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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Duck Breast Kebab, Pomegranate Narsharab and Corn Plov

Azerbaijani Cuisine - Duck Breast Kebab

When it comes to making kebabs, duck probably isn’t the first meat that comes to mind. And yet, duck breast has all it takes to be a success on the grill: tender meat and an ample layer of fatty skin. In fact, by assembling two breast halves together, the meat is completely wrapped in fat, which produces perhaps the juiciest and most tender duck breast you’ll ever eat!

A drizzle of narsharab (reduced pomegranate juice) and grilled vegetables is all you need for accompaniment. However, if you want to add some variety to your kebab routine (and because this blog is called Food Perestroika, not Food Stagnation), try my Azerbaijani corn plov. Granted, I have over 60 recipes of Azerbaijani plov, and not a single one of them contains corn (incidentally, I found renditions with goose and wheat). But not to worry: there’s corn in Azerbaijan, and there’s nothing stopping the locals from adding it to their plov. The reason why I’m so adamant about the corn is that it goes well with duck, upholding a theory that pairs meat with common foods eaten by the same animal.

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Wild Turkey, Raisin and Butternut Squash Plov

Spring turkey hunting season lasts the whole month of May in New York State, and a couple of weeks ago, I went upstate to try for a few birds with Hunstman Wayne. I’d already gone on a turkey hunt with Wayne in 2011, but I had missed my chance, mostly because of my lack of experience. This year, I was back with a vengeance, and, hopefully, better confidence in my shooting skills — all those hours at the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range have to bear fruit at some point, right?

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 3

Adventure is a big word for today’s post. Sure, it mostly takes place in caravanserais and some of the meals were of epic proportions, but I’m still just talking about restaurants and food. After our short trip to Nakhchivan, nest of spies, we’re back in Baku, ready to enjoy the opportunity to eat something other than lamb kebabs and tomatoes.

Baku offers a wide selection of international cuisines, with an emphasis on Turkish, Georgian, and Russian. Save for the Georgian restaurants which you may not be able to find back home, it’s wisest to focus on the Azeri cuisine. And while simple local places and out-of-the-way outdoor restaurants abound and usually serve good food, in the old city you also have the rather unique option to eat in converted cavaranserais.

Mugam Club is my favorite such caravanserai restaurant. The fact that it’s a fairly expensive (by Azerbaijan’s standards) and touristy (by Azerbaijan’s standards) place with occasional mugam performances, folk dances, and even belly dancers shouldn’t dissuade even the most cynical among you from enjoying the atmosphere of the remarkable 16th century premises for the time of a meal. More pictures of the courtyard here.

Without exploring the more obscure corners of Azeri cuisine, the menu covers the classics, often in many versions. The dolma, vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and served with yogurt, can be had in grape leaves, tomatoes, eggplants, or — of course — peppers.

The kutab, a stuffed flatbread sprinkled with sumac, comes with four possible fillings: greens, pumpkin, meat, or cheese.

In the vegetable appetizers, you’ll find various combinations of the ubiquitous peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and onions. Here’s the eggplant caviar.

The eggplant chikhirtma consists of onion, eggplant, and egg fried in oil.

The similarly prepared vegetable ragu (no Azeri name) combines eggplant, pepper, potato, tomato, onion, and greens.

Of course even in Baku, it’s hard to escape the kebabs. Here is a serious platter of lavash-wrapped lyulya-kebabs with grilled vegetables. These were among the best kebabs I’ve ever eaten.

There are lamb chops and lamb kebabs, chicken kebabs, and “special” beef kebabs, but also skewers of sturgeon chunks and sturgeon lyulya-kebabs. Seasoned with spices and properly grilled, sturgeon can be soft and delicious.

The selection of plovs is equally impressive. Unlike its Uzbek counterpart which is quite oily and where all the ingredients are cooked together, Azeri plov is usually a combination of a garnish (fruits, vegetables, or meat) and rice cooked separately. The rice is sometimes served with gazmag, a simple dough placed at the bottom of the pot that turns into crust during the cooking. I say sometimes, because I’ve read about gazmag in cookbooks but was never able to land a piece on my plate when I was in Azerbaijan! The different kinds of plov served at Mugam Club are:

  • Shirin, which means sweet, with chestnuts, dried apricots, dates, and raisins (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
  • Chikhirtma. with chicken and egg (picture and recipe in English here)
  • Albali, with chicken and cherries
  • Fisinjan, with chicken or lamb meatballs, walnuts, and onion (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
  • Turshu-Govurma, turshu meaning acid and govurma meaning roast meat, with lamb, onion, chestnuts, and plum (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
  • Giyma-Badimjan, giyma meaning ground meat and badimjan, eggplant
  • Sabzi-Govurma, with lamb and various green herbs such as coriander, tarragon, and dill; quite similar to Georgian chakapuli (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)

The next most popular caravanserai restaurant in the city is named Karavansara. There used to be this large sign above the building that you couldn’t miss when you entered the Old City, but I don’t remember seeing it last time I was in Baku so it may have been taken down.

I didn’t document our meals there as thoroughly (it’s harder work than it looks), but here are a few appetizers. You’ll notice that the eggplant caviar, though containing a similar mix of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes, looks completely different from the one at Mugam Club. The plate of smoked fish consists of sturgeon, salmon, and potatoes. Because the climate is so hot, smoked fish in Azerbaijan (as well as caviar) has traditionally been very salty, and the availability of refrigeration hasn’t really changed that yet.

The choice of kebabs is more or less the same as at Mugam Club. I seem to remember that you can order the complete assortment on a dramatic presentation tray with coals in the middle (like this one).

Finally, if you have the appetite, time, and money, spend another couple hours drinking tea with an assortment of sweets — Azeri baklava, candied fruits, and walnuts in honey. Enjoying a local “cognac” isn’t a bad idea either, and Tovuz is the most famous brand. You can even finish your evening with a hookah.

Speaking of hookahs, Azerbaijan makes the best ones I’ve had so far, although I can’t really pinpoint what makes the difference. The bowl where the tobacco goes is often replaced with a carved out half-apple, and it’s not rare to be offered a variety of options to fill the base with — water, milk, wine, or cognac! However, keep in mind that weirder isn’t necessarily tastier. Below is the craziest configuration I encountered.

On the final night of our last time in Baku, we wanted to have one last hookah while enjoying views of the old city from one of the rooftop cafes (I know, I know, I’m such a tourist :)). We placed our order with the waiter without even suspecting what was coming. Tobacco flavor? Mix of watermelon and mint. Liquid for the base? Milk, please. Regular bowl, apple bowl, or watermelon? (At this point I’m mentally trying to picture what the hell an actual watermelon has to do with a hookah pipe.) Hmmm, let’s try the watermelon thing, whatever that means. Next thing we knew (OK, not exactly next — it took about half an hour for them to prepare the beast), the waiter came back with a whole watermelon transformed into a hookah base.

Now, is a watermelon hookah really better than a well-prepared one, with the apple bowl and milk? No.

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.