I had spent years learning the Greek language, musically percussive words that leapt from my tongue, teeth, and lips: Kalispera–good evening; Yassas–hello;Agapi-mou–my love. I now tried to wrap my tongue around Turkey’s softer language with sshhsss and rrhhrrs building from the back of the throat. Yakshamlar–Good evening. Merhaba–Hello. Jennem–My dear.
At sunset, with Turkish friends, I drank licorice-scented raki, instead of ouzo; ate fried squid, kalamar, instead of calamari, dipped in yogurt sauce, cacik instead oftzatziki; ate beet salad, pancar salatasi instead of batzaria, and heard the muezzin’s call for the first time.The tiny mosque that was once a Greek Orthodox Church, sat close to the harbor walled in on two sides by mountains. The Imam’s voice drifted toward the sea. Without knowing what the words meant, I found the sound to be mesmerizing, disconcerting, and haunting.
I reached for a second serving of beets, spooned some onto my plate, and over a robust conversation about God with a capital G, I realized that I had found the perfect beet salad. Instead of rubbery canned beets, these were fresh and tasted full of life. The dressing carried the sweetness I remembered from Grandma’s beet salad. The beets were also infused with the earthy roasted richness I remembered from Andreas’s mother, but without the heaviness of olive oil, and the salad was garnished with the sweet sharp taste of parsley, one of my favorite flavors.
I wanted the recipe.
“You will love this,” said Sakir. “It is the best beet salad in all the world!”
We were standing in the kitchen of the one-bedroom house he rented in Kalkan. After two weeks of cajoling, he had finally agreed to teach us how to make beet salad, “just like my mother prepares them,” he said.
Sakir and I were new friends, introduced by another friend, Angie (who would become co-author of our memoir Anatolian Days & Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey), and with whom I was now running a pension Wendy had leased in Kalkan.
Angie and I had become instant friends, as if we had been sisters in another life, and equally close with Sakir who owned an antique store and knew everybody, it seemed. His shop was a treasure chest of Ottoman designs, some antique some not; a jumble of coral, lapis lazuli, silver, and onyx jewelry, and cheap souvenirs. But Sakir’s true passion was food.
He was from Gaziantep in Turkey’s southeast, a city renowned by culinary aficionados around the world for its pistachios, spiced meats, baklava, and a refined melding of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and classic Turkish cuisine.
Sakir, in his early thirties, had a belly that matched his appetite, and a softness in his eyes and face of someone much loved by the women in his family. He was especially close to his mother and older sister, and an eager pupil of their cooking techniques. He also had the precision and the poetic vision of a fine chef.
A wooden cutting board had been set on a Formica table reminiscent of my grandmother’s table. Ruddy-skinned beets the size of tennis balls filled a polished copper bowl. There was a plate of shallots, homemade white wine vinegar in a plastic bottle, sugar, salt, and a can of sunflower oil.
“Ah, my friends,” Sakir said, turning toward a two burner stove with a propane oven below. “My mother has a special roasting pan, but I use foil.”
He lit the pilot for the oven with a long wooden match and set it at 200 degrees Celsius, approximately 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Outside a small window above the stove, a wind chime made of antique silver spoons glittered in the sunlight and clinked when they caught the breeze.
Angie cut four beets in half. “They’re going to think I murdered one of our guests at the pension,” she laughed, holding up magenta-red fingers,
“We will use lemon juice to remove the stains,” said Sakir, smiling. “You will commit the murder and no one will know.”
The town was quite the center of gossip, and we were already curiosities, so the thought that we’d be accused of murder was not that far-fetched.
“But first you must caress each beet with oil.” Sakir smiled as if he was setting up the next reason for gossip. He put the beets on a sheet of foil, sealed them and popped them in the oven, “We shall bake these for 45 minutes, and then we must check to see if they are soft, but not too soft.”
It was summer and humid in Kalkan and the kitchen began to steam up. Sakir wiped sweat from his brow.
He set to making the dressing. Two shallots, pulled fresh from a neighbor’s garden, halved, hash-marked, and finely chopped in less than a minute. He dropped those into a white ceramic bowl etched with black filigree. To that, he added a teacup of sunflower oil, two spoonfuls of vinegar, a teaspoon each of salt and sugar. He whisked and whisked and whisked. “You must use sunflower oil,” he said. “It is the best. And you must add air and let the juices of the onion melt with the sugar.
“Now, you must taste,” he said handing us spoons. He pronounced taste as test.
We all tasted and tested until the balance between sweet and tart was perfect.
Many years later, Angie and I would visit Gaziantep for cooking lessons given to us by his oldest sister and cousins, but we never met Sakir’s mother, a reticent woman, at least where foreign friends were concerned. But each recipe we were taught was prefaced by the words, “Annemin – My mother’s….”
On that long-ago afternoon in Kalkan, I thought of my grandmother and her Sunday dinners when our extended family would gather to share food and stories; how if you exchanged sunflower oil for Wesson Oil, the dressing for Grandma’s canned beet salad was the same dressing Sakir’s mother had taught to him.
Sakir’s Mother’s Beet Salad
Makes 4-6 Servings
Prep Time: 10 Minutes to Prepare Beets for Roasting
45 Minutes Roasting Time
10 Minutes to Prepare Dressing
Total Prep Time: 1 hour & 5 minutes
Preheat oven to 375 Degrees
1 bunch beets, preferably with greens attached.
