Like nearly every European country that’s been invaded by Muslim Turks at some point in its history, Albania counts pilaf in its culinary repertoire. This is a rice dish that can be as simple as little more than plain rice, or, on the contrary, combined with many other ingredients to constitute a full festive meal. Within this spectrum, the pilafs I ate in Albania and the recipes I found in Albanian cookbooks range towards the simpler end. Chicken pilaf seems to be a classic, and it’s essentially chicken and rice, with some seasoning. Even Tirana’s best restaurants don’t deviate too much from the basics. Restaurant Era, for example, adds a few pine nuts and chopped herbs to the modest mix. But that restaurant, whose menu is half-Italian (as is often the case in Albania), offers some more complex risottos at the same time.
Yet, if I wanted to have some arroz con pollo, I would have stayed in East Harlem, and if I wanted to have a risotto alla milanese or a risotto alla calabrese, I would have extended my layover in Italy instead of jumping on a Milan-Tirana. We like bells and whistles here at Food Perestroika, and since our grandmothers cooked neither pilafs nor risottos, we’re free to create whatever we want and flip the bird at that thing that bigots call tradition. I don’t mean to insult any hard-working Albanian poultry farmers, but there are many great products in Albania and somehow chicken didn’t exactly strike me as one of them. So I have other plans for my overloaded Albanian pilaf/risotto(/pilotto?)…
- As I’ve said before, one of the things I like about the Balkans is that their gastronomy gives me the opportunity to work with products that I don’t typically find in the cuisines further east or north. Take langoustines. I ate a phenomenal langoustine crudo in Durrës, on the Adriatic shore, but this is a crustacean that’s confined to parts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and is absent from both the Black Sea and the Baltic. Luckily, it’s now more readily available in the US. So in they go, and don’t be skimpy!
- Then, how about some sujuk, to tap into the country’s Ottoman heritage? In Albania, this dry sausage is usually made with beef, garlic, and red pepper. Believe it or not, on this site, you can even buy original Albanian Sujuk, “made in USA by Bosnian meat experts”! Just be patient with the delivery: your order may take a couple weeks to arrive.
- No evocation of Albania would be complete without raki, the fierce fruit brandy cum national alcoholic drink. Most often, it’s made with grapes — not surprising for a wine-producing country — although you can also find raki mani, mulberry brandy. Most often, just like Georgian chacha, it reminds one of denatured alcohol more than of fine grappa. Still, mixed into the batter for the langoustine tails, it adds some local color without the hangover headache.
- Finally, I’ve kept the pine nuts and herbs from Era. The pine nuts add some crunch, the herbs add some color, and they’re trendy in Albania (go ahead, try to prove me wrong on that).
Yields 4 servings
14 langoustines (about 2200 g)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Proceeding in batches, boil the langoustines for 2 minutes, then shock in a bowl of ice water.
- Separate the heads and claws from the tails.
- Choose the 4 largest tails, and shell them, keeping the tips of the tail shells intact. Reserve for the battered langoustines below.
- Shell the remaining tails, and chop the meat into medium and large dice (having chunks of different sizes will improve the taste and texture of the pilaf). You should have about 260 g of langoustine meat. If you’re really motivated, you can pick some meat from the claws too!
- Split the langoustine heads in half lengthwise, and break the claws apart at the joints. Reserve 850 g of heads, claws, and shells for the langoustine stock below, and discard the rest. The more shells you use, the more flavorful the stock will be.
Yields over 4 servings
850 g langoustine heads, claws, and shells
50 g olive oil
30 g cognac
200 g peeled carrot, large dice
100 g celery, large dice
30 g tomato paste
550 g water
- In the pot of a pressure cooker over high heat, sauté the langoustine heads, claws, and shells in 2/3 of the olive oil for a couple minutes.
- Add the cognac, light with a match, and let burn. Transfer to a bowl.
- In the same pot, sauté the carrot and celery in the remaining oil until golden brown. Add the tomato paste, and cook until brown, stirring regularly.
- Return the langoustine shells to the pot, and add the water. Cover, bring to pressure, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
- Open the pressure cooker, and pass the stock through a chinois. Reserve.
Yields over 4 servings
8 g corn starch
100 g white flour, sifted
2.5 g baking powder
1 g salt
0.1 g black pepper, ground
140 g sparkling water
50 g grape raki or grappa
10 g olive oil
- In a bowl, mix the corn starch, flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper.
- Add the sparkling water, raki, and olive oil, and beat with a whisk until homogeneous. Let rest for 10 minutes.
Battered langoustine tails
Yields 4 servings
canola oil, for deep-frying
4 langoustine tails
- Pour the canola oil into a deep fryer or a large pot, and bring to 375 F.
- Dip the langoustine tails in the raki batter, then deep-fry until golden.
- Drain on paper towels, and reserve. Just before serving, deep-fry the tails again for a few seconds.
Yields 4 servings
50 g pine nuts
55 g sujuk, small dice
30 g olive oil
170 g peeled onion, small dice
150 g seeded cubanelle peppers, small dice
black pepper, ground
200 g arborio rice
5 g lemon zest, grated with a Microplane
100 g white wine
about 500 g langoustine stock, hot
260 g diced langoustine meat
30 g butter
chives (or parsley), chopped
battered langoustine tails
- Toast the pine nuts for 3 minutes in a pan over medium heat. Reserve.
- In the same pan, still over medium heat, sauté the sujuk in a little bit of oil for 30 seconds or so. Reserve.
- In the same pan, sauté the onion and peppers in the remaining oil until soft. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the rice and the grated lemon zest, and cook for 30 seconds. Add the white wine, and simmer for a couple minutes, until the wine has almost evaporated.
- Add about half of the langoustine stock, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat to low, and cook until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
- Add the rest of the stock, and reduce again. The pilaf should still look slightly liquid. Taste the rice — if it isn’t fully cooked, add some more stock and reduce again. Rectify the seasoning.
- Stir in the langoustine meat and the butter, then remove from the heat.
- Divide the pilaf into serving bowls. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and chives, top with the langoustine tails, and serve immediately.