A Menu for a Caucasus Celebration

We had friends over again, and as usual, I spent a couple of days in the kitchen preparing for their visit. This time I whipped up a regional tasting menu of Caucasus Celebration specialties from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As they ate and in between the “yummy sounds” my friends kept on commenting that there were, “so many flavors on the plate”.

Many thanks to my decorator, line chef, historian and cyber-guy husband for making everything possible. All dishes were enjoyed with Georgian Tvishi or Kindzmarauli wines.

The Menu

Georgian Dolmas
Pomegranate Pickled Garlic
Armenian Red Pepper
Yogurt and Cucumber Dip

Main Courses
Grilled Chicken Garo
Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce
Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce
Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce
Sesame and Almond Pilaf

Saffron Ice Cream
Dried Figs and Apricots

All recipes are, of course, from Volume One of The Silk Road Gourmet.

Georgian Dolmas

Georgian Dolmas: Stuffed Grape leaves, dolmas or dolmades are eaten from Eastern Mediterranean Greece and Turkey clear across Central Asia and in several Eastern Asia countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Georgian variety I served stuffed the leaves with lamb and rice mixture with the strong flavors of dill, lemon and walnuts. Delicious!

The Pomegranate Pickled Garlic: I’ve written about this pickle before in the blog and will likely mention it again, because it is one of my Silk Road pickles. This Georgian dish uses unsweetened pomegranate juice with a hint of vinegar and dill and lots of cracked black pepper to flavor the garlic. The longer it pickles, the milder and more fruity the garlic becomes. Enjoy with naan or other flat bread.

Armenian Roasted Red Pepper Salad: This salad offered a sweeter alternative to the appetizer table. Roasted and skinned sweet red peppers marinate in grapeseed oil and white vinegar with a bit of garlic and roasted almonds added.

Yogurt and Cucumber Dip: Once again, yogurt dips are enjoyed from Eastern Europe throughout Western, Central and Southern Asia. Keeping with the Caucasian theme of the dinner, I chose an Armenian version flavored with mint, garlic and black pepper. The yogurt and the cucumbers create a cooling dip to soothe the palate challenged by spicy or fiery foods.

Grilled Chicken Garo: A sensational Georgian way to prepare chicken that will tease and amaze your guests with unfamiliar flavor combinations. The chicken is first marinated for several days in lemon juice and light sesame or peanut oil and generous amounts of the Georgian spice mixture Khmeli-Suneli. Then the chicken is grilled and enjoyed with the cilantro-based Garlic and Walnut sauce with overtones of fenugreek and lemon.

Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce: Lamb with a light crust of freshly grated nutmeg and cracked pepper is baked and sweetened with a sauce of sour cherries, cinnamon and a hint of lemon juice. Together an amazing and unforgettable combination!

Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce: This recipe couples earthy eggplants with a Georgian pomegranate sauce flavored with red onions, sweet basil and a couple of chili peppers.

Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce: One of my favorite vegetable dishes of all times. Green beans sautéed with onions and then joined by a sour tomato sauce made with white vinegar, black pepper and yogurt. Fabulous!

Sesame and Almond Pilaf: A buttery, nutty, Azeri pilaf flavored with roasted sesame seeds and almonds that is related to Gulf and Levantine rice dishes. I like this pilaf because it has a strong enough flavor to be paired with the main meats and vegetables described here, but complements without interfering with those flavors.

Ravane: This cake is once again a regional favorite eaten from Greece through Central Asia. The Georgian version I made is baked with a mix of nut flours and wheat flour and then permeated with a simple syrup flavored with citrus and cinnamon that is allowed to sit overnight before serving. Sweet, but earthy at the same time. Some versions use only wheat flour, while others make the syrup from honey instead of sugar.

Saffron Ice Cream: Just a little something to complement the ravane. A saffron flavored ice cream made with chopped pistachio nuts and rosewater. Semi sweet and a bit nutty – really good!

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Dolmas borrowed from the Food and Wine Blog by Azat Aslanyan).

Recipe: Azeri String Beans in Tomato Sauce

To help Sasha Martin of the Global Table along on her quest to cook her way around the world, I am offering up a great Azeri recipe from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One for Azeri String Beans in Tomato Sauce. In this recipe, the sauce is the thing. It is a wonderful tomato sauce, sweetened with sweet basil but given a slight sour tang by the addition of yogurt, sour cream and vinegar. Azeri’s use the sauce on vegetables – particularly green ones – and also on fowl and lamb. For the heck of it, I threw in an Azeri recipe for a Cucumber and Yogurt Dip flavored with mint, cilantro and sumac that just cries out for some flatbread. Enjoy Sasha! Let us know how the meal goes!

String Beans in Azeri Tomato Sauce
1 pound of fresh string beans, trimmed
4 tablespoons of butter
2 onions sliced thinly into crescents
1 batch of Azeri Tomato Sauce

1. Melt the butter in a sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the onions and lower the heat, stirring occasionally for 3-5 minutes. Add the green beans, stir and cover to cook for 20-30 minutes – stirring occasionally – or until the beans begin to soften to your desired consistency.

2. If you haven’t made the tomato sauce at an earlier time, it can be prepared as the beans cook. (see recipe below).

3. When the beans are almost done but not quite, pour in a desired amount of tomato sauce and allow them to simmer on low for a few minutes. Remove from heat and serve.

Azeri Tomato Sauce
8 ounces tomato sauce
2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup plain yogurt
¼ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons white vinegar (or more to taste)

In a small to medium saucepan, stir in the tomato sauce and half of the basil and all of the pepper. Cook 3-5 minutes or until warmed. Stir in yogurt and sour cream, cover and cook another 5 minutes – stirring often. Stir in remaining basil and salt cook another 3-5 minutes and pour over vegetables or meat.

Extra! Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce Extra!
Cool and refreshing with a zing from the herbs and sumac – this condiment will cool down your mouth when eating spicy kebabs! An example of the yogurt-cucumber preparations eaten throughout the Caucasian and Caspian territories, this dish may even remind you of a more highly spiced Indian riata – its distant cousin.

11/2 cups whole-milk plain yogurt
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and grated
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sumac

Combine in a bowl the yogurt, garlic, cucumbers mint and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to allow the flavors to blend. Before serving, stir in some sumac and garnish with mint leaves. Enjoy! (Words by Laura Kelley)

In Praise of Azerbaijan

People often ask me what my favorite type of food is. Truth be known, I have no favorite, or rather, my favorite changes so often that it is impossible to say what it is for very long. No matter how many times I’m asked, however, the cuisine of Azerbaijan is always one of my top choices – at least when considering the cuisines from Volume One of The Silk Road Gourmet.

Mosque with Two Minarets

One of the reasons I like Azeri food so much is that there is interplay of so many different traditions evident in the flavors. The most obvious influence is found from Persian food in a nearly full complement of the main western Asian ingredients: saffron, sumac, fenugreek, cumin, marigold, and sour plums, sour grapes, sour cherries and pomegranates. European influences can be seen cilantro and coriander seeds, mint, savory, red vinegar. Central Asian items include onion, garlic and dill; Indian subcontinent ingredients include cardamom, sweet basil and cinnamon and from the Pacific Rim we have nutmeg and cloves.

The unique combinations of these ingredients in Azeri food are remarkable and wonderful and provide what I like to call – taste revelations: Baked Fish with Sour Cherries, Hens with Dill and Pomegranates, Lamb with Quinces and Capers, Cinnamon Potatoes with Pine Nuts . . . Hungry yet?

Situated on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is another one of the Asian continent’s strategic crossroads between east, west, north, and south. As such, it has been occupied by many foreign rulers and peoples who have left their mark on its modern culture. As with its Georgian and Armenian neighbors, influences as diverse as those of Rome, Alexander, the Uzbek Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan, can be found—both in and outside of the kitchen.

Like Georgia, Azerbaijan has a wide variety of climatic zones as well. In fact, nine of eleven climatic zones are represented, and in Azerbaijan one can simultaneously see all four seasons just by traveling from one end of the country to the other. High mountains, fertile foothills growing tea and citrus, dry steppes, luxurious forests, and Caspian shores—Azerbaijan has it all! So, in addition to a long history of foreign occupation, a widely varied climate has led to one of western Asia’s most diverse cuisines.

Azeri Petroglyphs

Archaeological evidence of habitation goes back to the upper Paleolithic with the caves and petroglyphs of Gobustan. The gold-forging, Scythian horsemen dwelt there in the 9th Century BCE and were followed by the Medes until the 6th Century BCE. The country was incorporated into the Persian Achaemenid Empire by the 5th Century BCE, and quickly became a major center for the Zoroastrian faith because of the natural upwelling of gas fires that allowed them to build many fire-temples. The Sassanid Persians ruled from the 2nd Century CE to the Muslim Arab conquest of the mid-7th Century. The Umayyad or the Abbasids ruled until the 13th Century, but beginning in the 11th Century Central Asian tribes, dominated by the Oghuz Turkmen seized the reigns of power. A western branch of the Oghuz, the Seljuks rose to prominence and ushered in a time of intellectual and cultural flowering throughout the empire.

Mausoleum Gudi Katun

The Seljuks favored an early, angular form of Arabic calligraphy called Kufic script that is often depicted in a maze-like square called square or geometrical Kufic and is used in architecture and textile design throughout the Muslim world. The fascinating thing about square Kufic is that it is a true child of Silk Road cultural exchange. It arose after Muslim traders had regular contact with Chinese merchants and admired their square “seals” used to identify individuals on contracts and shipments of goods. Kufic squares are formed by arranging lines of Kufic script in a square pattern, sometimes by arranging words and phrases in a spiral form. Usually the words depict verses from the Koran or the name of God or the prophet Mohammed or Imam Ali. These squares are then repeated in a pattern to form amazing lattice-like designs like those seen on Azerbaijan’s Mausoleum Gudi Khatun or in the border of the Azeri Kuba Afshan rug that graces the Kelley-family living room floor.

The Seljuks first became a vassal state to the Mongols who ruled from about 1220 to the early 1300s. After the Mongols, the Jalayirids,ruled for about 100 years, followed by Timur or Tamerlane who reinstated patronage of Persian and Muslim cultural and intellectual pursuits. After Timur’s death in 1405, the local Shirvanshah – present in the region for hundreds of years – rose to prominence. The Safavids introduced Sh’ia Islam and were followed by a series of Khanates that persisted until the early 19th Century when they were incorporated into the Russian Empire. Except for a brief couple of years as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, Azerbaijan remained with the sphere of Russo-Soviet influence until the early 1990s.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of its conquered territories, Azerbaijan, like many of the other Caucasus and Central Asian countries have been undergoing a period of national and cultural rejuvenation. With its partially developed oil reserves generating significant income, Azerbaijan is one of the most modern of the post-Soviet states with near 50 percent of its population living in cities.

Thanks to YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Project, Azeri music – some of which, like the Mugham vocal style, are nationally unique forms – are now available for the world to enjoy. If you’ve never heard Alim Qasimov sing, run don’t walk to the internet or music store to hear Kor Arab and some of the post passionate vocal work in the world. You may not understand a word, but the meaning will be clear.  Click here for a link to a YouTube video of Qasimov.

There are so many wonderful things to learn about the people and culture of Azerbaijan – I urge you to listen up, read up, and above all, tuck in! (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Azeri Mosque by Elnur@Dreamstime.com; Photo of the Nakchivan Tomb by Avatavat@Dreamstime.com; Photo of the Gobustan Petroglyphs by Wikimedia)

Happy Nowruz! (Persian New Year)

For today’s post in celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, we have a guest blogger, Azita from the wonderful site Turmeric and Saffron. Azita is an Iranian who celebrates the cuisine and culture of Iran on her website. In addition to being an accomplished cook, she is also talented in food styling and food photography and regularly illustrates the recipes on her site with her lovely photos. Here’s some of her memories of the Norwuz celebrations past, some information about the holiday and of course, a recipe and photos. Many thanks, Azita!

Back home in Iran, the days leading up to Nowruz were always very busy and bustling with many different activities. These would include the cleaning of our house from top to bottom, washing the drapes, changing the upholstery of old chairs, cleaning our Persian rugs and some years we would apply a new coat of paint to our living room and dinning room.

My mother would take my sister and I to pick out our favorite floral fabrics for our New Year dresses. The next stop would be going to the seamstress for fittings. On the other hand, my father would take my four brothers to the tailor for their Nowruz suits.

The change of the season along, with all the preparation, would bring about such excitement and joy especially knowing that we would have 13 days off from school. During the day of the Nowruz celebration, we’d wear our new clothes and shoes and take our seats around the haft-seen table and wait for the countdown to the exact moment of the spring equinox (tahvil-e sal). My mom would light the candles, one for each of us, including my parents. In the last few minutes we’d remain quiet and would hold some grains of uncooked rice in the palms of our hands, representing blessings, while praying for health, happiness and everything else that we wished for.

