A savory Turkish delight

A jar of eggplant and red peppers in olive oil is a delicious reminder of a trip to Turkey.

Murad Sezer/AP
Banquet: Traditional Turkish dishes include eggplant with tomatoes and onions (left) and green beans in olive oil.

I recently worked at a local food pantry that serves families temporarily in need of assistance. On a table in the hallway were several gourmet items that apparently didn't have broad appeal for the average family. Among them was a tall glass jar showing red and green through its transparent sides.

When my fellow volunteer and I prepared to leave at the end of our shift, I picked up the jar to read the ingredients – roasted eggplant and roasted red peppers in pure virgin olive oil. Much to my surprise, I realized it was what I had found most delectable during a recent visit to Turkey. My fellow volunteer encouraged me to ask if I could take it home with me, since it obviously wasn't going to find a home otherwise.

I opened the jar the next noontime, piercing the limp eggplant and its red-pepper companions with my fork and lifting them gingerly from the olive oil bath. I recalled that it didn't need to be heated. As it slid into my mouth, its texture and flavor transported me back to Turkey, and I recalled the sumptuous breakfast buffets that awaited our tour group each morning – a generous assortment of cheeses; a basket of hard-boiled eggs; bowls of ripe olives, green olives, stuffed green olives, and other varieties; trays of sliced tomatoes; wedges of cucumbers with centers of tiny seeds; preserves of whole cherries and apricots; dripping honeycombs; spicy Turkish sausages; and, yes, eggplant and red peppers. There was also a variety of soups, with baba ghanouj (a paste made of roasted eggplant and sesame seeds) to spread on slices of fresh-baked bread.

I took advantage of this hearty fare, especially enjoying the eggplant and red peppers, knowing that it would be a long morning of sightseeing before our stop for lunch.

The main focus of our trip was to follow in the way of Paul's three pilgrimages as he established Christian churches in Asia Minor. One of our tour leaders provided commentary on Paul's journeys, while Tulu, our knowledgeable Turkish guide, not only filled us in on the ancient history of Turkey, but also gave us a running commentary on its natural wonders.

Our two-week taste of Turkey, both literally and figuratively, culminated with the crossing of the Sea of Marmara from the part of Istanbul that is in Asia Minor to the part that is in Europe.

Now, home in America, as I dress my sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, cut-up celery, yogurt, and the unexpected find of the eggplant and red pepper in olive oil, my taste buds transport me back not only to the flavors of Turkey's delightful cuisine, but to memories of its people and their warm responses as we greeted them each morning with Gunaydin (gew-nigh-dun; "good day") and bade them farewell each evening with Allahaismarladik (ahl-lahs-mar-lah-dik; "I leave you in the care of God – Allah").

Here is a dish that the Turks often serve cold and with yogurt. The note on my recipe card says "Delicious" and indicates that I first made it March 11, 1977, long before I ever dreamed I'd travel to Turkey.

Chop two medium onions and fry in a little olive oil. Add two garlic cloves (crushed), three tomatoes (peeled and chopped), four sprigs parsley (chopped), and salt and pepper to taste. Cook at low heat until tomato just softens (about five minutes).

In the meantime, wash two medium-size eggplants, cut off the stems and make three slits lengthwise in each, stopping about one-fourth inch from the bottom. Holding each slit open, spoon the onion and tomato in. Put the stuffed eggplants in an oven-proof dish, sprinkle with a mixture of two teaspoons sugar, juice of one lemon, and 1/4 cup olive oil. Cover and bake at 350 for 40 minutes (or until tender).

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