Sunday, 28 September 2014

Georgia on My Mind

Every Georgian dish is a poem. ~ Alexander Pushkin

The favourite restaurant among ex-pats when I lived in Moscow was a tiny, dark place with heavy wooden tables that served up the most incredibly authentic Georgian fare. I have never been able to remember the name of the restaurant, or the names of the tasty dishes, but Georgia has always been on my mind. I often tell myself that one day, if I make it back to Moscow, I'll wander through the streets until I find it.

This weekend, Moscow memories came flooding back over dinner with new friends. As we shared fabulous tales of our love of food around a massive platter of Kabuli pilau, okra and lamb curry, I told our friends of the story of this delightful Georgian restaurant. Being Russian, they knew exactly what I was talking about!  I couldn't believe it. I quickly jotted down the name of the restaurant (Tiflis, on Ulitsa Ostozhenka if you happen to be in Moscow), as well as the name of the food whose taste lingers in my mouth 16 years later.

Over my coffee this morning, instead of reading the NY Times like I normally do on Sunday mornings, I watched Georgian cooking videos on You Tube until I was ready to give it a try myself. I think it was a pretty good first attempt.

Khachapuri Georgian Cheese Bread

This is khachapuri, the traditional cheese-filled bread of Georgia, a fascinating country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. It shares in the rich Central Asian traditions of music, food and architecture common to Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc. The more I learn about this part of the world, the more similarities I find, especially in the cuisine.  Khachapuri seems to be the Georgian version of  Afghan bolani, for example. (Or, maybe it's the other way around!)

There are many regional varieties of khachapuri; specifically, this is an Adjarian khachapuri, famous for the sunny-side-up-egg that tops the cheese-filled break.

The starting point of khachapuri is, as with most of the dishes I bring home from around the world, a beautiful, round ball of wheat dough.

Next, the dough is rolled out thinly, then shaped into a boat by doubling up the sides and pinching the ends. The sides need to be doubled up so that they rise enough to create a ledge to hold in all of the gooey-cheesey-goodness.

The dough is then filled to the brim with cheese. Authentically Georgian khachapuri would use sulguni, a slightly sour, salty goat cheese that is similar to feta. I don't think sulguni is exported, so I had to make do with a simple feta cheese from the market here. I actually used a blend of Greek feta and skimmed-milk mozarella, but next time I think I will make a trip to the specialty store to find a Bulgarian feta. It's slightly saltier and is a little closer match to sulguni.

I use our BBQ for everything, but you could certainly bake this in the oven at 425F. Let the khachapuri cook on a hot ceramic pizza stone for about 5 minutes or until the dough rises and begins to just slightly turn golden. At this point, I gently shifted the cheese around using a fork, until there was a small depression, leaving just enough room to crack an egg in. The yolk splashed down into the melted cheese while the egg white spread throughout the boat and immediately began to cook. Leave for another 3-5 minutes until the egg is fully cooked and the crust is a golden brown (but, be sure to leave the yolk runny like a sunny-side-up!).

Before serving, add a small spoon of butter on top of the khachapuri, then let it mix in with the egg and cheese. A little freshly ground black pepper, or green chillies make a nice final seasoning.

***It's a good idea to watch the khachapuri very closely. I found that leaving it to cook for just a minute too long led to a scorched bottom. I ruined three before I finally got the perfect one.

Khachapuri is traditionally served with lobia, a red-kidney bean dish from Georgia that has variations throughout Central Asia. The salty richness of the goat cheese contrasts nicely with the nutty, earthy smells and flavours of the beans. Unfortunately, it took me quite a while to test this dish out today so I didn't have time to follow it up with lobia. Next time!

This made for an amazing dinner, but it is definitely something you'll want to reserve for special occasions. It is very rich and we needed three pots of green tea to wash it down, followed by an afternoon nap!

I think that next time I will experiment a little bit with the filling in order to make it a slightly lighter (and healthier!) meal. I think that cutting the cheese in half and adding spinach, kale or even potato would be a great alternative. Gluten-free dough would be possible too, of course, but I have yet to experiment to that degree with my bread machine.

I hope you enjoyed learning about this Georgian delicacy. I would love to see your pictures posted in the comments section if you make this at home, too!

The dough

1 1/2 cups beer or water
1 tbsp honey or sugar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 1/4 cups bread flour
2 tsp active dry or bread machine yeast

Choose the dough setting on your bread machine, or combine, gently knead and leave to rise for 1.5 hours or until the dough has doubled in size.

Cut the dough into 4 parts and shape into balls (roughly 250 grams each).

The filling

For each khachapuri, I used about 5 tbsp of crumbled Greek feta cheese and 4 tbsp of skimmed-milk mozarella.

