Silk Road: Tbilisi Chicken Stew

In my recent trip to Tbilisi, I bought a clay baking dish (ketsi) from a subway vendor. We communicated animatedly via miming. Gesturing creatively, she urged me to make chicken in the ketsi (or, so I think!). I also picked up a melange of spices at a street market, from an equally warm vendor whose enthusiastic chatter was translated by her young daughter. This is my homage to the gorgeous Georgian ladies.

Dairy and meat is not a common duo, but inspired by the Tbilisi experience, I present a version of shkmeruli, albeit with some spices (the above street-market spices) and a light, fragrant broth. Enjoy!

Special tools:

None.

Ingredients

  • 3.5 lbs chicken (whole OR thighs on the bone) + salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup beet greens, finely chopped, dry roasted, optionally, for about 4 minutes (measures 1/2 cup after processing)
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • Georgian spices: 1 tsp Utskho suneli (“foreign” spice or blue fenugreek powder) + 2 tsps kharcho (mixed spices)
  • 10 sage leaves
  • Topping (optional): Georgian Ajika, a chilli-garlic powder

Method

Wipe the chicken pieces dry with kitchen towel and sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides. Brown both sides of chicken in a heavy bottomed pan. If using a claypot, line the claypot with the greens and place the browned chicken pieces on it. Deglaze the heavy bottomed pan with little water and pour on the chicken. If using an enamel iron pot (Le Cruset), add the greens directly and there is no need to explicitly deglaze.

Mix the Georgian spices in milk and pour gently over the chicken. Sprinkle the sage leaves all over the chicken.

Bake covered at 325 F for 1 hour. If not done, remove lid, baste and bake uncovered until interior temp to 165 F. Serve hot with topping (optional).

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. Just a couple of weeks before my travel to the Caucasus, I had experimented with a citrus-milk-chicken stew. In a Baader-Meinhof coincidence I ran into shkmeruli -chicken stewed in milk- at Sakhli, ostensibly one of the top Georgian restaurants in Tbilisi. My version here is slightly different from this classic Georgian dish and I present the citrus chicken below.
  2. If you don’t have Georgian spices, you can substitute with mix of garam masala and coriander powder.
  3. When using chicken thighs, I skin it to reduce the chicken fat in broth.
  4. Of course, any greens can be used instead of beet greens. make sure they are finely diced.
  5. Claypot is fun to use; but I find the LeCruset more convenient since I can brown and cook in the same pot.
  6. The milk in the stew curdles– providing little cheese curds and a tasty, light broth.
  7. Ajika is reminiscent of the Maharashtrian garlic powder (with chilli, coconut, sesame). Almost all cultures –East Asian to Indian to Mexican– seem to have a version of this lip-smacking hot, pungent topping.
  8. Citrus Chicken: Here is a floral chicken stewed in milk, that is equally gorgeous. Substitute the Georgian spices with:
    Zest of 1 lemon, 2 oranges + 1 orange cut into pieces + 1 tsp ground cardamom + 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon + 9-10 garlic pods, skinned, smashed and softened in 2 tbsp oil
    In fact adding the zest at the end gives a stronger citrus aroma to the dish.

Silk Road: Georgian Salad

I was blown away by the Georgian salad which I had in Tbilisi and then again in the Qazbegi mountains. Greek-salad-style chunky, the ingredients are reminiscent of the Indian Kachumber (tomatoes, cucumber, onion). I have no doubt in my mind that the salads of these regions of the Silk Road have taught each other a thing or two.

Conspicuously absent are greens (arugula or kale or even the ubiquitous lettuce). Here I use seasonal green pea shoots, albeit in the pesto. I drop the cucumber, since we are already well into Autumn. I dare to add some raw beet (spiralized, of course, masquerading alongside the sliced Spanish onions) and a handful of the micro greens. Dressed generously in a walnut pesto, this salad is bound to steal your heart.

Special tools:

Food processor (for pesto); spiralizer (for beet).

