Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

acharuli khachapuri

I first tried Georgian khachapuri (bread stuffed with salty melted cheese) in Moscow, where I found it at a street stand on a frigid, grimy morning in March. Fresh from the oven, it warmed my hands through my gloves and the molten cheese and buttery dough seemed to start insulating me from the cold almost as soon as I swallowed the first bite. From then on, I became a regular, at least until I stopped being able to fit comfortably into my jeans and had to take a temporary hiatus.

Khachapuri is arguably Georgia’s most celebrated national dish and one of its most recognizable cultural exports, at least among the countries of the former Soviet Union. The sort I’d tried in Moscow is known as penovani, the most popular street snack variety from Ukraine to Tajikistan. It substitutes puff pastry for the more traditional bread dough and comes apportioned for one. There are also several regional varieties: the classic imeruli (a flat, round pie stuffed with cheese, from the central region of Imereti), megruli (pretty much the same as imeruli, but topped with an extra layer of cheese, from the western Megruli region), and the decadent ajaruli khachapuri, which hails from the Ajara region on the Black Sea coast.

Ajaran khachapuri is essentially a breadbowl encompassing a molten lake of oozy, salty cheese and a poached egg. It is typically shaped like a boat or an eye, the egg’s yolk a sort of sunny pupil. I first tried it on a sweltering August afternoon after a sticky four-hour bus ride from another city—not the ideal conditions for this dish. (There were no other choices at the time.)

January, however, is another story. There’s nothing like biting cold (or a nasty hangover) to make you crave stick-to-your-bones food like this. Make it for a weekend brunch or your next snow day. It’s so filling you won’t need much on the side: just coffee and some grapefruit or orange juice to cut the richness.

Ajaran Khachapuri (Hot Breadbowl with Cheese and Egg)
Serves 4 as a main course
Time: about 2 and a half hours, largely unattended

Dough:
¾ cup lukewarm milk (105-115 degrees F), divided
1 (0.25 oz.) pkg. active dry yeast (2 ¼ tsp.)
1 tsp.sugar
6 Tbsp. melted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, beaten, plus 1 more for the egg wash
2 ¾ cup flour, plus ¼ cup more for kneading and rolling
2 tsp. kosher salt

Filling:
¾ cup grated mozzarella
¾ cup crumbled feta
4 Tbsp. plain yogurt
2 eggs, beaten
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
4 eggs, whole
Butter, if desired

(Note: If you can find Georgian sulguni cheese, grate 1 ½ cups of it and use in place of the mozzarella, feta, and salt in the filling.)

1. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and ¼ cup of the lukewarm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture becomes foamy.

2. Add the remaining milk, butter, egg, flour, and salt and mix well to form a soft dough. (You’ll probably need to use your hands at the end to get everything thoroughly mixed.) The dough will still be fairly sticky but should pull away from the sides of the bowl.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5-8 minutes, adding only enough flour to keep it from sticking.

4. Roll the dough into a ball and put it in a large buttered bowl, turning to coat. Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm place to rise until roughly doubled in size, about 1 ½ hours.

5. Thirty minutes before you plan to bake the khachapuri, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line two heavy-duty baking sheets with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

6. Punch the dough down and divide it into four balls. Working one ball at a time on a lightly floured surface, roll each one into a circle about 10 inches in diameter. (You can also hold the dough in the air, turning it constantly and letting it stretch itself out: watch the video below to see my Georgian host mother’s technique.)

7. Roll the edges inward loosely to create an “eye” shape roughly 7-8 inches long and 4-5 inches wide. The rolled dough around the edges should be about 1 inch high. Twist the edges together at the ends (the corners of the eye) and press the twist down with your thumb to “seal” the ends. Transfer each khachapuri to the lined baking sheets and let them rest about 10 minutes.

8. Meanwhile, mix the cheeses, yogurt, beaten eggs and salt together in a small bowl with a fork. Once the dough has rested, spoon ¼ of the filling mixture into each one (about 3 Tbsp. of filling per khachapuri).

9. Beat 1 whole egg with 1 tsp. water to make an egg wash. Use a small brush to coat the sides of each khachapuri generously with it.

10. Bake for 12-17 minutes, until the crusts begin to turn golden. Remove the khachapuri from the oven. Use a spoon to make a 3-in. diameter well in the center of each khachapuri—you’ll need to crack the surface of the cheese to do this. Crack a whole egg into each well. Return the khachapuri to the oven and continue baking until crusts turn deep golden brown, another 6-8 minutes. The egg whites should be fairly opaque but still wobbly, the yolks glistening. (The eggs will continue to cook in the hot cheese after they emerge from the oven.)

