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

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

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

Dessert
Ravane
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).

A Silk Road Thanksgiving

With the US’s Thanksgiving Day rapidly approaching, I thought I’d offer a few recipes from the first volume of The Silk Road Gourmet to help you blend Silk Road cookery with traditional fare for the holiday feast. The first recipe is a side vegetable dish from Armenia called Green Beans with Walnuts. This dish blends the flavors of string beans with tomato sauce, cinnamon and walnuts – to delicious results. Its not too dissimilar to Azerbaijan’s Karabakh Loby. Its spiciness comes from freshly ground black pepper accenting the cinnamon instead of from some form of red pepper and the turmeric only adds to the warm blanket of flavor surrounding the beans. Serve hot with a roast meat or kebab dish or enjoy it all by itself for a quick lunch.

Green Beans with Walnuts

1 pound green beans, stemmed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup water
1 cup tomato sauce

1. Heat butter in a sauté pan and sauté onions until they start to soften and take on some color. Add tomatoes and sauté until the tomatoes start to break up. Then add salt and pepper, turmeric and cinnamon and stir again.

2. Mix the water and the tomato sauce together and add to the onions and tomatoes. Cook to warm then add the green beans and cook covered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the green beans start to soften. Then cook uncovered until the beans are tender but still firm.

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A salad that will be sure to please from Pakistan is their Mixed Bean Salad which is a mild salad to begin or end a flavorful or spicy meal with. In this dish, the grapeseed oil and white vinegar combine with the sugar and black pepper to accent the beans and other vegetables with a light sweet and sour dressing. It’s moderately spicy when first made and mellows a lot after marinating for a while. I like to prepare it in the morning or by noon before an evening meal and let it rest in the refrigerator for several hours. I recommend taking it out at least one hour before serving as it is best served only slightly chilled and not really cold.

Mixed Bean Salad

1 cup northern white beans or butter beans, drained
1 cup of chick peas, drained
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 medium red pepper, cored and finely chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 green chili peppers, diced
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup of grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 small bunch fresh coriander leaves, chopped (15 – 20 sprigs)

1. Combine beans, onion, red pepper, tomato and chili peppers into a large bowl. Then whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper and when well blended, pour over the bean mixture. Mix well.

2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Just before serving, fold in fresh chopped cilantro leaves and stir gently.

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A legion of appetizers can start this special meal and include Azeri Oven Bread and Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce from Azerbaijan. The bread is a standard on the Azeri table and in the markets, baskets of golden bread with poppy seeds and sesame are available fresh everyday. The sauce is found throughout the Caucasus, Caspian and Southwest Asia and combines cooling cucumber and yogurt with garlic, pepper herbs and ground sumac.

Azeri Oven Bread

1 package dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 egg yolk, for garnish
1 teaspoon poppy or sesame seeds

1. In a small bowl, mix yeast with water until the yeast is dissolved, set aside until the yeast activates. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Sift flour into a large bowl. Add salt and mix well. Gradually add the yeast-water mixture and stir in using your hand until a rough ball forms. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough, folding it over and turning for about 5-8 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball and put it back into the large bowl. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for about 1-11/2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in bulk.

3. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and punch it down. Knead for about another 2-3 minutes and shape the dough into a ball. Then using a rolling pin, start rolling the dough that is about 1 foot long, 8 inches wide and about ½ and inch thick.

4. Transfer the bread onto a greased and floured baking sheet and using a knife, make shallow crosshatching slashes on the bread and let rest for about 20 minutes before baking. Just before popping the bread in the oven, brush it with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with the sesame or poppy seeds.

5. On the middle rack of a well preheated oven bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until it is golden in color.

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Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce

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

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Another wonderful and very flavorful accompaniment to a Silk Road feast are the Sweet and Sour Garlic Pickles eaten throughout Western Asia. It has to be prepared well in advance – so start now to enjoy it by Thanksgiving.

Sweet and Sour Garlic Pickles

2 large heads of garlic (about 60 cloves), peeled
3 tablespoon of salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1 cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice
1/4 cup of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked or lightly crushed
3 hot dried red, chili peppers
1 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

1. Place the peeled garlic in a sterile glass jar and add the salt and sugar. Cover and shake to mix. Let stand on the counter for 1-2 hours shaking every now and then to get the garlic to start to break down and give off its liquid.

2. Heat the pomegranate juice and the vinegar in a small saucepan to bring to a boil. Add the peppercorns, the sliced or torn chili peppers and the dill to the garlic and then top off with the pomegranate juice and vinegar mixture. Cover and shake well. Store refrigerated for at least 2 weeks before eating.

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Dolmas or Stuffed Grape Leaves are also widely enjoyed in Western and Central Asia and make a great addition to the holiday table.

Dolmas or Stuffed Grape Leaves

½ pound ground lamb or beef
½ cup rice, cooked and cooled
1 medium onion, peeled and very finely diced
1/3 cup freshly chopped dill
Zest of 1 lemon, finely diced
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 dozen grape leaves, unrolled, rinsed and patted dry
2 tablespoons butter
11/2 cups beef stock (plus enough to top off the grape leaves as they cook)
1. In a mixing bowl combine meat, rice, onion, dill and salt and pepper and mix well until spices and other ingredients are evenly integrated into the meat. Trim the hard stems from the grape leaves and lay out flat on a cutting board.

2. Depending on the size of the leaf, place a tablespoon or two of filling in the center of the leaf and first fold in the left and right edges of the leaf to enclose the meat. Then, fold up the bottom edges, and roll the leaf, from the bottom up, tucking the edges in as you roll to fully jacket the meat.

3. When all dolmas are rolled, place each one seam side down in a sauté pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. In a small saucepan, combine the beef stock and the butter and when hot pour it over the dolmas. Simmer covered over very low heat for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, topping off the broth as needed. The dolmas shouldn’t be swimming in the broth, but they do need to be moist or they won’t cook evenly. When they’re done, there should be very little liquid left in the pan. Remove to dry and serve on a platter with sour cream or yogurt spiced with garlic and salt.

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For a delicious plain pilaf with a touch of nutty flavor that really complements the roasted meat dishes, try the Pine Nut and Sesame Pilaf offered in volume 1 of the Silk Road Gourmet. It probably came to Armenia from Arabia during one of the periods of Islamic conquest of the region and is still eaten in Arabia and in several Muslim countries around Asia.

Pine Nut and Sesame Pilaf

3 tablespoons butter
1 cup rice
1 cup chicken or beef broth
1 cup water
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly roasted
1/4 cup sesame seeds, lightly roasted
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon fenugreek leaves

1. Melt butter in a large sauté pan and sauté the onion until it softens and starts to color, then add the fenugreek and the roasted seeds and nuts and mix well. Cook over medium until the onions have wilted completely.

2. Add salt and pepper to the onions along with the stock and water and bring the mixture to a boil. When the water is hot, add the rice and return to a boil. Then lower heat and cook covered 15-20 minutes or until the rice is done.

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For dessert – if you have any room for some – I recommend the delicate Rose and Cardamom Pudding that is eaten throughout Western and Southwestern Asia and is an Afghani favorite. If you have room for something more substantial, try the honey and citrus-laced nut-cake Ravane that is also enjoyed from Greece and southern Russia in Europe through Central Asia and the Levant States. Both can be enjoyed with a robust, flavorful coffee or a milk-laced sweet tea that is enjoyed in one form or another thoughout Asia.

Rose and Cardamom Pudding

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons corn starch
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
½ teaspoon rose water
1 teaspoon ground pistachio nuts

Mix whole milk with cornstarch and cardamom and rose water in a sauce pan. Bring it to a boil – stirring constantly. When the mix comes to a boil, remove from the stove, and put into a shallow serving dish. Refrigerate and serve with finely chopped pistachios sprinkled on top.

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Ravane

CAKE
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup ground walnuts
1 cup ground almonds, blanched and brown skins removed
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter, melted and cooled
Zest from 1 lemon, finely diced
Zest from 1 orange, finely diced
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup cream or half and half

SYRUP
3 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 large cinnamon stick
½ lemon, sliced
½ orange sliced

1. In a large mixing bowl combine dry ingredients and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk or beat eggs until frothy, then slowly add sugar a bit at a time until well mixed with the eggs. Add melted butter, diced lemon and orange zest and mix again. Lastly add the ground cinnamon and the cream or half and half. Combine wet and dry ingredients and mix well. The mixture is very dense and difficult to mix and you will probably have to stir by hand until well integrated.

2. Oil or spray a 9 by 12 inch baking pan and pour or spoon batter into the pan, spreading it evenly across the pan surface. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake. When cake is done remove from the oven to cool.

3. While cake is baking or at some time before baking, you can make the syrup. In a medium saucepan, heat water until boiling and then lower heat to a steady simmer and add sugar about a ¼ to ½ cup at a time. Stir constantly until sugar is dissolved and add cinnamon stick and citrus slices. Cook for 20-30 minutes to impart the flavors of the lemon and orange and cinnamon stick to the syrup and stirring often to make sure that the syrup is thickening nicely. Remove from heat and let cool about 15 minutes before removing cinnamon and fruit slices.

4. When syrup has cooled, prick the top of the cake with a fork or toothpick, but only go about halfway down, don’t penetrate the cake completely. Little by little pour the syrup in an even layer over the cake and wait for it to be absorbed. At first the cake will greedily take in the syrup and later it will absorb it more slowly. The point is not to make the cake swim in the syrup, but to provide enough syrup to moisten the cake and lend its fruity, cinnamon flavor. Cover tightly and let sit overnight before serving. Serve by cutting into diamonds or squares and placing onto individual serving plates. Garnish with chopped almonds or pistachios and a pinch of cardamom.

Now, if that’s not a Silk Road feast fit for a King or a Shah or a Rajah – I don’t know what is. I hope you try a couple of these recipes – for Thanksgiving or for some other meal – and post about them if you enjoyed them. (Words by Laura Kelley)