To Scott Akdogan, a dinner is about more than eating.
In a 22-year Air Force career and subsequent stints in property development, Akdogan found himself moving every two or three years. "It was like throwing down the dice -- new city, new state, and now I have to make a new circle of friends. The dinner table is the best place to meet someone."
Now selling real estate and living in Niagara Falls, Akdogan, The News' January Cook of the Month, frequently throws dinner parties with his partner, Artie Vanderpool, an interior decorator. "Not being from Western New York, it's not easy to break in," Akdogan said. "Dinners are also a great way to meet clients, and real estate is a contact sport. It's the personal relationship that matters."
Akdogan grew up "a nice Jewish boy" in Boston, Mass. His father taught electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his mother was a registered nurse. She adored Julia Child, and so did her son Scott.
By the time he was a teenager, Akdogan was regularly making dinner for his family, he said. "I've always liked to cook, and feeding people makes me happy," he said. "People are happy around a dinner table."
His enthusiasm for cooking led him to apply to, and be accepted at, culinary school. But his parents said no, and he got a business degree instead.
Then he decided to join the Air Force. In his postings around the world, in countries including Germany, the Greek island of Crete and Turkey, he took advantage of the chance to soak up local cuisines. After retiring, he worked in Miami and moved to Niagara Falls with Vanderpool after the Florida real estate market collapsed.
At first, it was to be a part-time home, Akdogan said. Now they're renovating their house, and planning a revamped kitchen.
After reviewing his favorite dishes, Akdogan decided to share a menu based on one of the most ambitious dinners he ever arranged: a Seder, or ritual Jewish dinner, for about 500 people. It was held at an Air Force base in Adana, Turkey, a country that is 99 percent Muslim.
It happened this way: Akdogan, then an Air Force sergeant and nuclear weapons specialist, was living off-base in downtown Adana. There, with the help of neighbors in his apartment building, he learned the basics of Turkish cuisine.
"There was a rabbi and four Jews on base, and we decided we wanted to have a Seder dinner," and invite members of the tiny local Jewish community, Akdogan said. He agreed to handle the cooking.
When word of the invitation started to spread among the locals, the guest list mushroomed rapidly. Complicating arrangements were U.S. and Turkish background checks all guests had to pass, he said.
So with a staff of five, he was able to offer a dinner of pilaf, seasoned rice studded with nuts and herbs, over zucchini pancakes similar to the familiar latkes. The dinner was a resounding success, and made Turkish television, he said.
"Fortunately, Seder dinner takes a while, so there was no rushing to get all the courses out at the same time."
Akdogan made a few changes for this meal, like adding chicken to the pilaf.
"I'm putting chicken in because this is Western New York, and if it's all vegetables, no one's going to try it," he said. A regular Turkish meal would generally involve vegetables, grains, cheese and little or no meat, he said.
All of these ingredients -- like zaatar, a spice mixture, and pomegranate molasses -- are available locally at supermarkets or Arab groceries. The idea was to encourage cooks to try something wonderful but a little out of their comfort zone, he said. "I wanted to offer the spirit of Turkish cooking, on the light side."
> ISTANBUL PILAF
8 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup chopped zucchini
1/2 cup dried apricots
1 cup diced yellow onion
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
2 tablespoons zaatar spice
2 pounds boneless, skinless, chicken breast, shredded
2 1/2 cups hot chicken stock
4 tablespoons almonds, blanched, slivered
4 tablespoons pistachios, soaked in hot water for 5 minutes, drained and shelled
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
2 teaspoons saffron, soaked in a tablespoon of warm water
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in large pot. Add zucchini, apricots, onion and pepper, and saute until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in zaatar, and remove to plate.
Add 2 tablespoons of butter to pot. Add chicken and saute 4-6 minutes, stirring. Add 1/2 cup chicken stock, and cook until chicken is no longer pink. Put aside.
Roast almonds and pistachios in separate small pan for about 3-5 minutes. Put aside.
Wash rice several times with warm water, and drain. Cover rice with hot water and leave for 15 minutes, then drain. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in pot. Add rice and saute for 4-6 minutes, stirring. Add 2 cups hot chicken stock and soaked saffron to rice and butter.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover pot over low heat. After 5-7 minutes, add cooked chicken, nuts, vegetables and gently stir with a fork. Replace lid, and cook until rice absorbs water.
Remove pot from heat. Remove lid. Place clean kitchen towel over pot and replace lid. Let pilaf stand 8-10 minutes before serving, preferably over warm zucchini pancakes.
> ZUCCHINI PANCAKES
1 pound zucchini, coarsely grated
2 cups chopped green onions
4 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill (or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried)
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1/2 teaspoon each salt and ground pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (about 3 ounces)
2/3 cup chopped walnuts (about 3 ounces)
Place zucchini in colander. Salt, mix and let drain at least 30 minutes. Squeeze zucchini to remove liquid, and press dry between layers of paper towels.
Combine zucchini, chopped green onions, eggs, flour, chopped dill, parsley, tarragon, salt and pepper in medium bowl. Mix well. Fold in crumbled feta cheese. (Zucchini mixture can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Stir to blend before continuing.)
Fold chopped walnuts into zucchini mixture. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and place baking sheet in oven.
Cover bottom of large nonstick skillet with olive oil, applying medium-high heat. Working in batches, drop zucchini mixture into skillet by heaping tablespoonfuls. Fry until pancakes are golden brown and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer each batch of pancakes to baking sheet in oven to keep warm. Serve warm.
> POMEGRANATE-CUMIN DRESSING
7 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 1/2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons sliced fresh mint leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon ground cumin
6 tablespoons minced shallots
Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk first 5 ingredients in bowl. Mix in shallots; season with salt and pepper.
(If you can't find pomegranate molasses, you can make your own by boiling 1 cup pomegranate juice until reduced to 3 tablespoons syrup, about 15 minutes.)
Name: Scott Akdogan
Residence: Niagara Falls
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to instant meal: Vegetable stir-fry
Guilty pleasure: DiCamillo's carrot cake
ON THE WEB: More of Scott's recipes, including date-stuffed phyllo cigars, at blogs.buffalonews.com/hungryformore