Ingredients

  • Pesto: 2 cups (green pea shoots and a little radish micro-greens) + 1 cup walnuts, toasted with one dried red chilli + 1/4 cup cheese + 2 tbsp vinegar or lemon juice + salt, pepper to taste + 1/3 cup EVOO
  • 2 cups medium sized tomatoes, halved or quartered + 1 Spanish red onion + 1 cup spiralized beet (raw) + 1/2 cup (pea shoots & micro radish greens)
  • Topping: EVOO, a few crushed walnuts

Method

Make the pesto in a food processor. Mix the salad ingredients. Scatter 3-4 dollops of pesto and a dash of the topping.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. In the right season, you can add chunks of cucumber to the salad.
  2. Ideally I would have added parmesan cheese; instead I used cubes of Manchego cheese and a little goat cheese here.
  3. Beet is a very common ingredient of the region and I unabashedly use it in the salad here.
  4. In the Georgian salad the pesto is not mixed with the ingredients but placed in chunks over it. My friend even mistook it for broccoli.

Silk Road: Olive Trahana

I was exposed to trahana on my recent trip to the Caucasus: a sour bulgur. “Sour, how?” you may ask. The grain is steeped in buttermilk and then dehydrated (traditionally, sun dried). I believe there are many Grecian pasta versions with similar name, and, even Lebanese (kishk). As soon as I was back to base, the grain was mail-ordered, which promptly arrived from Turkey.

I experimented with a simple, no-fuss, savory porridge. I discovered that olives and trahana is a marriage made in heaven! Was it my Asian taste-buds? I don’t know; I grew up on neither olives nor trahana. This is certainly worth a try. Enjoy!

Special tools:

None.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup trahana
  • a dozen shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, thinly sliced and dry roasted in wok for 2-3 minutes
  • 1 tbsp (store-bought) olive tapenade
  • 1/6 cup diced shallots/Spanish red onions
  • crushed red pepper
  • Greens: 1/4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

Method

In a wok, soften the onions with a little oil from the tapenade jar (or just use a little olive oil). Add the tapenade and the trahana and stir till well mixed. Add 1 1/2 cups hot water, salt to taste and cover. Cook on low-medium for 20 minutes till the water is absorbed. Let rest for 5 mins (the grains will absorb some more moisture). Mix in the mushrooms and greens.

Serve hot with a dash of crushed red pepper and some tapenade.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. Note that there is a sweet version of (Turkish) trahana too. Make sure that for this dish, you are using the savory (sour) version.
  2. I use shiitake for some texture and earthiness. I used the stems of the shiitake to make the broth to cook the grains: rough-chop the stems and throw them into the heating water. In fact, I did not even filter out the stems when using the broth/hot water to cook the grains.
  3. You can add other veggies of your choice for texture, color, taste. To retain their identity and character, I recommend folding them in at the end, rather than cooking together with the grain.
  4. The wide mouth of the wok helps in cooking the grain effortlessly, without stirring frequently etc.
  5. I tried a thinly shaved cheese (Manchego) topping that went well too. Perhaps not as magical as the olive tapenade.
  6. The trahana becomes naturally creamy. You can control the final texture by controlling the level of moisture that remains in the end.

Honeynut Squash: Easy Petit-Dumplings

Gnocchi is an Italian dumpling made with flour and a mainstay ingredient (usually potatoes) and another usual suspect, egg. Poached in water and dressed in a light sauce, it is an absolutely delicious pasta. Italians, take a bow!

Gnocchi-making takes some expertise. The flour in the classical gnocchi plays a vital structural role for handling and shape-retention (with egg) in the unforgiving boiling water.

I present here a friendly version that you can knead simply, roll, cut and shape. I strike out the egg and cut the flour down to absolute minimum (just enough to absorb the excess moisture). And, just microwave (instead of poaching) to retain the delicate shape of the dumplings. With squash as the only ingredient -and, potatoes as the invisible delivery agent-, the pristine honeynut, with a dab of EVOO, shines. Enjoy!

Special tools:

Food processor; potato masher or ricer.

Ingredients

  • 1 honeynut squash halved lengthwise and the internal pulp and seeds removed
  • 3-4 small potatoes
  • 1/4 cup flour (buckwheat)
  • Seasoning: salt and pepper to taste
  • Dressing: EVOO and sea salt

Method

Place the halved honeynut squash with the cut side up on a baking tray. Brush with EVOO. Roast at 400 F for 30 mins. Run the squash, with skin, in the processor.