11. Serve each khachapuri on individual plates with pats of butter on the side for diners who wish to add it. (This is too rich for my taste, but Georgians often do it.) If you like, sprinkle black pepper on top.

12. To eat: Use your fork to mix the egg thoroughly into the cheese. Cut pieces of crust from the inside rim first, swirling them through the filling like fondue. Then move to the outer rim and the bottom.

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Georgian Honey Nut Brittle (Gozinaki)

Walnuts candied in honey are traditionally enjoyed on New Year’s Eve and throughout the holiday season in Georgia. (Most Georgians who celebrate Christmas do so on January 7, when it falls according to the Orthodox Church (Julian) calendar.) The crisp brittle keeps well and doesn’t require too much space in stomachs already stretched from days of feasting. When I make gozinaki, I like to mix the walnuts with hazelnuts, pecans, or almonds and use single-flower honey to lend each batch a distinctive character. As the honey caramelizes, it fills the house with its warm, sweet perfume, somewhere between orange blossoms and gingerbread. By the time I’ve turned the brittle onto my cutting board to cool, everyone is already waiting by the kitchen door, clambering for a piece.

Snack on a square of this to get you through the mid-afternoon slump at work, pair it with a shot of espresso for a sweet treat you won’t feel guilty about eating, or bring a bag of it along on your next hiking trip to keep you energized.

Georgian Honey Nut Brittle (Gozinaki)
Makes about 36 pieces

1 ½ cups walnut halves
1 ½ cups hazelnuts
1 cup good-quality honey
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt, divided

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil and bake for 8-10 minutes, stirring once halfway through. Allow to cool slightly, then coarsely chop the nuts. (It is best to roast nuts whole and chop them later, because pre-chopped pieces burn easily. Warm nuts are also easier to chop without shards flying everywhere.)
  2. Heat the honey and sugar in a heavy-bottomed skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a rolling boil. Let it boil for 1 minute, stirring frequently.
  3. Add the chopped nuts and ¼ tsp. of sea salt to the boiling honey. Reduce the heat to medium: continue to stir frequently to ensure the honey and nuts do not burn as they caramelize.
  4. When the honey has thickened and turned a shiny tawny brown color (about 5 minutes), turn the honey-nut mixture out onto a moistened wooden cutting board or granite countertop. Spread the nuts into a ½ inch thick layer with a rubber spatula or the back of a wooden spoon. Sprinkle the remaining ¼ tsp. of sea salt on top. Allow to cool ten minutes, then chop into 2-in. squares or diamonds. Transfer the pieces to a sheet of parchment paper and allow to cool completely—the brittle will harden as it cools. Store in an airtight container or in the freezer.
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Chanakhi (Georgian lamb and eggplant stew)

This hearty stew is traditionally baked and served in individual clay pots called chanakhi, which is where the dish gets its name. It’s also the custom to make slits in each eggplant and stuff them with herbs and chunks of lamb fat before layering them into the stew to braise. Most Georgian home cooks today make a simpler version like the one I present here.

My notes from the time Shushana (my host mother in Batumi) and I cooked it together make me laugh now. Apparently the gas ran out midway, so Shushana had to call the utility company to bring out a fresh propane tank. My host father Misha wandered in to find out what the holdup was, then spread a layer of sour cream on some bread to tide himself over while I drank a glass of homemade Cornelian cherry juice and Shushana tackled the dishes. My host sister Diana came home with a scarlet red dress she’d found for her engagement party. Half an hour later, the guy from the gas company showed up to screw in the new tank on the balcony. We were back in business, the stew again bubbling away on the stove. (Shushana preferred the stovetop to the oven, which is where she stored her pots and pans.) “Now I remember why I never make chanakhi,” Shushana chuckled as we sat down to eat around 11 pm.

This is certainly not a recipe to whip out in a time crunch. Luckily it’s the kind of dish that actually tastes better the second and third time you reheat it, once the flavors have had a chance to meld. I’d advise making it a day ahead of time.

