Traditional Uzbek Plov

Although I’ve already posted plov recipes here and here, I wanted to go back to a more canonical version that I could submit on Ingredient Matcher. A plov that’s very traditional in its ingredients, and at the same time easy enough to prepare. No sous-vide lamb, no need to kill your own turkey, and no useless rituals à la Stalik.

Uzbek Cuisine - PlovA cousin of pilaf and pulao, plov (also called osh) is the national dish of Uzbekistan, and to a certain degree, Tajikistan. Almost every region has its own version, even if the differences can be quite subtle sometimes. Tashkent plov, for example, is made with yellow carrots, and can be served with kazy, horse sausage. The bases are more or less invariable, though. Expect all or a subset of the following: carrots, onions, garlic, currants, chickpeas, lamb, and a fair amount of animal fat. And of course, the essential Uzbek spices, cumin and coriander.

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Kutab, Azerbaijani Stuffed Flatbread

Kutabs are among the most popular Azeri dishes, together with plov, dolma, and of course kebabs (kebabs being a distant first: virtually the only meal you’ll ever eat in a restaurant outside of Baku). A kutab — not to be confused with kutap — is essentially a lavash filled with savory stuffing while still raw, then folded in half and pan-fried. It is often served with a sprinkling of sumac on top, a red spice which imparts a lemony note.

Baku - Mugam Club Restaurant

Classic lamb kutab, as served at Mugam Club in Baku

The most common kutab fillings are ground lamb and greens, with the occasional cheese or winter squash, but you can pretty much do whatever you want, as long as the layer of stuffing remains quite thin. In addition to the four above-mentioned classics, all of which I’m presenting here with some personal tweaks, I’ve also created two new “signature” kutabs.

My first new kutab uses foie gras and pomegranate in a nod to all the Brooklyn restaurants that feature the fattened duck liver on their menus for no apparent reason other than it’s expensive and French. Baku Palace serves kutabs and foie gras as separate dishes, so why not put them together?

The second contains actual duck meat. I recently posted a duck breast kebab, and now you can use the legs (and the wings if you’d like) to make a kutab. Then you’ve got the whole bird turned into an Azeri dinner for 4!

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Dolma Shurpa, Uzbek Stuffed Vegetable Broth

I’ve previously posted a pepper dolma recipe from Azerbaijan, but today’s dish hails from Uzbekistan and is prepared fairly differently. Shurpa means soup or broth in Uzbek, and the stuffed vegetables here are served in a flavorful broth. My recipe is loosely adapted from Hakim Ganiev‘s Oriental Feast, but I’ve made many changes, such as the use of my beloved pressure cooker.

Uzbek Cuisine - Dolma Shurpa

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 4

After exploring Baku’s restaurants, now we’re heading to the city’s main market, Taza Bazaar. Much larger than the central markets of Yerevan and Tbilisi, Taza Bazaar is probably the largest of its kind in the Caucasus. Not only will you find a variety of foods, with a strong emphasis on vegetables (in summer, at least!), but a whole section is dedicated to various hardware, and, more opportunely, kitchen utensils. This is a great place to buy a samovar or a special cast-iron pan for your Chicken Tabaka.

The wide variety of climates throughout Azerbaijan allows for a phenomenal variety of fruits. Pineapples and bananas, apples and pears, stone fruits, citrus fruits, berries —  this country has it all.

Not to forget the ubiquitous watermelon. FYI, if a vendor tries to convince you that it costs $40 a piece, even if he seems to be doing very complicated operations on his scale, he’s lying.

Vegetables and herbs are about as diverse. I particularly like this next shot, where you can see all the classic vegetables of a typical Caucasian meal neatly stacked side by side: cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

Vine leaves to make dolma (lots and lots of them):

For the winter months, you can find nearly the same selection in jars. Every produce under the sun — mushrooms, garlic bulbs, tomatoes, gherkins, olives, cherries, plums, apricots, pineapple, kiwi, walnuts, just to name a few — is neatly lined up in a colorful display.

In the dairy department, this booth gets the gold medal for the largest piling of curious junk. I counted no fewer than 6 vintage refrigerators, despite the fact that most of the merchandise is left outside. And what’s up with all the plastic pails? The large sacks on the left contain cheese, I know that much. Given the size of the space, the variety of dairy products isn’t actually all that impressive: from what I could tell, we’re talking about cream, butter, milk, yogurt, and maybe half a dozen cheeses.

Although you may not see it on display because of the heat (over 100 F that day), there are also several vendors selling smoked fish. Just look for the antiquated freezers next to the stands that seem empty. I don’t remember exactly if the selection was limited to sturgeon, but we ended up tasting only that. Again, because of the heat, and despite the advent of refrigeration, expect it to be tasty but very salty. Luckily, the saltiness can be somewhat tempered by serving the fish with heavy cream and pancakes or potatoes.

Caviar follows a similar pattern. You probably won’t see it on display, as it is kept in refrigerators somewhere else. Ask around, and someone will take you to a small structure away from prying eyes, where the Great Game of Caviar Bargaining can begin. I should dedicate a separate post to the subject (The Art!), so for now I’ll just focus on my Baku experience.

The only thing that takes more time than buying caviar is buying a carpet. Incidentally, depending on their respective amount and size, they can cost about the same. First, we tasted a few “different” kinds. I say different between quotation marks because when the vendor has a tool to open and reseal caviar jars, and tends to carelessly stack lids of various colors on the table, there’s no way to know what’s what. The guy could get hold of a stock of beluga lids and run a pretty lucrative scam — he wouldn’t be B.S.ing his customers more than he already is. And speaking of B.S., the small jars in the picture used to be a standard 4 oz. Now the glass at the bottom is thicker, and the weight of the contents is down to 3.5 oz… except in every other jar, the thickness of that bottom is different!

So basically, don’t listen much to the sellers. Just pick what you like best. From the almost-black color of the eggs, you can tell all the jars in the picture are very salty (the heat, remember?). It’s not bad, but it’s not the best kind either, and it’s not particularly cheap. And believe me, I tried. I haggled, and haggled, and haggled, until my friends got nervous we were going to end up in a fight. My recommendation (as of the summer of 2011, at least) would be to skip the caviar in Baku and pay a visit to the central market in Kiev instead (Kiev happens to be a very convenient stopover if, like me, you have to travel half the globe to get to Azerbaijan): the prices are lower and the quality higher.

Also, FYI, Baku has discovered molecular gastronomy. What this means to the caviar buyer is that there are stores that sell black alginate pearls. The ones I saw were clearly marked as such in the ingredient list (provided you know how to read Azerbaijani or Russian), and the price was obviously way too good to be the real thing, but this could change is some vendor decides to be unscrupulous…

Off to the meat department. Lamb is king, of course. If, like Stalik Khankishiev, you believe it should never be refrigerated, you buy from the booth out front (did I say the temperature was over 100 F?). If, on the other hand, you agree that food safety is not a myth, the word bacteria rings a bell, and maybe you’ve even heard of the “danger zone” between 40 F and 140 F, the butchers in the back will help you.

Here are two interesting cuts! The cut on the left probably looks unfamiliar: it’s the tail of a fat-tailed sheep (kurdyuk in Russian), the preferred fat for any good kebabs east of Chechnya. On the right, the offals, all in one piece, for the proponents of nose-to-tail eating.

The selection goes beyond lamb, though, as Azerbaijan is one of the rare Muslim countries where you can buy pork at the market! It’s also one of the few Muslim countries where you can drink as much as you want as long as you’re sober when you go to the mosque. The latter is even truer of Abkazia, but 1.) it’s not really a country, and 2.) they solved the dilemma by not building mosques.

And of course, with all your fatty tail and liver kebabs, you will want some narsharab, a sauce made of reduced pomegranate juice:

Next time, we’ll be hitting the road again to travel north to the mountain village of Quba!

Happy Paskha!

Paskha, the Orthodox Easter, usually falls on a different day from its Christian counterpart, because its computation is still based on the Julian calendar. I realize I don’t have many Paskha-themed recipes, and almost no new ones since last year, but here it comes:

Lamb Testicle Chashushuli and Cheese Khinkali

I seem to be going through an “extreme offal” phase. Only a few weeks ago, I was writing about veal brains, and here I am striking back, this time below the belt! I found these lamb testicles from 3-Corner Field Farm at the Union Square Greenmarket a few weeks ago, and figured that lamb offal would be a good candidate for a nice Georgian stew. Chashushuli usually consists of stewed veal with tomato, onion, spices, and herbs (plus sometimes other vegetables), but there’s no real restriction on the meat you’re using.  If you want to stick to the more traditional veal, I would suggest trying sweetbreads — you can prepare them pretty much the same way as the testicles below.

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Roasted Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Uzbek Plov

Why not give a Central Asian twist to your Easter lamb roast this weekend? I took my Uzbek plov recipe, made some small changes,  and stuffed it into a leg of lamb. The resulting rice is soaked in meat juices, absolutely phenomenal!

The proportions are somewhat approximate, as the weight of the lamb roast and the way you pound it will make a difference in the amount of rice you need. Resist to the temptation to over-stuff the meat, as this will just make the whole roast impossible to handle. Just reheat the remaining plov and serve it as a side. Actually, if you want to have enough rice as a side for everyone, you can double the proportions of plov below.

Uzbek plov
Yields about 12 servings

4 oz bomba rice
4 oz green peas
salt
1 1/2 oz rendered lamb fat
4 oz onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp ground star anise
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground piment d’espelette
4 oz carrot, julienned
4 oz celery root, julienned
16 oz lamb stock
1/2 oz butter

  • Rinse the rice under running water, then place into a bowl and cover with hot water. Reserve.
  • Blanch the green peas in salted boiling water until soft, then shock in ice water, drain and reserve.
  • Melt half of the lamb fat in a wok, add the onions, season with salt and cook over high heat until brown. Stir in the garlic, ground star anise, cumin, and piment d’espelette. Add the rest of the fat, the carrot and celery root, and cook until soft and golden brown, stirring regularly.
  • Add the rice, half of the lamb stock and some more salt without stirring. Cook over high heat until the liquid is fully absorbed. Add the rest of the stock, lower the heat to medium and simmer until the liquid is almost completely gone. Mix in the green peas, rectify the seasoning, turn off the heat, cover with a lid, and let stand for about 15 minutes. Stir in the butter, let cool and reserve.