Wrap the potatoes in damp kitchen paper and microwave for 4 minutes; peel and mash while still warm, mixing in the processed squash. Add the seasoning and the flour to knead lightly. Cut the dough into four equal-sized pieces. Roll each piece into a rope of 1/2 inch thickness and cut into (roughly) 20 little cylinders. Lightly mark with a fork. Place on a platter and refrigerate till ready to cook.

Cover with damp kitchen towel and microwave 20 at a time for 1 minute. Mix lightly in the dressing and serve.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. The recipe makes 20 X 4 = 80 gnocchis.
  2. Using buckwheat flour and omitting the eggs gives gluten-free, vegan dumplings.
  3. If the squash is hard to cut, microwave for 2 minutes or so till it just softens enough for the knife to run through.
  4. The skin of the squash will be in bits but not completely pulverized. if you don’t like this texture, you can remove the peel. My recommendation is to use the peel: it breaks the monotony of a smooth texture. Also, the peel has more nutrients than the interior flesh.
  5. I used buckwheat flour, but you can use regular white flour. And, even an egg.
  6. Even just EVOO makes this little gnocchis irresistible. But you could use other elaborate sauces of your liking.
  7. See the Honeynut Squash Mousse, for an alternative treatment. Simple too.

Silk Road: Lavash to Swirly Roomali Roti

Along the Silk Road theme, I present homemade Lavash bread of the Caucasus. Perhaps the precursor of the Indian Roomali Roti (literally, handkerchief bread). [I am sure that the Jewish matzo is a close sibling somewhere on that taxonomy.]

Lavash is traditionally made in a tonir (a tandoor) in Armenia, where the incredibly thin, oval, flat bread is slapped on the inside of an extremely hot tonir and the bread cooks rapidly. A creative chef came up with the idea of using an inverted bowl/kerai/wok to make the handkerchief-thin bread rapidly in the kitchen or even at roti counters at restaurants. I have to research the origin of this ingenious idea, that is so ubiquitous in India.

I must confess that this is a difficult one and requires some flat-bread (roti) making expertise. But if you have some basics under your belt, this is well worth a meditative challenge. It is amazing what just flour and water can produce! In this rendition, I give a swirly take on the classic with activated charcoal.

Special tools:

Rolling pin and board; thick bowl or wok or kerai.

Ingredients

  • White dough: 1/2 cup whole durum wheat flour (atta) + 1/2 cup white all-purpose (maida) flour + salt
  • Black dough:  1/4 cup atta + 1/4 cup maida + 1/2 tsp food-grade charcoal powder + salt

Method

A. It is important that the dough be soft- make each dough with water. Rest them for at least 15-30 minutes, covered with damp kitchen towel.

B. Divide each dough into eight equal-sized parts. Then roll each in your palm of your hand into ropes. If not malleable, rest the dough again to make it so till you can get an even rope of length 10-12 inches. Pair a white and black rope (the black will be slimmer than the white) and swirl into a disk as shown in the pictures. Cover with damp kitchen towel and let them rest for at least 10 minutes.

C. Using plenty of bench flour (white flour), flatten the disk and roll using your pin until the roti is at least 10 inches in diameter. Cover with damp kitchen towel and let it rest.

D. Heat the inverted kerai/wok on HIGH heat- you will be making the roti on the concave surface (not convex!).

E. While the wok heats, for the final “roll” use your hands to slap the roti from one hand to the other, while flipping it (I learnt from the Armenian women –who are primarily the Lavash makers– that you can use your forearm as well while flipping, particularly since the traditional Lavash is large and oblong shaped). When your knuckle shows through– it is thin enough.

F. The kerai must be very hot by now; place the roti on it. Flip after 30 seconds and 15 seconds on the other side. Don’t overcook- then it will harden.

