Georgia On My Mind

2006.May.27 Saturday · 5 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

Georgian Republic dinner - menu

Buenos Aires – I’d billed last night’s dinner for Casa SaltShaker as an exploration of my roots, or at least nearby roots – which, is a bit of an exaggeration. It requires considering the entire former USSR, and therefore all the various former republics, as if they were the same neighborhood. In truth, that part of my family came from a small village near to Pinsk, on the southern border of Belarus (when I studied geography we called it Byelorusia, or White Russia) with the Ukraine. That puts it about 1,000 miles from Kiev Tbilisi, the principal city in the Georgian Republic. Still, yesterday was “National Day” for that republic, and the various types of “Russian food” have always intrigued me. I can’t say I learned about them much as a child, my grandmother’s cooking talents were mostly oriented around burning pot roasts, and she left Russia when she was two. I did spend 36 hours or so in Kiev once, and my memories and the pictures I took suggest that it’s a gorgeous city.

Still, I always love taking the opportunity to explore the different regional cuisines from there, and I set out to do so yesterday. And that, for me, made last night’s dinner while not disappointing, at least not to my standards. Because I don’t know that food well, I stuck relatively close to recipes, and didn’t go for much in the way of creativity. The food turned out well, I thought quite good, but in retrospect it was a menu I would have rathered try out with a group of friends just over for dinner, and then played with afterwards to come up with a more interesting tasting menu for the Casa. I think everyone enjoyed the food, but it was missing some level of personality that I wish had been there. We shall see as the reports trickle in, if they do – once again we had a flurry of last minute cancellations, dropping us from ten reservations to five the day before – something we’re going to have to evaluate, as, it’s a lot of work for us for a minimal return if we don’t operate pretty much full. Still, it gives me a chance to try things out for a future “real” restaurant, so it’s an investment in research and learning.

Georgian Republic dinner - cheese & red bean piesBecause I essentially followed traditional recipes, I’ll just tell you that the basis for all of these came from my favorite Russian cookbook, Please to the Table, by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman. I recommend it for your cookbook library, not only for the 400+ well researched recipes, but also for the depth of information about the various regions and customs. It makes a fascinating read. Georgian feasts typically, I gather, begin with small cheese pies, called Khachapuri. The filling is a mix of, more or less, grated mozzarella, feta cheese, and cottage cheese (probably farmer’s cheese) – kind of like a salty blintz stuffing – stuffed in a strudel dough. Cottage cheese isn’t available here, and I wasn’t going to make my own, even though David Lebovitz, whose blog is a regular read of mine, has kindly provided the method to do so. I also didn’t notice the “grated” with the mozzarella, which would mean buying aged mozzarella rather than the fresh that I bought. Traditionally, these pies are made in small, individual sizes, and I wish I had – instead I made these large logs, planning to slice them, which I did, but they were a bit of a mess – strudel dough is tough to slice right out of the oven, plus the fillings, while hot, are a bit squishy. There’s a variation on the pie made with a red bean and crispy sauteed onion filling. So I made both, and served a slice of each, somewhat messily, as the hors d’oeuvre.

Georgian Republic dinner - eggplant and walnutThis dish started out to be eggplants stuffed with a walnut filling. It’s a classic appetizer of the region, typically served chilled, where the eggplants are simply sauteed on both sides, then part of their flesh is scraped out and refilled with a paste made from walnuts and garlic, and various herbs and spices. It’s then garnished with raw red onion rings and pomegranate seeds, the latter of which are not available here at this time of year. However, I just didn’t want to serve the eggplants like that after I looked at them – they would have been fine as part of an antipasti bar sort of thing, but not solo. Instead, I scooped out all the flesh and mashed it with some salt and pepper, then filled small ramekins, topped them with the walnut and garlic puree, and was supposed to, as in the picture, top them with the onion rings. I also didn’t like the idea of serving just rings of raw onions, so I sauteed them with a little paprika and tarragon vinegar, which were components of the walnut sauce. Now, in the act of serving, I forgot to top the ramekins with the onions, so our guests didn’t get the colorful touch. I liked the result, though I think this still would have worked better as a smaller portion, and part of a larger spread of cold appetizers.

