Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking, written by Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner, features over 100 recipes based on their travel memoir Anatolian Days and Nights. Highlights in the book include Saffron Rice Pilaf with Chickpeas and Mint, Lamb Kleftico (Cypriot-Style Lamb Shanks), Black Sea Hazelnut Baklava, Classic Puffed Pide Bread, and Circassian Chicken (Poached Chicken with Walnut Sauce). At the end of the review, I will also be sharing their recipe for Lahmacun, a Turkish pizza with a spiced lamb mixture thinly spread over flatbread.
Joy E. Stocke is a fiction/nonfiction writer and editor currently based in Stockton, New Jersey. She is the founder and Editor in Chief of the online magazine, Wild River Review, and her essay on Turkish-American food appears in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. She is also on the board of the Princeton Middle East Society and a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network. Angie Brenner is a freelance writer and illustrator currently based in Julian, California. She is also a contributor to Wild River Review.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Burgess Lea Press in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links.
Chapters are divided based on course: Mezes; Köfte and Kebabs, Flatbreads, Börek and More; Soups; Salads; Manti, Vegetarian Stews and Casseroles; Fish and Seafood; Lamb and Chicken; Vegetables and Side Dishes; Dessert: Puddings, Pastry and More; and Brewed Beverages and Festive Drinks.
Joy and Angie begin with a little background behind the title of the book, Tree of Life. It comes from the story about Ağaç Ana (The Mother Tree), a divine tree in paradise from which all life grows. In between the recipes, they include stories and photographs from their travels to help draw you into the scenery and faces behind the food.
The incredible photography is provided by Jason Varney. Many of the recipes are accompanied by a full-page, well-styled photo of the finished dish. There are also a few beautiful photos of the Turkish food and people. The name of each recipe is listed in English and sometimes Turkish. The measurements are in US Customary. Every recipe begins with a headnote with serving size, background information, stories, and menu pairing ideas.
This book is a great pick for those who want to make Turkish food at home. Recipes range from meze, soups, and salads to meats, seafood, vegetarian meals, desserts, and drinks. Some dishes come together quickly and effortlessly while others like homemade Manti, stews, and pastries take a bit more time. Many of the ingredients can readily be found in the average American supermarket. Some that may require further searching include Aleppo pepper, pomegranate molasses, chickpeas, fresh seafood, allspice berries, halloumi cheese, grape leaves, Rakı, sumac, nigella seeds, filo, grape molasses, Turkish red pepper paste, bulger wheat, tahini, saffron, rose petals, and more.
Lahmacun is a meat-topped flatbread that can be found as street food in Turkey, Armenia, and Syria. Pieces of dough are stretched and shaped into round to oblong flatbreads, then thinly topped with spiced lamb (ground beef or turkey can be substituted). I served the Lahmacun with lemon wedges, parsley, and tomato, but many other toppings can be included such as onion, olive, preserved lemon, different herbs, and/or stringy cheese. It can be eaten sliced into wedges, rolled up, or folded. I paired the Lahmacun with Ayran, a frothy yogurt drink (recipe also in the book).
I absolutely loved the spices in the lamb mixture. Though next time I will probably increase the amount of lamb to make sure I have enough to reach closer to the edges of the dough. The meat topping will shrink as it cooks. I will also do a better job of scattering the meat so it isn’t all concentrated in the center.
Sumac is a spice made from the berries of the sumac bush and is common in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. It is available in berry or ground form. Sumac has a lightly bitter, lemony taste and a deep brownish red hue. There are no good substitutes for the flavor. I have been able to find it in the spice section of some international grocery stores and recently at Whole Foods. Watch the ingredient list and color of sumac. It should be a deep red. Bright red spices may have added coloring and some have added salt. It is also available of Amazon: Sumac 4.0 oz by Zamouri Spices.
The Aleppo pepper (Halaby Pepper) is a moderately hot, ground pepper with a fruity, ancho-like flavor. It can be found in the spice section of some larger supermarkets, Middle Eastern markets, or on Amazon: Aleppo pepper 4 oz and Aleppo pepper 2 oz.
