Caucasus Adventures Redux

I’ve recently posted the last installment of my Azerbaijan Adventures, so it’s time to say farewell to the Caucasus (for the time being, at least), and look back at all I have distilled over the past three years.

Like a goat jumping over the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, I have traveled through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective renegade regions. In writing about my journeys, I intentionally left aside the most-traveled routes to focus on more extreme tourism, food, and cooking. I called them Adventures, although your humble main protagonists spent more time changing flat tires, dealing with hard-looking and/or corrupt customs officers, asking their way around in the middle of nowhere, and drinking local moonshine, than accomplishing any kind of crazy exploits.

Soviet Stamp - Caucasian Goat

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Whitefish Cakes, Onion and Tomato Salad

This recipe closes my trilogy of “Lake Sevan’s Gifts” (see here and here for the first two parts). Common whitefish, locally called sig, was introduced into Lake Sevan from Lake Ladoga, and has since become the prominent species as far as food goes. Goldfish were also introduced, which is a rather curious choice. Fish are typically introduced for human consumption and / or recreational purposes, and goldfish don’t seem to fit either of those criteria!

Although I don’t remember seeing fishcakes in Armenia (kebabs often being our only option during the whole trip), Armenian cookbooks do mention somewhat similar dishes, such as fish balls. If that’s more to your liking, you can certainly prepare the whitefish mixture as below and shape it into balls; coat the balls with either Wondra flour or breadcrumbs, and deep-fry them until golden-brown.

The tomato and onion salad provides a simple accompaniment, the kind that’s often served everywhere in the Caucasus. I encourage you to get the best heirloom tomatoes you can find.

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Crawfish Lyulya Kebabs

Here’s the second dish in my trilogy of Lake Sevan’s Gifts (the Trout Kutap was my first)! Lyulya kebabs are originally an Azerbaijani dish consisting of a mixture of ground lamb cooked on a skewer. They’re so popular that they spread far beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, and variations are being offered, with other main ingredients such as potato or crawfish.

I actually had crawfish lyulya kebabs at a restaurant on Lake Sevan, but the mixture used way too much egg and barely tasted of crawfish. By contrast, my version is almost 100% critters, and their flavor is highlighted by the shallots and piment d’espelette. Make sure you buy crawfish tails that don’t come from China, as they hardly have any taste — not to mention that I don’t see the point of getting from the other end of the world something that lives in almost any river near you! You don’t have to spend your weekend turning rocks in a nearby stream, either — you’ll find plenty of online stores shipping the goods straight from Louisiana. Or if you live in New York, you can go to The Lobster Place.

This recipe calls for transglutaminase to bind the mixture, but it’s not absolutely necessary. If you substitute an equal amount of flour, the worst that can happen is that your kebabs will break more easily during cooking. Speaking of cooking: a real lyulya kebab should be grilled on a mangal. As it’s been raining every other day since April around here, I took the liberty of using a cast-iron grill instead.

I serve these kebabs with sour cream and plain lavash (top picture) or zhingalov khats (bottom).

Crawfish kebabs
Yields 4 servings

3/4 oz shallot, small dice
1 oz butter
1/2 oz bread, crust removed, small dice
8 oz crawfish tails
1 tsp transglutaminase
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp piment d’espelette
2 tsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

  • Sauté the shallots in half of the butter until soft, and reserve. Sauté the bread in the other half of the butter until golden brown, and reserve, as well.
  • Coarsely chop the crawfish. Process half of the chopped crawfish with the transglutaminase and olive oil in a blender until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, and stir in the rest of the chopped crawfish. Add the shallots and bread, and season with salt, pepper, piment d’espelette and parsley. Shape the mixture into 4 sausages, about 5 1/2″ x 1 1/4″ x 3/4″ (approximately, this is not a math test!). Roll in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
  • Heat a cast-iron grill over medium-high heat. Brush with a little bit of olive oil, and cook the unwrapped kebabs on both sides until you get a nice cross-hatch pattern. All of the ingredients are already cooked, so you just need to get them hot. Serve immediately.

Zhingalov Khats, Herb Flatbread from Karabakh

Zhingalov khats, a flatbread with a variety of fresh herbs, is a specialty from Nagorno-Karabakh (literally, it means bread with herbs in Armenian). If you ever visit the market in Stepanakert, you can taste the real deal made fresh in front of you. Unfortunately, that might be your only chance to do so: my Internet and cookbook searches didn’t return a single recipe for zhingalov khats! To further complicate the matter, the name of the dish is transliterated in different ways, such as zhengyalov hac or jingalov hats.

The flatbread is supposedly made with 7 fresh herbs (some other sources online said 8, 9, or 27), one or two of which are obligatory (which ones, we don’t know). The dough is rolled out, chopped herbs are placed on top, the sides are folded over and the whole thing is rolled out again before being cooked on a griddle. This link gathers most of the information one can find on zhingalov khats, including a rather funny video of a TV show broadcast on the Russian First TV channel. There are also some rare photographs from markets in Karabakh here and here.Zhingalov Khats

But finally, my dear Caucasian foodies, the wait is over. I am proud to offer you what I would modestly call the first ever written recipe for zhingalov khats, an undeniable cornerstone in the little-known culinary heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh! It may not contain 27 or even 7 herbs, but it’s pretty good all the same. In fact, the tighter flavor profile will even help one recognize what’s in it, which is a big plus in my opinion. It also doesn’t follow the absurd diet restrictions that go with fasting for lent, and this makes it even tastier. Butter makes everything tastier, and nobody should tell you when to eat it and when not to.