Georgian Republic dinner - egg and lemon soupI love this soup. I’ve made the Greek version, avgolemono, before – this is a lighter version of that. There’s something about the balance of the eggs and the lemon, and the eggs making the soup rich but not cooking solid, that is pretty wonderful. This soup turned out pretty much as I’d hoped, and for me was my favorite part of the dinner. Ideally it would be topped with chopped fresh basil, cilantro, and mint – but fresh mint wasn’t available, and there was cilantro in virtually everything else in the dinner, so I went with just the basil. Given the reaction, I think everyone liked it quite a bit – and we have enough left over for us for today!

Georgian Republic dinner - shish kebabThis was probably the prettiest, and busiest dish. I would have liked to cook it, in hindsight, over a charcoal grill, as tradition would have it (though broiling is common too), but I used my stovetop grill. The results were good, but missing that charcoal flavor. The stovetop grill also cooks much more unevenly, and I noticed that the meat ranged from rare to medium-well, depending on where it sat on the grill, which I wasn’t happy about. The texture of the meat, however, was amazing, and in fact, everyone thought the meat was veal rather than bife de chorizo, which is more or less porterhouse steak. There’s a trick to that – the meat is marinated in sparkling mineral water for 6-8 hours along with the other marinade ingredients – onions, garlic, coarse salt, and peppercorns. Most folk marinate in wine, but real Georgian tradition claims that that toughens the meat, and it’s true. I don’t know the science behind sparkling mineral water tenderizing the meat, but it works amazingly well. The meat was accompanied by a sour plum sauce made by cooking prunes down to a pulp with cilantro, garlic, coriander seed, fenugreek, hot pepper flakes, lemon, salt, and olive oil. I added a bit of brandy to it as well to give it slight extra kick.

Georgian Republic dinner - apple charlotteThis isn’t a charlotte in the sense of what we might think of as a traditional French charlotte – a bread lined mold filled with fruit and/or other ingredients. But it is what is called a charlotte from this part of the world. It’s also very possibly the simplest apple pie you could ever make. Traditionally, it’s quite simply a breadcrumb and butter lined mold, a pile of tart apple slices, and then a batter of whipped eggs, sugar, vanilla, and flour poured over it – and then baked. It’s called a “Guest at the Doorstep” apple charlotte, as, other than the baking time of about an hour, the only thing that takes any time is slicing the apples – and that’s not all that time consuming – peel them, cut the sides off the core, and slice six apples. While classically, this is unspiced, leaving just the pure apple flavor, some Georgian cooks offer various combinations of spices that they like to add. I added just a bit of cinnamon and cardamom to the apples when tossing them into the mold, which I think worked well.

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Wines of the evening, all brought by our guests:

  • Robert de Schlumberger Brut 2001Sparkler produced by a joint venture between Schlumberger of Austria and Catena here in Argentina. Inexpensive and absolutely wonderful.
  • Martino “Viña Violeta de Agrelo” Malbec 2002Classic Malbec with all the right flavors. Nice, fruit forward style.
  • Vinicola Savese “Terrarossa” Primitivo di Manduria 1995I’ve always loved this wine, and here, a bottle with eleven years of age on it and still drinking spectacularly well. Just plain wow!
  • Santa Julia Tardio 2005Decent dessert wine, admittedly not one of my favorites. I find it a bit simplistic and lacking in depth, but everyone at the table seemed to enjoy it, especially with the apple charlotte.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

schussheim May 27, 2006 at 20:04

Hey, wait a minute! My mother’s family also came from Pinsk, precisely from a small village called Luninietz. But as far as I know, Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, not Georgia, where the principal city and capital is Tiflis, or Tbilisi. Study your maps again, Dan!

dan May 28, 2006 at 00:16

You’re absolutely right, I don’t know why I was thinking Kiev was in Georgia – then again, that was 30 years ago that I was there, so maybe they moved it… 😉

Nonetheless, Pinsk and any part of Georgia are still 1000 miles apart!

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