MUNCHIES just published my article on khachapuri: Georgia’s Cheese Bread Might Be Better Than Pizza. It covers all the various types of cheese breads you can find in Georgia, from the classic Imeretian khachapuri to the much rarer khabizgini.
To help you orient yourself, I’ve created a map of all the Georgian regions that claim their own local variations of the dish. As you can see, they are pretty much all located in Western Georgia, which makes me wonder if there’s a connection with the historical division between the kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia in antiquity. That is, I wonder if cheese breads descend only from the former.
A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!
Do you remember Georgian Bread? At a time when Georgian restaurants in NYC were a rarity (no Pepela or Oda House back then), this Brighton Beach bakery turned out good khachapuri made from scratch. Fast forward a few years: the former owner has retired, and the bakery, under new ownership (“your new taste”, as the facade brags in approximate English), was extended to include a sit-down restaurant and garden next door. The place is now called Toné Café, after the tandoor (თონე / tone in Georgian) that takes pride of place in the middle of the kitchen.
With all the recent competition, does this forerunner of the New York khachapuri fad still top the podium of cheese bread goodness? Does the place still justify the trek to Brighton? Read on!
This is slightly off-topic, but I was invited to give a talk on the Future of Food at TED this past Tuesday — the video is available here for the next 7 days or so. And don’t forget to try the Russian Waste-Not Burger!
Now that I’m back in NYC, expect a restaurant review in the next few days…
I’ve been using natural wood for grilling shashlyks and other kebabs for quite a while now (I explained the process in my lyulya-kebab recipe post). The wood smoke certainly imparts some flavor, but the relatively short cooking time of a kebab means that the exposure, especially on an open grill, isn’t sufficient to achieve the same results as, say, traditional American barbecue. While I don’t want to turn my meat into something that only smells like smoke, I’ve been searching for some middle ground.
Looking at other smoked products, there’s one prominent example where tradition turned to a different combustible, more for reasons of availability than flavor in the beginning: Scotch whisky. You might not think of Scotch as a smoked product, and yet… Historically, peat was used in places where it was the only consistent source of fuel, such as Islay. The peat smoke would permeate the malted barley drying in the kilns, and the flavor of the whiskies produced owed so much to that smoke that distilleries retained the practice even after technology rendered it no longer necessary. The aroma of burning peat is so intense in fact that it’s called peat-reek. You can read more about the influence of peat on whisky here.
This is all well and good, but this is a Russian food blog, not a Scottish food blog. But wait — aren’t there other parts of the world that have peat?
Earlier this week, I published a story on Vice’s food blog, MUNCHIES. The article (its title was picked by the editor) retraces my search for Tajikistan’s national dish, qurutob, both in Dushanbe and in my own kitchen, with a little background on Tajik cuisine. Check it out!
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen some recent tweets about my upcoming talk on the Future of Food at TED@IBM. One of themes I’ll be discussing is food waste, and how recipe-generating Chef Watson can help. About 1/3 of the food produced worldwide is wasted, and consumers have their share of responsibility. According to a recent article on Yahoo, the five most wasted foods at home are sour cream, produce (especially celery), fresh herbs (like parsley and cilantro), citrus, and bread. So I decided to give Chef Watson a spin. I tried to input all five ingredients and create something with a Russian influence. The system offered me a few options. Crostini was probably the most straightforward dish to use large amounts of these ingredients, but sandwiches and burgers seemed more creative to me. I went for the awkwardly named “Russian celery, parsley, lemon juice, sour cream and bread” burger.
Chef Watson got back to me with ideas that were both inspiring and slightly puzzling. I have to admit some of the ingredients aren’t all that quintessentially Russian. Fennel and olives, really? That might make sense in Bulgaria, but much less so in Russia. However, a) all the ingredients go really well together, b) I can live with a Russian-Bulgarian burger, and c) there are indeed many Russian elements: the tomatoes, pickles, sour cream, rye bread, and veal. Besides, all in all, this is a really good burger.
Last summer, after touring Moldova, we crossed the border with Ukraine and headed towards Odessa. The goal wasn’t really Odessa itself, which I had already visited, but a remote village called Vylkove (Vilkovo, in Russian).
Vylkove takes its name from vilka, which means fork, on account of its location in the Danube Delta. Although the town is nicknamed “The Venice of Ukraine”, you’d have to be blind or seriously drunk to confuse the two. Don’t expect any sumptuous palace, carnival, or herds of tourists; Vylkove is just a little fishing village.
