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BOOK REVIEW ‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ by Leanne Kitchen

I’ve been anxious to get my hands on this book for some time now and the minute I slipped  ‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ out of its padded envelope I knew it had been worth the wait. Fair dues to Murdoch Books; considering the author, Leanne Kitchen (a trained chef turned food writer, originally from New Zealand and now living in Sydney), is not a major media squeeze, the quality of production and finish is remarkable, from the sensuous padded cover, to the simple-but-stylish motif that adorns the edge of the recipe pages, not forgetting the photography. I’m not only talking about the ‘food porn’ although Amanda McLauchlan’s photos, shot mostly with available light, will have you salivating for sure. Leanne herself is no slouch with a camera and her own shots, taken on her travels, bring insight into this magical and, for many, mysterious country. Her felicitious name, by the way, is no nom de plume – “I married a guy called Mr.Kitchen”, she insists. Savvy typography gives the book a classical feel and allows easy access to the recipes.

‘Turkey…’ combines a cookbook and a travelogue. The recipes, in the main are simple, with most of the dishes well within the capability of the average home cook. There’s nothing super-cheffy or twiddly here. What you get is the real Turkey, light years away from the sad kebab shop offerings we’re fobbed off with in Ireland. As Leanne points out, Turkey divides into seven extremely diverse regions, each with its own culinary tradition.  In Istanbul, she says, mezze are elevated to the status of art. Within the pages of this book is a rich and varied cuisine with which the majority of home cooks will be unfamiliar and one that will reward exploration.

Leanne takes you  well off the ‘Turkey for Tourists’ route and writes beautifully about places many will never visit. “My new friend takes me on a ferry ride to Akdsamar to see the thousand year old Cathedral of the Holy Cross an architecturally-important pink sandstone church erected by the Armenian Catholics…  From the island we look back over the sparkling lake to the vast open expanse of land on the other side where farmers are fashioning dried grass into huge round bales of hay. Behind this farmland lies a string of snow-capped mountain peaks. It’s a place of dramatic and breathtaking beauty and it’s fitting that we finish our day trip off by gorging on the local delicacy, inci kefali or pearl mullet. “

Food, always back to food, great. I’ve already got the recipe for Yoghurt and walnut stuffed eggplant with tomato and pomegranate sauce on the go for tonight’s dinner. My quinces, now barely thimble-sized  will be under scrutiny until autumn, earmarked for incorporation into a sweet cheese pie. The slow-roasted lamb with apples poached in pomegranate will get a run out soon – how delightful is the instruction  “To serve, pull the lamb apart into chunks.” I’m going to get massive use out of this book, I can see.

To sum up, ‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ has got to be an early contender for Cookbook of 2011 and currently, for me at least, it’s the one the others have to beat and one I can’t recommend  or praise highly enough, as both a cookbook and a damn good read.

‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ is published by Murdoch Books at GB£25

Footnote: Leanne Kitchen, by her own admission, is by inclination a lone traveler and uncomfortable in groups. This is untrue. At Tasting Australia 2010 I was in her company for two days, both of us part of an unusually harmonious mob of food writers and chefs. Leanne, with whom I share an enthusiasm for hats, contributed a good deal to the travelling experience, not least with her on-bus rendition of Rogers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ which I hope to hear her reprise in 2012.

 

Keshk Café

The Emperor Napoleon seems to have been a bit of a philosopher. One of his mots sages was “Every corporal carries a Marshall’s baton in his knapsack”. The great man would have known, because he came through the ranks himself. It’s not to be taken literally of course. Distilled down, the Corsican corporal’s observation simply celebrates mankind’s universal desire to improve his situation and ‘get on’. Today, though, it’s not a baton but a chef’s toque (big white hat). It’s a dead cert that any foodie who reaches the stage where they can slice an onion into thin rings without amputating a finger has this mad, mad dream about opening a restaurant.

Now I’ve been there, done that, designed the T-shirt. For the guts of three years I trod water, made no money. Didn’t matter really; I was too knackered to spend any. I soldiered on, cooking with love and pride; enduring the amnesiac who left a freezer door open overnight; the butterfingers who dropped an earthenware bowl, smashing to smithereens my expensive glass salad counter; the berserk druggie who trashed the place; the klepto who stole all the salt cellars; the fruit-and-nutcase who found ‘a cockroach’ in her teapot (moral: use teabags not leaf tea); the rip-off insurers and the health police with varying degrees of fortitude. Glad I did it; glad I’m not doing it now.