Beets should be of uniform size. If beets are large, there should be at least three. If beets are small, there should be five to six. Trim greens from beets. Set aside.
For the beets: Line a cookie sheet with foil or a Silpat. If using foil, leave enough overlap so that you can cover the beets. If using a Silpat, cut a sheet of foil to cover beets. Wash beets and cut in half. Lay cut side down on baking sheet. Cover with foil and place in oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until tender. Remove and let cool enough to handle.
For the Dressing
½ cup oil, sunflower, grapeseed, or canola oil
¼ cup distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon chopped shallot. (You may substitute chopped onion. For a milder flavor soak onions in lukewarm water for ten minutes. Drain before using.)
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste if needed
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup finely chopped parsley (For a Greek twist, substitute dill for parsley.)
Combine all ingredients except for parsley. Whisk for two to three minutes until slightly frothy and all ingredients are well incorporated.
When beets are cool enough to handle, peel off their skins with a paring knife and slice into bite-sized pieces. Angie and I use rubber gloves to peel the skins from the beets so that our fingers don’t turn pink. Should your fingers turn pink, follow Sakir’s instructions and rub with half a lemon and rinse under lukewarm water.
Slip beets into dressing, coating each piece.
Top with parsley or dill. Beets can be made ahead and left to marinate in the refrigerator overnight. (If kept in the refrigerator, take them out and let them come to room temperature before serving.)
Serve plain or with sautéed beet greens and cacik.
You can sprinkle the beets with feta cheese for a more substantial salad. Or simply sprinkle with flakes of salt for a lovely, salty crunch.
Sautéed Beet Greens (Horta)
Makes 4 – 6 Servings
Prep Time: 10 – 15 minutes to soak and prepare beet leaves.
10 minutes to saute greens.
In the Mediterranean region where beets were first cultivated, for a millennium the locals ate the beet tops or greens not the roots. Any combination of greens can be used in this simple (and to our minds) sublime recipe.
One bunch beet leaves, or any greens you like
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons sunflower, grapeseed or canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon to taste
Soak beet greens in water to remove any sand or dirt.
Shake dry, or tear into pieces and spin dry in salad spinner.
Tear beat leaves into even pieces. You may remove the stems although chopping the stems gives crunch and texture to the finished dish. Set aside.
Warm oil in a pan over medium-low heat. Soften garlic in the oil. Add beet greens and salt. Sautee until wilted. If greens seem dry, add a bit of water. Cover with lid and let soften further.
When beet greens are tender, but not mushy, pile onto a serving plate or bowl.
Serve with a sprinkle of pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and Cacik or Tzatziki.
Makes 4 – 6 Servings
Cacik/Tzatziki has been Angie’s and my go-to sauce for everything from lamb to pilaf to potato chip dip. We’ve been known to eat it straight from the bowl. It pairs beautifully with sautéed beet greens.
1 medium-size cucumber
1 clove garlic (The size depends on your taste.)
1 cup thick, plain yogurt (If you don’t have thick yogurt, you may use regular yogurt.)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dried mint or one teaspoon fresh mint, chopped (You may also substitute dill for the mint.)
Pepper to taste
Peel cucumber. Cut in half and remove the seeds. Grate cucumber into a sieve. Sprinkle with salt and let drain over a bowl or in your sink.
While cucumbers are draining, mix together yogurt, olive oil, salt and mint/dill.
Press cucumber to remove any liquid. This does not have to be perfect.
Stir cucumbers into yogurt mixture.
Scoop into a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil. Top with a bit more dried mint.
Grandma Grete’s Creamed Kale (Grunkohl)
Makes 4 – 6 Servings
My grandmother’s secret ingredient in this creamy, yummy kale dish was a fragrant tantalizing addition of nutmeg. I am sure she sprinkled it from a jar of Spice Islands brand. The scent of whole nutmeg to my mind is an aphrodisiac. You can buy whole nutmeg in many grocery stores and health food stores. If you use whole nutmeg, you will also need a grater. A dusting of sweet paprika brightens up the dish.
1 lb. kale, any kind
1 cup water
½ teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or dried nutmeg.
Dusting of paprika
Wash 1 lb. of kale thoroughly. Remove leaves from stems. Put into heavy-bottomed pot. Add 1 cup of water and ½ teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil and lower to simmer. Cover and cook for 15-20 minutes. Drain and chop. Pour Bechemal or White Sauce onto well-drained kale and gently blend together.
Bechemal or White Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper (Or black pepper if it’s all you have.)
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
In a saucepan melt the butter. Remove from heat and add the flour and salt. (I find that removing the pan from the heat saves me from “cooking” the flour/butter mixture.)
Stir until smooth and flour is absorbed.
Place pan back onto stove. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly over low heat until mixture thickens. If too thick add a bit more milk.
Fold in the kale.
Fold in pepper and nutmeg.
Dust with paprika.
Serve straight from the pan or in a heavy bowl, one that will retain the heat. (Grandma served it in a dish with a lid and a slot for a spoon.)
From the forthcoming cookbook: Anatolian Kitchen – Cuisine at the Crossroads. A collection of stories and the cultural history and connection between cuisines from the old world to the new, and back again.
For further reading and recipes:
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul