As practical as it’s beautiful, this fine book should be on every kitchen bookshelf, writes Laurel Bibby

This is much more than just a cookbook. Authors Joy E Stocke and Angie Brenner incorporate anecdotes from their travels in Turkey, scattering stories about the history, religion and culture of the country amongst their recipes. With Jason Varney’s stunning photographs and designs evocative of Middle Eastern art, this beautifully-produced book ensures an immersive reading (and cooking) experience.

I’m a keen amateur cook, albeit a recently graduated student – a species notorious for cooking pesto pasta and little else – but Stocke and Brenner’s desire to streamline traditional recipes for the home chef can instill even the most nervous chef with the confidence to succeed in making the perfect meze.

Ethnic cuisine can be daunting, but Tree of Life uses staples you’re likely to find either in your own cupboard or the local supermarket. The recipes are simple, with short, easy-to-follow instructions, and packed full of exciting new flavours.

I started with halloumi. This salty cheese is ubiquitous, and the average home cook is most likely to simply throw it in slabs into a pan or onto a grill and hope for the best. But Tree of Life has an easy method for a much more impressive dish.

Combining halloumi with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and capers, and scattering with cherry tomatoes and parsley, it becomes a complementary combination of light veg and dressing with heavier, salty halloumi. I served mine alongside the sautéed mushrooms with allspice and black pepper for a flavoursome starter.

Next, I went for the Aegean tuna steak. Infused with earthy herbs, this tender fish is the perfect main, and takes less than half an hour to make. I served mine with the traditional Turkish green beans and roasted potatoes with bay leaves (the potatoes hold the title of the best I’ve ever tasted, and aren’t at all tricky to cook, either).

Aegean Tuna Steak
Aegean Tuna Steak

Finally, putting a Turkish twist on a Western classic, the sesame thumbprint cookies are quick to make, packed with flavour and sure to be a real crowd-pleaser. The mixture of orange zest in the dough with fig jam on top creates light, sweet biscuits, which I paired with apricots stuffed with Greek yoghurt and drizzled with honey for a summery dessert plate.

Published by Burgess Lea Press – which donates 100% of its after-tax profits to food-related causes – Tree of Life is accessible to even the most basic of home cooks. It delivers a gorgeous insight into Turkish cuisine, and should be on the shelf of every keen cook.

Three to try

Grilled Halloumi with Lemon Caper Sauce
Serves 4 to 6

½ cup (120 ml) olive oil
¼ cup (60 ml) lemon juice
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon capers
½ pound (227 g) halloumi
Sunflower, grapeseed or canola oil, for brushing the grill
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped parsley

Heat a grill or heat a stovetop grill pan to medium-high.

In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil over low heat until warm, but not hot. Whisk in the lemon juice, salt, oregano and capers. Remove from the heat but keep the sauce warm.

Lay the cheese on a work surface horizontally. (Halloumi comes in approximately 3 by 4-inch / 75 by 100-mm blocks.) Cut into ½-inch (13-mm) slices for a total of 8 pieces.

Brush the grill with sunflower oil. Lay the cheese slices on the grill and heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until they brown and show grill marks. Flip the cheese and grill until lightly browned, for 2 to 3 more minutes.

Put the grilled cheese on a warm platter. Scatter the tomatoes over the cheese and pour the warm dressing over it. Season with pepper and top with the parsley.

Grilled Halloumi
Grilled Halloumi

Aegean Tuna Steak with Thyme and Oregano
Serves 6

3 tablespoons dried thyme, divided
3 tablespoons dried oregano, divided
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 pounds (910 g) tuna steak, cut into
6 (1-inch / 25-mm) thick portions
½ cup (120 ml) olive oil, plus more for brushing the skillet
¼ cup (60 ml) lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Flaky sea salt
Lemon wedges, for serving

In a shallow bowl large enough to hold the tuna steaks, combine 2½ tablespoons of the thyme, 2½ tablespoons of the oregano and the lemon zest. Add the tuna and turn to coat on all sides. Let the steaks marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Whisk in the remaining thyme, oregano and the salt.

Brush a large heavy skillet with olive oil and heat over high heat until a drop of water sizzles in the pan. Lay the tuna steaks in the pan in a single layer and cook for 4 minutes. Flip and cook for 4 minutes more, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 115°F (46°C) for medium rare. Transfer the steaks to a serving platter.

Pour the lemon juice mixture into the skillet and whisk over high heat until bubbling. Spoon the warm sauce over the tuna, season with flaky sea salt and serve with lemon wedges.

Sesame Thumbprint Cookies with Fig Jam
Makes 36 cookies

1 cup (450 g / 2 sticks) butter
½ cup (110 g) packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest
2½ cups (315 g) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (150 g) sesame seeds
1⁄3 cup (103 g) fig jam

Heat the oven to 350°F (175°C) and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

In a medium mixing bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites, and set the egg whites aside. Add the yolks to the butter mixture 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla and the orange zest.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and salt. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and stir to create a firm dough.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg whites until frothy. Pour the sesame seeds onto a small plate and set it next to the bowl of egg whites.

To make the cookies, shape 2 teaspoons of dough into a ball. Roll it in the egg whites and then in the sesame seeds and set on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough, placing the cookies about 1 inch (25 mm) apart.

With your thumb, make an indentation in each cookie. Lightly fill the indentation with ¼ to ½ teaspoon fig jam. Do not overfill.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cookies are a delicate golden brown and slightly puffy. If the cookies begin browning too fast, lay a piece of parchment over the top for the last 5 minutes of baking.

Tree of Life by Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner, published by Burgess Lea Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group, is out now for £20.

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