I learned a lot. Like, if you have only 28 ‘covers’ (trade argot for customers’ bums parked on seats) it’s always going to be a struggle. It takes you two busy days to recover from one quiet one. Up it to 35 and you can just maybe take the occasional day off and earn some brownie points with wife and kids. Being a chef proprietor is all about blood (sometimes literally), sweat, toil and tears and my heart goes out to anyone who has the balls to give it a go.

Video highlights care of the foregoing ran in my head as we rocked up outside a newish establishment called ‘Keshk Café’, on the Leeson Street ‘island’. “Funny name” said Lefty. We wondered whether it was a miss-spelling of ‘Kesh’; maybe the owner was a republican, realising a dream he’d had when interned. But no, ‘Keshk’ we were told, was the chef-proprietor’s surname.

The room was bright, warm and welcoming. Small, too. We counted to 28 and I felt an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. This poor guy will never be away from the place. I’d read in advance that Keshk was BYOB and so took the opportunity to road test a couple of wines, Shepherd’s Ridge, a new, quite tasty Sauvignon Blanc from Marks & Spencer and the suave 1997 Centenary Hill Barossa Shiraz, crème de la crème of the Jacob’s Creek stable. Both passed the test of food friendliness with flying colours.

From a non-specific Middle Eastern menu we kicked off with three starters; hummus (always a good test); falafel and tiger prawns in filo, accompanied by a generous quantity of fresh, leafy green salad, of the kind that makes you feel virtuous for eating it. The prawns were crisp on the outside, properly bouncy within and full of flavour. A friend’s sister (who used to work for me) makes the best falafel I’ve ever tasted; these, while not quite in Hadil’s league, were pretty good. The hummus was outstanding, no need to ask “Was it made fresh and on the premises?”

Continuing the theme, we shared a marinated kebab, fashioned from decent chicken and a stupendous lamb dish, tender pieces swathed in an aromatic sauce in which I’d venture to suggest it had been cooked, rather than the two brought together at the last minute. Rather good rice and spiced potatoes completed the feast, which left us unable to do more than nibble on a baklava for dessert – though we did manage two Arabian (like ‘Greek’ or Turkish’) coffees, almost a savoury dessert in their own right and far better than much of the stale, mucky espresso that abounds in Dublin. Staff, two Irish girls, were lovely, nay gorgeous. Only gripe was the hot chilli sauce, served as a side to the chicken. ‘Hot’? It was tepid as baby’s bath water.

Mustapha, Mr.Keshk himself, came out of the kitchen to talk to us. He’s an engaging, enthusiastic man whom some might remember from Idle Wilde in Dalkey, where he previously cooked. He’s obviously in love with his new venture. However, he did say he’d like fifty covers which shows he’s got his head screwed on. He seemed unhappy with the concept of charging corkage on bottles brought in by customers. Lefty said nobody would begrudge \5 a throw. I pointed out that the restaurant has to provide, wash and, as necessary, replace the glasses used and, maybe, open, decant or chill. Corkage would provide a cushion of maybe another grand a week, worth having. Mustapha still seemed dubious, as if it would be breaking faith with his customers. What a decent skin. Anyhow, I hope for his own sake he’ll come to see the logic.

I loved Keshk, food and concept. At, what, €58 plus the cost of a bottle of wine many could afford to eat there once a week. We need to see shedloads of similar establishments springing up and I think maybe we will. While BYOB is not ‘way to go’ for every restaurant its availability should help hasten the demise of the “3 x RRP” mark-up scandal.

Verdict: Keshk could be called ‘Kiss’ (Keep it Simple, Stupid). No frills, just authentic homely food: good ingredients, well cooked. Pleasant atmosphere, everything spotless, do yourself a favour, get there.

The damage: €58.75 ex-service for 3 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert, 2 coffees

Rating ****

Keshk Café, 129 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin 4 Tel: 01 6689793