The New York-based chefs make recipes from Caroline Eden’s evocative travelogue and cookbook Black Sea.
Journalist Caroline Eden's first glimpse of the Black Sea came through a window of a Turkish bus six years ago. On a summer holiday, she traveled from London to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, passing through Germany, Croatia, Serbia, and then Turkey, where, after a jarring incident involving a road accident, the “reassuring strength” of the water, “its sink and rise bleeding out to the farthest reaches of the horizon,” soothed and calmed her. “That simple moment of first seeing the Black Sea ... would become my sharpest memory of the entire trip,” she writes in the prelude to her travelogue and cookbook, which, named for that body of water, was published in the U.K. last fall and arrived stateside last month. “The reoccurring picture in my mind of faces pressed to the grimy windows, and the steady blue-grey waves, triggers the same feeling, then and now: an almost spiritual heaviness.” Back home in Scotland, the memory came back to her, setting off questions about the region and the cities that dot its coastline: “What lies hidden? And what can its foodways tell us about the backstory of the Black Sea’s communities and landscape?”
The answers live in the pages of Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light, which has provided Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbolt, co-owners of King restaurant in New York City, their first glimpse of the eponymous body of water (beyond a visit by de Boer to Istanbul). As the early morning West Village light streams into the dining room, chairs still stacked on tables, co-chefs, best friends, and fellow Brits (and 2018 F&W Best New Chefs) de Boer and Shadbolt are breaking down stalks of rainbow chard and hulling and slicing a pile of dull red strawberries that haven’t yet reached their peak. They set one pot of water to boil for rice and another for blanching the leafy green, toast pine nuts on the stove, and stir yogurt and cream cheese together until it looks like a creamy pudding.
They are trying out two of Eden’s dishes, and although the book’s culinary tour stops in Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria, the recipes for both Black Sea Börek and Red, Hot, and Cool Strawberries are Turkish. The börek is from Trabzon, the city where the author sampled the savory layered rice, chard, and feta pie; the fresh fruit is cooked into a compote seasoned with chile and served atop yogurt as a summertime dessert in Istanbul. The chefs have neither prepared nor eaten either of these dishes before, but while Eden provides specific ingredient amounts for each, they see no reason to adhere to them. That’s not how they cook. De Boer thinks, especially when you’re dealing with a savory preparation, “It’s actually really important not to follow the recipe.” You must read the recipe, of course. But then “think about the critical steps, put it away, and don’t look at it again.”
And so de Boer and Shadbolt make a few technical adaptations. They macerate their berries in sugar and acid before placing them on the stove; this releases their juices and brings out their sweetness. Shadbolt notices that the börek recipe calls for chard leaves, but sees no point in wasting the meatier stems; they provide extra flavor as well as a textural contrast. Eden adds the vegetable to the dish raw before baking it, but the women of King prefer to blanch it first, so it will cook more evenly in the oven. And because the stalks are denser than the leaves, they require a longer stay in the pot; de Boer takes a few extra minutes to blanch the parts separately. She decides to treat the rice and raisins as a separate layer, leaving the chard, onions, cheese and nuts as another, for a more visually dramatic effect. She leaves the grain a little soupy so it doesn’t dry out during the baking process, and spreads it out on a sheet pan to cool down before assembling the börek.
Shadbolt admits she hasn’t used phyllo since culinary school. De Boer has a vivid memory of it from her trip to Istanbul, of “going to the baklava houses where they were making all the phyllo dough and watching through the glass windows, almost like hospital-style; all the men in white coats, almost throwing their sheets like bed sheets.” It becomes clear she has had some hands-on practice with the pastry as she begins to lay it in the baking dish. “Don’t be too precise about it,” she instructs, encouraging imperfections: The shredded bits “give you a little bit of extra crunch” when baked. “It’s a complete fallacy that things that are more perfect are nicer. Whenever you’re eating something family-style, everyone’s instinct is to automatically go attack the piece that’s a little bit too brown or a little bit juicy or—what I mean to say is that I’m intentionally shredding this,” she admits with a laugh.
As the börek bakes and the strawberries simmer in their sugary chile-spiked syrup, the staff trickling in to prep for lunch service is invited to taste the efforts of their employers’ labors. The pudding is better than those lackluster strawberries might have indicated. Cayenne, what they had on hand, has been used in lieu of chile de árbol, allowing some control over the heat level, which creeps in behind the sweet fruit and slightly savory yogurt mixture and steadily builds. “It tastes like cheesecake,” de Boer says approvingly. She wishes she’d left the börek in the oven longer for that phyllo to get crispier but likes the texture of the rice and the salty pops of feta. “I like how mellow it is,” Shadbolt says.
The third co-owner of King, Annie Shi, a native New Yorker, arrives just in time for tasting. As the general manager, she runs the front of house and develops the wine list and cocktail menu. She delighted in the multiple references to vodka in Black Sea (with a special interest in the yellow vodka cocktail, a simple infusion of lemon rind and black peppercorns into the spirit) and admires the travel photography.
For de Boer and Shadbolt, reading the cookbook proved a novel experience. Usually, they explain, they’re drawn to food-forward books that rely on history, religion, and geography to make sense of the food and give it a context. Black Sea inverts that. The recipes become almost like another kind of illustration; they punctuate Eden’s travel writing and offer readers a way to connect with places they haven’t been, people they haven’t met.
Shadbolt mentions a passage that hit home—a description of a picnic, derailed by rain and salvaged with some makeshift ingenuity (a blowtorch is involved). Eden watches as her host puts a trestle table together and sets it, complete with tablecloth and flowers. It is, she observes, “a natural, easy scene, despite the spectacular effort, but such is the way in Turkey where hospitality is generous and uncomplicated, and food is taken seriously, but not too seriously.” This, Shadbolt says, is how she, de Boer, and Shi envisioned King, and if you’d stood there, sharing the börek and strawberry pudding with the staff as the sunlight poured in, brighter now than before the cooking began, you’d have felt that easy, ample care between people and in the food in front of you.