G. Fold into quarters and keep covered till ready to serve. Go to Step E. to make the next roti.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. You can always make just a white roomali roti. 1 1/2 cups flour (50 % atta, 50% maida by volume) makes 8.
  2. Do NOT destroy any sophisticated (not-stick etc) wok on this. I used a much-beaten, old kerai (that was on its way out) for this and it turned out perfect. Time and over-use had already seasoned it. Resurrected, now it occupies a new, special place in my cabinet.
  3. Flatbread / roti making is usually accompanied by “flour-shower” in the kitchen (haha!) that will take some cleaning-up effort. But well worth the trouble.
  4. Here’s what makes a roti roomali:
    • (a) white flour in the dough to provide the gluten for it to stretch thin;
    • (b) soft-soft dough, but using plenty of bench flour to roll (some suggest to use milk instead of water to make the dough);
    • (c) rest the dough, covered with damp kitchen cloth as often as necessary, and, more;
    • (d) HIGH heat cooking for about 30 secs on each side- as you place the roti on the metal surface, it should immediately start puffing.
  5. Can’t do the air-flipping of Step E: No worries. Roll it thin using the rolling pin. Can’t roll thin: No worries. See the following.
  6. Can’t roll thin enough (or only upto 6-8 inches diameter): No worries. Follow the exact process, but roast for about 45-60 secs on each side. Just before serving, puff it on the open fire (ala Indian phulka). It may not be roomali, but will still be a deliciously soft roti.
  7. In Yerevan, I saw hard Lavash being sold in the markets: the makers and sellers were almost always women. In any case, if you wanted your Lavash soft, they sprayed water on it. How clever!

Silk Road: Charcoal-Grilled Lamb & potatoes

Whether the New World Barbecue or the Silk Road claypit-fire, there is something primal, appealing and heart-warming about grilling.

Inspired by the Armenian khorovats, I give here an absolutely delicious, finger-licking version. In Yerevan, my Armenian friend told me that they don’t use any flavorings to appreciate the natural flavors of meat. Sorry, I deviated. I use an allium-flavoring (onion, garlic) and also a tenderizing element (citric acid).

Special tools:

Metal skewers; bamboo skewers for the vegetables; charcoal grill, oven to roast the vegetables.

Ingredients

  • Meat:
    • 2 lbs (deboned) butterflied leg of lamb cut into chunks (+ 2 lamb chops)
    • Liquify in a blender-  1 large onion +  5-6 cloves of garlic + 1 tsp extra hot chilli powder + black pepper + 1 tsp citric acid [both a tenderizer and gives an acidic tang] + salt to taste
  • Vegetables:
    • 1 lb fingerling potatoes, skewered whole, brushed with some oil
    • Dressing: salt + pepper + finely chopped herbs (cilantro, mint) + juice of half a lemon

Method

Marinade the meat overnight. When ready to grill, skewer the chunks and grill, rotating the skewers every now and then, basting with the marinade, till done. Pull the meat off the skewers with Lavash bread (ala Armenian) and serve the meat on the platter lined with the homemade Lavash.

Roast the potatoes in the oven at 400 F for about 30 minutes (turning half way through). When done, pull off the skewers and lightly dress the potatoes to serve.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. Other vegetables to grill: onions, tomatoes, Brussel sprouts, eggplant, zucchini etc. I skimped here due to some constraints.
    I used bamboo skewers for the vegetables- remember to soak them for at least one hour, so that the dry skewer does not spontaneously ignite.
  2. The grilled chunks are also known by other names: boti/shish kebab (Arab/Indian subcontinent) or shashlik (Russian/Caucasus) or souvlaki (Greek).
  3. The citric acid (food-grade) tenderizes the meat and makes the texture absolutely pleasant. Not chewy at all. Another classic tenderizer is green papaya (usually pulverized into a paste for the marinade).
    Make sure to marinade the meat for at least one hour or overnight if possible.
  4. If you don’t have the means for an open fire charcoal grill, you can broil in your oven with equally delicious result.
  5. I grill the potatoes in the oven, since I found the open-fire grilled potatoes burn before cooking. You can also wrap them in alumunium foil and place on the grill. But I prefer the former method.
  6. The 2 lbs of meat required 4 skewers (each about 17-18 inches long).