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Lavash, Armenian Flatbread

Lavash is a large flatbread popular in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, where it’s commonly used to wrap food like kebabs. The etymology of the word is unclear, and various scholars alternately mention an Armenian, Turkic or Persian origin.

The picture above shows the lavash stacks at the market in Yerevan. These breads are quite large, but you don’t need to invest in a Guiness-Book-worthy griddle to make excellent lavash. The authors of Flatbreads & Flavors, a rather original book from which my recipe below is adapted, recommend using a wok turned upside down. This method produces delicious flatbreads of about 12″ in diameter. If you really want a paper-thin result, you can use a pasta machine instead of a rolling pin — the lavash won’t be any less good if it’s rectangular rather than oval!

Lavash
Yields 4 flatbreads

6 oz water, lukewarm
1 1/2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
10 oz flour, sifted
1/2 tsp salt
olive oil

  • In a cup, mix the water with the honey and yeast, and let rest for 10 minutes.
  • Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, add about 3/4 of the flour, and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add the rest of the flour and the salt, switch to the dough hook attachment, and knead for 5 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, for about 3 hours.
  • Punch down the dough and let rest for another 10 minutes.

  • Divide into 4 equal pieces, and roll into 10″ x 12″ ovals using a rolling pin (or into thinner rectangles using a pasta machine). Don’t forget to flour your work surface generously as you go, giving quarter turns to your dough between each roll.
  • Turn a wok upside down on a gas burner, and heat on the highest setting for a few minutes. Rub the wok with a paper towel soaked with olive oil, and place a lavash on the wok. Flip several times, every 30 to 45 seconds, until nice brown blisters start to form.
  • Remove from heat and eat immediately — nothing beats freshly baked bread. If you have to wait, cover with a towel, and spray with a bit of water before reheating.

Kutap, Armenian Stuffed Trout

This recipe is the first of my own interpretations of the mythical “Lake Sevan Gifts” that I talked about in my last Armenian Adventures post. It was the perfect thing to do with the trout I just caught on Cayuga Lake!

Kutap is an ancient Armenian dish consisting of a whole, boned trout, stuffed with a mixture of rice and raisins. Now, as with most if not all Armenian recipes, there is controversy about whether it really is Armenian. In Azerbaijan, this could easily pass as a fish dolma… In fact, an Azeri was recently asking me: “If dolma’s an Armenian dish, how do you explain that the word for it isn’t Armenian?” (In fact it comes from the Turkish verb dolmak, “to be stuffed.”)

My version uses pounded fillets instead of the whole fish, making it more akin to a paupiette. The stuffing is very close to the one described in Pokhlebkin’s Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples, except I prepare the rice like a risotto. I served the kutap with a zucchini and basil purée.

Kutap
Yields 4 servings

1 1/2 oz Arborio rice
1 1/2 oz golden raisins
3/4 oz butter
1/4 tsp grated fresh ginger
salt
Urfa pepper, ground
1 1/2 oz white wine
4 oz chicken stock, warm
2 cleaned (skinned and boned) trout fillets, about 9 oz each (or 4 fillets half that size)
1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped parsley

  • In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the rice and raisins in the butter for 1 minute. Add the ginger, salt, pepper and white wine, and boil gently until almost dry. Add half of the chicken stock and simmer until fully absorbed, then repeat with the rest of the stock. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • Take off 3 oz of flesh from the fillets and reserve. You can either use the tail ends if the fillets are small, or cut off the thickest part if they’re larger.
  • Place the fillets between sheets of plastic wrap and lightly flatten using a meat pounder. You want to obtain four 4″ x 6″ rectangles, 1/4″ thick — approximately, this is not a math class.
  • Chop the reserved flesh into small dice, and add along with the parsley into the rice mixture, then divide between the four rectangles and roll into cylinders. Tightly wrap the cylinders in plastic film, making sure that the stuffing is tucked in (this happens almost naturally).
  • Steam the fish for 5 minutes, let rest for 1 minute, then remove the plastic wrap. Cut each portion on a bias and serve.

Armenian Brandied Apricot Preserves


Related to my recent trip to Armenia, here’s a recipe for apricot preserves with a Caucasian twist. As you can see from the picture above, apricots are plentiful in Armenia. Why not combine them with some local brandy and honey? Young Armenian brandies may lack the subtlety to be enjoyed as digestifs, but they offer a robust flavor that can stand the heat of cooking applications. I’ve already mentioned the famous Yerevan Brandy Company here, and their 5-star (which means 5-year old) Ararat brandy is perfect for the kitchen — you can even find it in some U.S. liquor stores. For the honey, choose something light and mild, such as acacia honey.

This recipe is adapted from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which covers all the aspects of canning in over 400 recipes. Try the preserves with an almond croissant!

Armenian brandied apricot preserves
Yields 1 pint

24 oz pitted apricots, quartered
6 oz sugar
1 1/2 oz light honey
2 tsp lemon juice
6 g powdered pectin
3 oz Armenian brandy (such as 5-star Ararat)

  • Toss the apricots, sugar, honey and lemon juice in a saucepan, and let rest for 45 minutes.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then gently boil for 25 minutes, stirring regularly.
  • Mix the pectin with the brandy, add to the saucepan, and boil for 3 minutes. Skim off the foam and let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Transfer to a sterilized pint jar, seal and process in a 200 F water bath for 15 minutes.