4 eggs (one per khachapuri)

Monday, 22 September 2014

Afghan Turshi: A Pickle Paradise

My first taste memory is pickle. Even as a kid, I was really weird. I liked chillis. I used to climb up the shelves in my grandmother's pantry. The pickle jar was kept right at the top. One time, I dropped the jar and it broke. I was totally busted. ~ Padma Lakshmi

What I love most about cuisines of other cultures is the unexpected pairings of opposing flavours and textures. Hot with sour. Sweet with bitter. Smooth and slippery with tight and crispy.

Nothing embodies these contrasts more than turshi, the pickled vegetables traditional to the cuisines of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Kurdistan, Albania, Armenia, Macedonia and probably many, many others. Picture a platter of aromatic, cumin-infused rice, the grains floating gently in a spicy lentil curry. Your fingers ripping freshly baked nan into chunks, wrapping it around a spicy pickeled carrot, plunging it like a spoon deep into the curry. Now, just imagine the flavour and texture explosion. Oooh, that's a pickle party.

Making turshi at home can be a nice family activity where everyone gets involved. It will take pretty much the whole afternoon, so boil the kettle and make a pot of green tea for everyone to enjoy.

Any vegetables will do, but if you're serious about creating authentic turshi, you absolutely must have eggplant.

Baby eggplants the staple ingredient in Afghan turshi

 Cauliflower florets (stems on) and carrots are tasty, too.
Turnip gives a nice root-y flavour, perfect for this time of year.

Preparing the vegetables takes the most time in the turshi process, especially the eggplant. For each baby eggplant I used the edge of a steak knife to gently scrape off the leaves under the stem. I then used my kitchen scissors to snip the stem off right at its base.

How to cook a baby eggplant

The vegetables should basically just be blanched, so that they are still crunchy, but not completely raw. I saved time by putting pots of water on to boil while I washed and peeled the other vegetables.

I blanched the vegetables in boiling water, but there is an interesting myth that has floated around Afghanistan for generations surrounding the preparation of turshi. It is said among Afghan women that making of turshi brings ill-health, even death! Traditionally, the vegetables are blanched in boiling vinegar. This is said to cause respiratory problems so severe that death ensues!

I did some research on this and found nothing to prove it. Interestingly, I did find some positive references among Chinese literature that boiling vinegar disinfects and kills germs in the home. What is likely the case is that, with typically little to no ventilation in some Afghan kitchens, the women would be breathing in the fumes of the boiled vinegar. If they were susceptible to respiratory infections, there is no doubt that this could kill them.

Blancing the eggplant
While the eggplant is blanching (it took the longest), I chopped the other vegetables. The beauty is in the size: not too big, not too small. Just a nice chunk that will fit perfectly into your fingers.
A rough guide is to boil 5 minutes for the cauliflower, 10 minutes for the eggplant, and 15 minutes for the turnip and carrot (which I put together in one pot).
A good guide for knowing when the eggplant is ready, is to see its colour change from vibrant purple to a light brown, and to slightly wrinkle. If the eggplant completely collapses with a little pinch between the forefingers, it is overcooked. You could still use it, but the pickling process would really make it too mushy.
Let the vegetables cool while preparing the herbs and spices.

Authentic turshi combines a mix of fresh and dried herbs and spices, that both warm and cool. I used all of the ingredients in the picture above. Quantities are a matter of "feeling", but I used five cloves of garlic, a full bunch of fresh mint, two big handfuls of fresh green chillies, a handful each of red and yellow peppers (they might have been banana peppers, but I am not entirely sure), a few teaspoons of salt, a few teaspoons of crushed dried red chillies and a few heaping teaspoons of dried mint powder.

 Add into the Vitamix and blend into a smooth, spicy paste.

I think now is the time to have a little break with some green tea, mulberries and walnuts because it's been two and a half hours and we're only half way through crafting our turshi. Go on, put the kettle on and join me in a few minutes.

Welcome back! Now we have to do something with that delectably spicy paste up there. We're going to stuff it into the baby eggplants until almost overflowing. Here's how I prepared them:
Make a fine cut down the centre of the baby eggplant and, ever so gently, pry it open.

Spoon the garlic-chilli-mint paste in. Be generous. Then, create a base layer in the pickle jar by arranging the baby eggplants nicely on the bottom.

Create layers with the remaining vegetables.

Spread a few spoons of the garlic-chilli-mint paste on top of each layer.

One of the final stages in the turshi preparation is the addition of the vinegar. I used a combination of organic apple cider (delicious!) and regular old white vinegar. One full bottle of the apple cider vinegar, and two of the white vinegar.

Pour the vinegar in and watch the spices fall beautifully between the layers of vegetables. For a pop of colour, and to add some tang to the taste, gently slide slices of lemon down the sides of the pickle jar.

Now we'll have to let the pickles sit in their juices for about five days. Oh boy, I can't wait to see how they turned out!


Friday, 12 September 2014

A Taste of the Hindu Kush: Bolani with Cauliflower and Cilantro

First food, then religion.

As this ancient Afghan proverb attests, Afghans take their food seriously. Very seriously.

The crops of the valleys nestled in the mighty Hindu Kush mountains offer an incredible array of flavours, textures, colours and aromas, giving birth to a cuisine that has delighted tastebuds over many thousands of years.

One the most amazing things about my travels is that I've brought home the world to my own kitchen. Afghan food, with its fresh wholsomeness that fuels but doesn't overwhelm, has become a permanent part of my cooking repertoire.

As the hot August days fade into cooler September evenings, bolani is the perfect meal. Freshly baked dough with squishy warm fillings, variations of bolani are found across Central Asia. It's kind of like the pirozhki of Russia, Ukraine and even Poland, but bigger. And different.

Traditionally, the staple filling of Afghan bolani is a tiny, thin Asian leek called gandana. This makes a perfectly light filling for hot summer days, but an autumn meal calls for potato. Potato is the staple bolani filling in our house. Because potatoes are awesome. I just boiled some up, like this:

While the potatoes were boiling, I took the dough (made with organic wheat flour) out of the breadmaker and shaped it into small, round balls roughly the size of my fist. Ok, well maybe they're a bit bigger than my fist, but they fit nicely into the palm of my hand. Afghan women would make the dough from scratch for a truly authentic meal, but there are a few areas where I just have to take a shortcut.

Oh wait, I forgot smething important. You need to heat the BBQ up as hot as it will go. Ours goes up to 700F, but the consistent temperature - taking into account all of the lid openings and closings - is around 550F.

With the dough ready, it was time to focus on the fabulous filling. I mashed the potatoes, as you normally would, with a small amount of butter (I prefer olive oil) and milk. And don't be skimpy on the salt. Canadians are terrified of salt, but you need it to bring out the rich flavours of the other ingredients. If you use a high quality pink Himalayan salt, you don't need to worry about whatever health risks you're worried about. Throw in some fresh cracked pepper, too.

This time I experimented - in a futile attempt at reducing our carb intake - and replaced half of the normal potato quantity with steamed cauliflower. Mash that all up into a gorgeous, fluffy, gooey mess.

Spring onions. There is no bolani without this magical ingredient.

Cilantro (corriander). It's not Afghan food if there is no fresh cilantro. Be generous. It's only 99cents a bunch.

Mix it all together. Then spread a thick, luscious layer on the dough.

Fold the dough over and shape into a crescent moon. Then toss that baby on the barby.

Stack them up to keep warm while the others are cooking. I use a clay pizza stone on our BBQ and only three bolani fit on it at a time. So, either everyone is eating at a different time, or you stack them up, cover them with a tea towel and let the steam inside soften the dough.

These are made with fresh, wholesome ingredients, so I think it's ok to be a little naughty and spread a tiny dollop of butter on them, to melt right into the dough. I mean, you don't have to. But why sacrifice perfection?

Top with a thick plain yoghurt of the all natural, full-bacteria variety. Then dig into that pile of pure goodness like there is no tomorrow.
Watch this space as I experiment with the rich flavours of autumn and adjust my bolani recipe. Pumpkin and butternut squash, with hints of cinnamon. The possibilities are endless!

Empowering Edmonton's Kids through the Early Reader's Programs

The media messages we are exposed to every day focus on the misery, tragedy, suffering and despair of innocent people around the world. While it's hard not get depressed about this, I do sometimes  wonder if this singular focus is really just a ploy to detract our attention from serious issues here at home. The truth of the matter is that - though it is hard to see with all of the million dollar homes sprouting up like weeds, the iPhone 6 Pluses selling out in an hour and the luxury cars on the road - there are people here in Canada barely making ends meet.

Last night, as a volunteer of Junior League Edmonton - which is a chapter of a larger organization of women working together to build communities around North America - we devoted our time to helping strengthen the Early Riser's program at Dunluce Elementary School.

The Early Riser's program operates before school  hours early in the morning and provides extra reading support to children falling below the standard level of reading competence. The teachers have found that many of the children participating in the program come with growling tummies in the morning. Many are sent from home without breakfast, and some without much dinner, either. One teacher remarked that back-to-school shopping for these children is done at Value Village. That is a very different reality to children in other neighbourhoods of Edmonton.

The Junior League ladies got together and baked over 700 muffins for the Early Risers program, to supplement the cereal, fresh fruit and smoothies that are enjoyed at the end of each reading session.

I'm often asked the question of why I get so concerned about children overseas when there is nothing we can do. Well, I disagree that there is nothing we can do, but working to strengthen our communities right here at home is something that each and every one of us can do.