I’m not the world’s biggest dessert eater, but lately I’ve been thinking about ice cream sundaes whenever I have a craving for sweets, probably because the excessive combination of ice cream, sauce, and crunchy bits is guaranteed to deliver the goods if only in terms of quantity and sugar. During a recent dinner at Alder, I finished my meal with a delicious carrot cake sundae (even though I don’t usually like carrot cake or white chocolate). This reminded me how great a sundae can be when it’s well done, which it rarely is. Indeed, it seems that in most restaurants one always ends up with either cheap or poorly formulated ice cream, Hershey’s-like syrup, or inadequate glassware.
So of course, this means it’s time for me to come up with my own Eastern Bloc version. I already had the plombir ice cream and the apricot sauce to get started, but I needed something crunchy. And chocolate. And more Food-Perestroika-worthy flavors! Baklava seemed like the perfect solution: it’s not something you’d expect in a sundae, it’s made with honey just like my plombir, and like the apricots it can be be found in the Caucasus (where there aren’t enough desserts in my opinion). For the chocolate sauce, I opted for a dark chocolate and black tea combination, on top of whipped cream laced with more honey. Honey, nuts, apricot, chocolate, black tea: the result is sweet, sour, bitter, not too alien yet not totally hackneyed, and quite addictive.
You might remember seeing plombir ice cream in some of my restaurant reviews, such as Mari Vanna and Ariana, and wondering what makes it different. Plombir takes its name from the French glace Plombières, a vanilla ice cream mixed with bits of candied fruits marinated in kirsch. However, it bears little resemblance to the original. As explained in Russian standard ГОСТ 31457-2012, plombir is defined by its nutrient composition, not its flavor. Indeed, for an ice cream to be called plombir, the fat content must be between 12% and 20%, and the sugar content 14% or above. There’s also a threshold for the total “dry substance” content, which, I assume, represents the total amount of solids: it must exceed 37-42%, depending on the fat content. In other words, it’s much richer than your typical ice cream, especially if you err on the side of the upper bounds.
Of course, I have my own set of ice cream formulas, courtesy of Frozen Desserts. Putting it all together, I chose a fat content on the higher side, and worked backwards to find the perfect sugar content, which still turned out to be equally massive — this is definitely no diet ice cream. Next came the question of flavor. Although one can be make a plombir with pretty much anything, the most typical flavors in my experience are vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, with vanilla leading by a wide margin. So I stuck to vanilla but I also added honey, to make all that sugar somewhat more flavorful. There are no alcohol-macerated candied fruits here, but in the Russian tradition, my plombir is topped with a preserve-like sauce laced with Armenian brandy (a soviet-inspired nod to the kirsch in glace Plombières), thus creating something that’s almost half plombir and half Plombières. You can use any fruit you like, and I’m presenting both an apricot-brandy sauce (its acidity helps cut the fatty richness of the ice cream), and a booze-free strawberry sauce (because a sauce made with ripe strawberries is always delicious). The key is to go easy on the sugar.
Today I’m starting a new travel series: Ukrainian Snapshots. I’ve been to Ukraine many times over the past ten years. Back in the days before Aerosvit went bankrupt, the New York-Kiev direct flight was a convenient and reasonably affordable option whenever I planned to visit the former Soviet Union. Before the opening of its new terminal, Moscow’s notoriously disorganized Sheremetyevo did not have a transit zone and therefore required going through the masquerade of the visa process (until recently, your typical Russian embassy/consulate was a kind of cour des miracles where aspiring tourists proffered fake invitations, bogus travel insurance, variable amounts of money, and countless hours of their time to a grumpy and/or corrupt clerk, all to receive a piece of paper pompously called a visa). By contrast, Ukraine could be visited without a visa, and little Borispol is 30 minutes away from Kiev’s center (no contest with the 1-2 hours it takes to get from the airport to the city center in Moscow).
For this reason, and also because some of Ukraine’s less touristy destinations are more conveniently accessed from neighboring countries if you happen to already be visiting them, many of my trips to Ukraine were quite short; a couple days here and there. My last week-long trip actually goes back to summer 2006 (Crimea). So instead of presenting my Ukrainian travel stories in any particular order, I’ll focus each of my posts on a given place and point in time. As usual, don’t expect me to review many mainstream touristic curiosities — this is not a travel guide. I might also start another travel series in parallel. After all, with Ukraine International Airlines recently reviving the New York – Kiev route, there might very well be more snapshots to come in the future.
I’ll kick off this series with an anecdote: the Kiev-Odessa flight and the Tupolev 134. This may not have anything to do with food, but it sure qualifies as an adventure.