There are plenty of well-known places to take cooking classes in the Triangle. Some are in settings that resemble elite culinary schools or well-appointed sets for TV shows. They routinely attract top-tier chefs and cookbook writers, and charge $40 to well over $100 for registration.
Classes taught at the Divan Center in Cary are not so elegant, and they’re not taught by professional cooks. But at $20 a class, including a deliciously authentic meal and lively conversation, it’s a best-kept secret worth spoiling.
The Divan Center serves as a cultural hub for Turkish-Americans and others interested in Turkish life. It is located in a generic brick office building directly across from the grand entrance to SAS. First-timers surprised by the locked main entrance don’t linger long in the parking lot, however, as a welcoming wave directs them to a side door.
An enticing aroma wafts through the basic but immaculate kitchen, which features an enameled Turkish double tea kettle resting on the coils of an electric stove. The instructor and volunteers are a housewife, an engineer and an artist who take turns delivering lessons on how to prepare typical Turkish meals.
Half of the 10 participants in a recent class, none of them native Turks, have lived in or travelled to Turkey at least once. Some study the language and all dream of visiting. Until they can, however, they want to learn how to incorporate the Mediterranean country’s foodways into their Southern diet.
Elif Olsun, who confesses nerves at leading her first class, explains the three dishes she will demonstrate: Mercimek Corbasi (red lentil soup), Kuru Dolma (stuffed dried vegetables) and Sutlac (baked rice pudding). Ultimately, each is a success, leading to applause from students and promises to cook them at home.
Olsun involves class members in rinsing the lentils and chopping vegetables, which are simmered raw with the lentils and water. When all ingredients are soft, they are poured into a blender for a creamy finish. The soup is garnished with a swirl of browned butter cooked with paprika and cayenne. Olsun explains that Turkish home cooks are adept at coring small eggplant and stringing the empty pockets to dry in the sun. Here, it is simpler to purchase the dried vegetables in specialty shops, like Harmony Mediterranean Market, near Triangle Town Center in Cary, where several participants cluster after class. You can also order them online. (Most other ingredients can be found in traditional grocery stores.)
After the dried vegetables are rehydrated in hot water, they are lightly stuffed with a mixture of cooked rice, pine nuts, currants and savory spices. The filled shells are stood in a single layer in a casserole, then steamed with water and olive oil until tender.
Proving the importance of rice to the Turkish diet, Olsun shows how to finish the meal with a rich baked rice pudding. The pudding is thickened with a slurry of sweet rice flour (pirinҫ unu) and ladled into glazed clay ramekins that are tucked into a roasting pan filled with a shallow pool of water. When the creamy pudding is set, it is briefly placed under the broiler to slightly scorch and caramelize the surface.
The Divan Center, 1903 N. Harrison Ave., in Cary will celebrate a season of cooking classes with a public potluck Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. For details, call 919-386-3464.
Mercimek Corbasi (red lentil soup)
Adapted from Elif Olsun, The Divan Center.
1 cup red lentils, washed and drained
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
1 tsp. red pepper-eggplant paste*
1 bay leaf, preferably Turkish
2 whole black peppercorns
3 cups water
½ stick salted butter
1 Tbsp. Spanish-style paprika
1-3 tsp. cayenne pepper, to taste
1 lemon, quartered
Place all ingredients except for butter, paprika and cayenne in a medium stock pot. Simmer on medium-low for about 30 minutes or until lentils and vegetables are very tender. Remove bay leaf.
Carefully transfer mixture to a blender (or use stick-style immersion blender) and mix thoroughly, adding a little water if too thick. Pour creamed soup into bowls.
Melt butter over medium-low heat in a small pan with paprika and cayenne. When butter is lightly browned and the mixture begins to bubble, drizzle equally over soup in bowls. Serve immediately with lemon (squeeze juice into soup) and fresh bread.
* Such as Marco Polo, available from specialty markets or online.