My father would always remind us to pray for others before wanting and wishing anything for ourselves. Nowruz gifts (eidi) were usually money given to us by my parents and elders of the family. Traditionally, the eldest always give eidi to the youngest. The following days after the New Year would be spent by paying visits (did-o-bazdiz) to family members, relatives and friends of the family.

Lentil Sprouts

This year, March 20th marks the beginning of the Persian New Year (Nowruz) celebration for year 1389. Nowruz always begins on the first day of spring/vernal equinox, when days and nights are of equal length. Nowruz holiday lasts for 13 days and it literally means “new day” in Persian. It symbolizes a new beginning and the victory of light over dark and the harshness of winter. The history of Nowruz celebration is rooted in the 3000 year old Zoroastrian belief system and goes back to the great Persian Empire.

Today, Nowruz is celebrated as greatly as ever and is a major national holiday in Iran. In preparation for the New Year festivities a thorough spring-cleaning (khaneh-tekani) is carried out weeks before the New Year celebration. Growing sabzeh (wheat, barley, lentils) is an essential part of getting ready for New Year. Setting the Nowruz table (sofreh-e haft seen) and sitting around it during the turn of the year and wearing new clothes are practiced by Iranians all over. According to Zoroastrian beliefs, the souls of the departed come down and join in the festivities and celebrations. Even though the history of Nowruz and the Haft Seen spread may be somewhat obscure, it has been written about by the great Persian poet Ferdowsy (935–1020) in the book of “Shanameh”. During the Nowruz celebrations we are reminded once again by the ancient Zoroastrian teachings of “Good Thoughts” (goftar-e nik), “Good Words” (pendar-e nik), and “Good Deeds” (kerdar-e nik).

Haft Seen

The Haft-seen is traditionally set up with seven items beginning with the letter “seen” (S) that symbolically represent, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, beauty, patience and re-birth. The “seens” are as follows:

Sabzeh (wheat sprouts) representing rebirth, new life and fertility
Sumac representing the spice of life
Senjed (dry fruit of the lotus tree) representing love
Sonbol (hyacinth flower) representing spring
Samanoo (sweet wheat pudding) representing the reward of patience and sweet life
Sekeh (coin) representing wealth and prosperity
Seer (garlic) to ward off bad omens

The haft-seen table would also include a mirror at the top, candles representing light, seeb (apple) representing beauty and health, serkeh (vinegar) representing age, colored eggs representing fertility, gold fish the symbol of life, and rose water, a symbol of its cleansing power and an orange in a bowl of water representing the world. Many people would also place their holy book or a book of poetry by Hafez on the table.

Kuku Sabzi

One of the most popular and traditional dishes served on the day of Nowruz celebration is a fried or baked vegetable and egg dish called Kookoo Sabzi. Another traditional Nowruz dish is Sabzi Polow (herb rice) which is usually served with smoked or fried/baked white fish (mahi).

Kookoo Sabzi

2 cups chopped parsley
2 cups chopped scallions (green parts only) or (leeks, chives)
2 cups chopped spinach
1 cup chopped dill
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons barberries (zereshk), optional
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, optional
5 large eggs
1/3 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon flour
4-5 tablespoons vegetable oil


Clean and wash the vegetables. Chopping them by hand is the preferred and the traditional way. However, the convenient and the less time consuming way is to use the food processor. You may chop them finely but I only pulse it a few times and not to have it mushy at the end. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs well with a whisk. Then add all the above ingredients except the oil and mix thoroughly until well blended. To this mixture add one tablespoon of oil and stir well.

In an oven proof baking dish place the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil. Gently pour the herb mixture into the dish evenly, cover lightly with an aluminum foil and place in a 350 degrees pre-heated oven for 40 minutes. Remove the foil half way through the cooking. Once cooked, remove from oven and let it cool for a few minutes before cutting it into small pieces. Place on a serving platter. It could be served hot or cold with warm bread and yogurt or mixed-vegetable pickles (torshi).

Sounds delicious Azita! Again, many thanks for sharing your memories and knowledge of Nowruz with us. Happy Nowruz, Happy Spring to you all. (Words and Photos by Azita M.)

(Additional: Laura would like to dedicate this post to colleagues Arash and Kamiar Alaei who are celebrating this Nowruz in prison.)