When I first came to Turkey, the supermarkets were just as I’d expected them to be. Fresh fruit and veg were in abundance, shelves bulged with grains and legumes and deli style nut counters took over a good section of the stores. The smells were wonderful. What did surprise me was the lack of ready food in the freezer section. I’ve always cooked from scratch when possible, but on top of starting work within days of arriving, travelling half-way across the city to reach my job and not knowing the city/language/anyone, it was slightly daunting knowing that there was nothing to store in the freezer “just in case”.
I tended to look at food prep with the view to cooking enough for one meal at a time, perhaps with leftovers for tomorrows lunch. Five years on, I still cook from scratch most evenings, but have taken a leaf or two from Turkish cooks. We cook rice enough for two+ days, always have cheese and olives in the fridge and try to frequently make a batch of ‘Zeytinyali’ to last the week.
Zeytinyali, literally means ‘in olive oil’ and is the way Turks tend to serve most veg. Braising vegetables wasn’t a concept I was familiar with before arriving in Istanbul – we grew up eating boiled/raw, and I’d always cooked by either steaming or stir-frying. Once you get the hang of it, it’s an easy, versatile way to prepare vegetable dishes in bulk and makes a delicious addition to a meal, or a lunch all in itself. Zeytinyali barbunya, or cranberry beans in olive oil, is a favourite in our home.
Fresh or dried beans work in this dish. We’re currently in bean season so these are fresh. Fresh cranberry beans need to be pre-boiled for 15mins, dry beans should be soaked for 12hours and part-cooked for 1hour, before following the recipe.
Add the onions and pepper to a pan with olive oil – using less oil doesn’t affect the end taste, so I tend to stick to 1/2-3/4 of a cup though purists would say you need at least a cup to make it ‘zeytinyali’.
After a couple of minutes, add the tomatoes and simmer until the oil takes on the colour of the tomatoes…my mother-in-law would say “let the vegetables get to know each other”, which is a lovely way to think of food prep, don’t you think?
Once the oil has taken on a pinky hue and the vegetables are starting to soften, add the beans, two cubes of sugar (1 heaped teaspoon?), salt. Cover with water, pop the lid on the pan and leave it to cook for an hour or so, until the beans are soft.
You’ll want to make sure you still have liquid remaining in the dish once the beans are cooked, so simmer the beans to prevent boiling off the water.
This dish is traditionally eaten at room temperature, sprinkled with parsley and a squeeze of lemon. But if you’re the chef — or a fellow Brit missing Heinz — you get the chefs perk: a spoon of the beany, liquidy goodness warm from the pan. Yum!
Dishes like this are healthy (good fats), nutritious (all of the juices from the vegetables remain in the dish), versatile and once cooked, about as fast a food as you can get. Since M’s graced our lives, I’ve been known to stand in the fridge door with a fork eating from the bowl and can still say I ate a proper lunch! This food will be fantastic for M to eat, and given his enthusiastim while he watches me cook, it won’t be long coming round! Today though, it was all too much for Mummy’s little helper.