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Copyright © 2024 by José Andrés Media | Photography by Thomas Schauer, provided by Ecco

Long after the city’s restaurants have gone to bed, I’m standing on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul watching a young man turn simple ingredients into a masterpiece past midnight. He stuffs a soft roll with shredded lettuce and pickled sweet peppers, then slides a just-grilled meat köfte into the roll. He wraps it all in paper and hands it to me. It’s hot and juicy and just what I need after a night walking through the city streets. The stalls under the bridge that sell the city’s famous fish sandwich, balık ekmek, are all closed. But up top on the street, the bridge is alive with people, mostly men, with their long fishing poles hanging into the water below, hoping to catch sardines and bluefish.

From here, I can see the old city of Istanbul, the home of the sultans and the Ottoman Topkapi Palace, and across the bridge to the more modern heart of Europe’s busiest city. Farther out lies the Bosphorus Strait, where Europe and Asia come together. In this moment, I find myself just where I love to be, one foot in the old and one foot in the new — eating an old recipe that survives in the hands of a young cook. In this part of the world, the curve of the Eastern Mediterranean where east meets west, I am humbled and inspired by how tradition and modernity connect.

Photography provided by Ecco

These connections, these shared cultures that speak through our food, are at the heart of Zaytinya. The best stories to share are the authentic ones, the ones that come from a place and a community with its own history and culture. I always say that I don’t open restaurants, I tell stories. Of course, in restaurants we tell our own versions of those stories, using our own accents — while always aiming to be truthful and respectful. We strive to share those stories with love and joy, with appreciation and admiration.

I came to understand the importance of storytelling more than 20 years ago with the creation of Zaytinya, my restaurant celebrating the food of Greece, Turkey and Lebanon through the delicious little dishes known as mezze.

Photography by Thomas Schauer

Everyone knows I’m from Spain, and ultimately that will always be my identity. It’s where I come from. When I first arrived in Washington, D.C., I told my story through the food from my home country in my first restaurant, Jaleo. Through small plates of garlic shrimp, jamón and piquillo peppers, I introduced the beauty of Spain’s tapas to America. But that was not enough for me or my partners, Roberto Alvarez and Rob Wilder. We had bigger appetites. We wanted to see if we could tell the stories of another place, across the Mediterranean.

In one of the richest parts of the culinary world, I set out to discover the traditions of mezze: small plates of spreads like hummus and labneh, olives, mussels, grape leaves filled with rice, and salads of wild greens to share around a table. I was amazed by how much the ingredients and the recipes — and the people who cook them — connected to my soul.

Photography by Thomas Schauer

Greek Zucchini Fritters

Makes 16 fritters

It’s a mouthful, and many of our diners won’t attempt to say the name of this dish and instead will just point to the menu. But take the opportunity to learn a little Greek: kolokythi (zucchini) plus keftedaki (meatball). No matter how you say it (or not!), it’s one of our favorites: light fritters with a crunchy exterior and a sweet, creamy inside. I first tasted this dish in Santorini, where the rich volcanic soil of the Greek island makes for superb zucchini and tomatoes. If you can use in-season farmers’ market vegetables, the dish will be at its peak, but grocery-store zucchini will get you most of the way there. If you can’t find kefalograviera, manchego cheese can be substituted; just add a pinch more salt.

Caper-yogurt sauce
⅔ cup
Greek yogurt
1 tsp. caper brine, plus 1 Tbsp. capers
¼ tsp. orange blossom water
kosher salt
¼ tsp. dried mint
extra virgin olive oil

2 cups shredded zucchini
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
2 tsp. chopped mint
1 tsp. dried oregano
cup panko bread crumbs
2 ounces kefalograviera cheese, grated or shredded
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground white pepper
2 large egg whites
2 Tbsp. canola oil, plus more if needed

1. To make the caper-yogurt sauce: In a mixing bowl, whisk together yogurt, caper brine, orange blossom water, 2 tsp. water and a pinch salt until smooth. If sauce is too thick, add 1 tsp. water. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
2. To make the fritters: In a large bowl, stir together zucchini, scallions, parsley, mint, oregano, panko, cheese, flour, salt and pepper. In a separate medium bowl, whip egg whites until firm peaks form, then fold into zucchini mixture.
3. Heat canola oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Spoon 1 heaping Tbsp. zucchini batter onto hot pan to form fritters, using a spoon to pat out to 2 inches wide. Cook, turning once, until nicely browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer fritters to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.
4. Continue with remaining batter, taking care not to crowd pan. If you need to add more oil, be sure to let it get hot before adding batter.
5. To serve, remove caper-yogurt sauce from refrigerator, give it a good stir then spread in a shallow serving bowl set on a serving platter. Top sauce with whole capers, sprinkle with dried mint and drizzle with a little olive oil. Arrange fritters around sauce.

Photography by Thomas Schauer

Cucumber Melon Soup

Makes 4 servings

This summer soup is easy to play with and a great way to cool off on hot nights. If you like it more herbaceous and less sweet, add more cucumber and less melon, or maybe blend in some basil or parsley leaves. If you like the purée to be creamier, add more yogurt to the blender and use less as a garnish. Keep it cold in your refrigerator and serve in chilled bowls. We call this dish Cretan Cucumber Soup on our menu due to a garnish of crushed dakos or paximadia, which are traditional barley rusks from Crete. These dense croutons are found in bakeries all over the island and are often topped with chopped fresh tomatoes and feta, but we love the texture and flavor they add to this sweet, creamy soup. Look for them at specialty grocers and online. But don’t worry if you can’t find them; pita chips also work very well.

1 English cucumber
1 lime
1 honeydew melon, about 5 pounds
1 bunch fresh mint, leaves only
½ tsp. dried mint
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. Greek yogurt, divided
½ cup pita chips or dakos, broken into ½-inch pieces
flaky sea salt
Aleppo pepper
extra virgin olive oil

1. Peel cucumber, halve lengthwise and remove seeds. Finely dice half of cucumber and set aside other half (you want about 1 cup diced cucumber). Place diced cucumber in a bowl and zest lime over top using a microplane.
2. Remove rind from melon by first cutting off top and bottom, exposing flesh. Stand melon cut side down on a cutting board and remove rind with a sharp knife, slicing from top to bottom to remove it in strips; make sure to trim away all of rind. Halve melon, scoop out seeds and discard. Finely dice 1 cup melon and add to diced cucumber. Set aside remaining melon.
3. Divide mint leaves in half, then thinly slice half while leaving other half whole. Add sliced mint leaves to diced melon and cucumber. Stir to combine, then cover and refrigerate.
4.Chop remaining melon and cucumber, and place in a blender. Add reserved mint leaves, dried mint and 2 Tbsp. Greek yogurt. Juice zested lime into blender, then purée until totally smooth, about 3 minutes. Strain purée through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher or container and refrigerate until cold, about 20 minutes.
5. When ready to serve, spoon ¼ cup Greek yogurt into 4 chilled bowls, then divide chilled diced cucumber and melon among bowls. Remove chilled soup from refrigerator. Stir soup briskly in case separation occurred, then pour into bowls and top with pita chips. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and Aleppo pepper, then drizzle with olive oil.

From Zaytinya by José Andrés. Copyright © 2024 by José Andrés Media. Excerpted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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