Roasted leg of lamb stuffed with Uzbek plov
Yields about 12 servings

1 boneless leg of lamb (about 6 lb)
salt
black pepper, ground
Uzbek plov
olive oil

  • Untie the leg of lamb (if it is tied), and lay it between two pieces of plastic wrap. Using a meat pounder, flatten the meat until it is about 1 1/2″ thick and vaguely shaped like a rectangle. Discard the plastic wrap, and season on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the plov in the middle, and roll into a log; do not overfill. Tie the roast with butcher’s twine, brush with olive oil, and place into an oven dish.
  • Cook in a 325 F oven for an hour, then lower the temperature to the 250 F and pour some water into the dish. Finish cooking to the desired doneness, checking the internal temperature with a thermometer. For a medium rare roast, cook to an internal temperature of 120 F — the temperature will climb to about 135 F after resting.
  • Remove from the oven and let rest 30 minutes before carving.

Uzbek Lamb and Green Pea Plov

A relative of pilaf, plov is a dish from Central Asia in which rice is cooked in a broth. The traditional version from Uzbekistan distinguishes itself in several regards:

  • The base ingredients are fatty lamb cuts, rendered lamb fat, carrots, onions, garlic, hot pepper and spices. Depending on the region and season, each recipe adds other ingredients like barberries, quince, chickpeas, eggs or even dolmas (vine leaves stuffed with meat).
  • The rice is not steamed but cooked in a stew composed of the other ingredients, making the dish a complete meal.
  • The dish is prepared in a kazan, a large cooking pot more or less similar to a wok.

In his book Kazan, Mangal, and Other Manly Pleasures (sadly, only available in Russian), Stalik Khankishiev gives precise, abundantly illustrated recipes outlining the do’s and don’ts of plov making. The carrots must be cut into a julienne by hand. The ingredients must not be mixed while the plov is cooking. After rendering the lamb fat, the leftover chunks must be eaten with 100 grams of vodka!

While following the spirit of Khankishiev’s recipes, I am doing a few things differently. Cooking the lamb sous-vide gives results far superior to anything one could achieve in a wok alone, and all the meat juices are eventually added into the dish. “My” garlic confit produces very tender cloves that can be eaten easily. Instead of the Uzbek rice varieties, I am using paella rice, which absorbs considerably more liquid. When adding liquid to the rice, I prefer lamb stock to plain water. Finally, I am adding green peas for their delicious flavor and bright color (I blanch them separately, specifically to preserve their color).

This is supposed to be a greasy dish. However, if you want to reduce the amount of fat, you can replace the lamb breast with lamb shoulder, and reduce the proportion of rendered lamb fat.

Braised lamb
Yields 4 servings

2 1/4 lb lamb breast
salt
ground black pepper
1 sprig rosemary (3-4″ long) , roughly chopped

Season the lamb breast with salt on both sides. Using a blowtorch, char the meat on both sides until soft and brown. Season with black pepper and place into sous-vide pouches with the rosemary. Cook in a water bath at 151 F for 24 hours.

Uzbek lamb and green pea plov
Yields 4 servings

4 oz bomba rice
8 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 oz green peas
braised lamb
salt
1 1/2 oz rendered lamb fat
4 oz onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp ground star anise
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground piment d’espelette
4 oz carrot, julienned
8 oz lamb stock (or water)

  • Rinse the rice under running water, then place into a bowl and cover with hot water. Reserve.
  • Place the garlic and olive oil in a small saucepan, cover and cook over very low heat for about 30 minutes, until completely tender. Drain the garlic and reserve. The olive oil can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week to be used in other recipes.
  • Blanch the green peas in salted boiling water until soft, then shock in ice water, drain and reserve.
  • Reheat the lamb breast sous-vide in the water bath until warm. Strain the liquid and reserve. Bone the lamb, discard the rosemary and reserve the meat.
  • Heat a wok over high heat. Season the lamb meat with salt, sauté in the wok skin side down for about a minute, then flip and sauté for 30 seconds. Reserve the meat.
  • Melt half of the lamb fat in the wok, add the onions, season with salt and cook over high heat until brown. Stir in the ground star anise, cumin, and piment d’espelette. Add the rest of the fat and the carrots, and cook until soft and golden brown, stirring regularly.
  • Add the rice, the lamb stock and some more salt without stirring. Cook over high heat until the liquid is fully absorbed. Add the liquid from the lamb sous-vide, lower the heat to medium and simmer until the liquid is almost completely gone. Mix in the green peas, rectify the seasoning, turn off the heat, cover with a lid, and let stand for about 15 minutes.
  • Arrange the meat and garlic on top of the dish, let rest covered for another minute, and serve.