I also made Çaçik (Yogurt Dip with Cucumber and Mint), Tomato and Walnut Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Weeknight Lamb Manti, and Ayran.
Çaçik is a light and refreshing dip that comes together easily with a combination of yogurt, smashed garlic, diced cucumber, fresh mint, and a drizzle of olive oil and Aleppo pepper over the top. I have both mint and cucumber in my garden, so this has become a summertime staple. Joy and Angie mention that this dip pairs well as a sauce for fish, köfte, and pilafs.
Tomato and Walnut Salad with Pomegranate Molasses is an incredibly flavor salad that also comes together easily with just a few ingredients. Chopped tomatoes are tossed with toasted walnuts and fresh parsley in a coating of pomegranate molasses and olive oil.
Weeknight Lamb Manti uses the shortcut borrowed from friend, Humyera, of making these lamb dumplings with pre-made wonton wrappers. The wrappers are filled with a lamb mixture (or beef, turkey), boiled, and topped with yogurt and a spiced butter sauce. I personally still prefer working with homemade dough (it seals and folds easier for me), but this is definitely great for days when you are short on time. Dumpling lovers will also enjoy the recipe for Baked Spinach, Goat Cheese and Walnut Manti.
Ayran is a refreshing drink made by whisking yogurt with chilled water and a little salt. It pairs well with spiced meals. I made it as an accompaniment to the Lahmacun. Claire, my yogurt lover, especially enjoyed this.
Lahmacun (Turkish Pizza)
Excerpt from Tree of Life
For the dough:
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (236 ml) lukewarm water, divided
3 cups (375 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
For the topping:
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 pound (227 g) ground lamb
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons dried mint
1 1/2 teaspoons ground sumac
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-2 lemons, cut into wedges
1/2 cup (18 g) coarsely chopped parsley
1 large tomato, sliced
Make the dough: In a small bowl, mix the yeast, sugar and 1/3 cup (79 ml) lukewarm water. Set aside until it starts to foam, about 15 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, sift together the flour and salt. (If making the dough by hand, mix in a medium bowl and make a well in the center.)
Pour the yeast mixture into the flour and add the remaining 2/3 cup (158 ml) warm water. Set mixer to medium speed and incorporate the liquid into the flour until most of the liquid is absorbed and a somewhat shaggy dough is formed. Add a bit of extra water if the dough seems too dry, or a small amount of extra flour if it is too sticky.
Continue to knead the dough for 7 to 10 minutes until it becomes elastic and smooth. If kneading by hand, turn the dough onto a floured board and make one-quarter turns at regular intervals.
Coat a large bowl with vegetable oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and leave in a warm place for 1 hour or until the dough doubles in size.
Heat the oven to 425˚F (218˚C). If using a pizza stone, heat the stone starting in a cold oven, or line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.
Make the topping: Melt the butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Add the onions, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Sauté until the onions are soft and translucent, but not brown, about 6-8 minutes.
In a medium bowl, combine the lamb, tomato paste, Aleppo pepper, oregano, mint, sumac, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper. Add the sautéed onions and garlic.
When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough into quarters. With floured fingers, shape the dough into four 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick round or oblong pizzas. If necessary, use a rolling pin to flatten each piece.
Place one flatbread on the parchment-lined baking sheet or on a pizza peel, lightly coated with flour. Brush the edges of the dough with some of the remaining olive oil to create a crisp crust. Spread a thin layer of the topping mixture evenly over the dough. Place the baking sheet into the oven or slide the flatbread from the peel onto the pizza. Bake for about 15 minutes until the edges begin to turn golden and the lamb topping is browned.
Remove the lahmacun from the oven and slide onto a cutting board. Cut into 4-6 wedges. Repeat with remaining dough and toppings to make three more pizzas. Serve immediately with lemon wedges, parsley and fresh tomato slices.