From Rembrandt to Rothko, Walters Art Gallery director Gary Vikan's cooking has mirrored the world of art as he moved from formal to abstract styles. "I've gone from being very bookish to being much more intuitive," he says.
Vikan has traveled extensively throughout his life, and food memories are embedded in his recollections. There was the time, for instance, a decade or so ago, when he was traveling in Turkey. He had reached the town of Bursa, and settled in at a little restaurant in a tent. "I was traveling alone," he says, "and I have the clearest memory of having this meal served to me I remember the electricity went off while I was sitting there, and candles and heaters simply appeared, and everyone went on."
That memorable dish was Iskanderkebab, braised lamb served on pita bread with yogurt and tomatoes. Vikan has become something of a master at preparing it, as he has, after many years of refining his equipment and technique, at making cappuccino. "I make as good a cup as exists this side of the Atlantic," he says earnestly.
He began cooking seriously while he was in graduate school, after he and his wife had spent a year in France and fallen in love with the food. "I went out and got one of those enamel Le Creuset pots and Julia Child's first two volumes," Vikan recalls. I'd make these five-course meals -- almost like an academic exercise, but I loved doing it."
These days he's working on his pasta, aiming for the clarity and simplicity of dishes served in Italy. "Everybody can do it pretty good, but to get it just right "
Here is Vikan's recipe for Iskanderkebab. He emphasizes high-quality ingredients are essential, and suggests serving the dish with good, cold retsina -- "get the real thing" -- and dishes of different kinds of olives, and maybe some diced feta cheese, "just to nibble."
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 lamb shanks
1 head of garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
2 to 3 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut in small chunks
several sprigs fresh oregano
a pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon Pernod (optional)
1 1/2 sticks of butter
2 rounds of pita bread
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup yogurt (see note)
extra olive oil, for brushing on pita
In a heavy cast-iron pot or Dutch oven, place 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and sear the lamb shanks on all sides over high heat. Reduce the heat to very low, add the remaining oil except 1 teaspoon) and the garlic. Cover tightly and cook for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, place the tomatoes, oregano, and sugar in a medium saucepan and "gently, gently bubble" for 1 1/2 hours. Half an hour before the sauce is done, add the Pernod, if using.
Before serving, heat butter in a skillet until it is a "nice and nutty" brown, skimming the solids as they form. Brush pita rounds with a little olive oil and place in oven for a couple of minutes to heat.
To serve, place a pita round on a plate. Pull the lamb off the bone in chunks and put it on the pita. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Top with tomato sauce and yogurt and drizzle brown butter over all. Serve immediately.
Note: Vikan recommends using real Middle Eastern yogurt, which has a heavier consistency than domestic brands. Or drain domestic yogurt for a few hours. Line a fine sieve with cheesecloth, place yogurt in sieve and place over a bowl. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.
Pub Date: 7/10/96