Chanakhi (Georgian Lamb Stew with Eggplant and Potatoes)

2 lbs. lamb stew meat (like boneless lamb shoulder), cut into bite-size (1 in.) chunks
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more for salting the eggplant
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 Tbsp. vegetable oil or butter, divided
2 medium onions, cut in half and sliced into ½-inch wide strips
10 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 ½ Tbsp. red wine vinegar
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered and cut into ½-in.-thick wedges. (No need to peel.)
1 medium globe eggplant or 4 narrow Japanese eggplants (about 1 ½ pounds), stemmed, quartered lengthwise (or cut into eighths if your eggplant is large), and sliced into ½-in.-thick wedges
2 medium bell peppers, any color, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-in. pieces
1 ½ cups each fresh basil, cilantro, and flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped. (At my grocery store, this is one full bunch of each herb. If some stems get in there, it’s no big deal.)
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the oven rack so it is in the bottom third of the oven and there is enough room above it to slide in the pot you’ll be using with its lid on.
  2. Toss the eggplant slices with a good handful of kosher salt, mixing to coat. Set aside for half an hour, then use your hands to knead down the eggplant slices, squeezing out their dark juice as you go. Rinse well and pat the slices dry on a dishcloth or paper towels.
  3. Mix the lamb with ½ tsp. of the kosher salt, the black pepper, and the cayenne pepper, stirring well to coat. (Your hands are the best tool for this. Just wash and dry them well afterwards.)
  4. Heat 2 Tbsp. of the oil or butter in a large Dutch oven or deep enameled cast iron pot with a tight-fitting, oven-safe lid. Brown the lamb over high heat, 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove lamb to another dish and set aside.
  5. Add the remaining 2 Tbsp. of oil or butter to the pot and heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add half the minced garlic and cook for another 30 seconds or so, stirring, until you can really smell the garlic. Turn off the heat or remove the pot from the burner (if using electric stove).
  6. Add the lamb back into the pot and stir to mix with the onion and garlic. Add the contents of the can of tomatoes (with juice), the red wine vinegar, and the remaining 1 tsp. of salt. Then layer half the potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and herbs on top, each in its own layer. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, eggplant, and peppers, continuing to layer. Add the fresh diced tomato on top. (Your vegetables will likely be nearing the top of the pot at this point.) Pour 4 cups of water over the vegetables. Do not stir.
  7. Cover the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Do not stir. Move the pot to the oven and bake for 1 ½ hours. Remove the pot from the oven and increase the temperature to 400 degrees F. Add half the remaining herbs and the rest of the minced garlic to the pot. Put the to back in the oven, uncovered, and bake for 15-20 minutes more, until the broth has thickened slightly.
  8. Serve hot with crusty bread. Sprinkle the remaining herbs over each serving at the table.
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Chakhokhbili Georgian chicken stew

Chakhokhbili is a lot easier to make than it is to pronounce. (The “kh” sounds like the “h” in a Russian-accented “hello,” or the “ch” in the German “ich.”) While you can certainly find this dish on restaurant menus in Georgia, it is equally likely to show up on weeknight dinner tables at home because it comes together quickly and is the kind of thing you can make a big batch of and then easily reheat the leftovers for another meal (or two or three, if there’s only one of you).

The dish’s name comes from the Georgian word for pheasant (khokhobi), and if you happen to have a pheasant on hand, you can substitute it for the chicken in the recipe. You could also use turkey, duck, or Cornish game hen. In Georgia today, chicken is the most common bird used for this recipe.

My Georgian host mother Shushana used to serve chakhokhbili with the slightly salty, pully bread she’d pick up at the bakery across the street from our apartment building. It was perfect for mopping up the last sweet, tomatoey juices from our plates.

Chakhokhbili (Georgian Chicken Stew with Herbs and Tomatoes)
Serves 4-6

A 5 lb. chicken, trimmed of fat and skin and cut into parts (or 2 lbs. chicken thighs or chicken drumsticks. I wouldn’t recommend only breast meat, because it tends to get dry.)
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter or vegetable oil
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
2 medium yellow onions, cut in half and then into ½ in. slices
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes (or 4 large ripe tomatoes, cored and diced—you can blanch and peel them first if you like, but I don’t bother)
½ Tbsp. red wine vinegar
About 1 ½ cups finely chopped mixed fresh herbs (choose from cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, basil, dill, tarragon, summer savory, celery greens), for instance:
- ½ bunch cilantro, finely chopped (about 2/3 cup)
- ½ bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (about 2/3 cup)
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill

Note on herbs: Georgians often use both the leaves and stems of fresh herbs unless the stems are particularly tough. If you dislike the sharper taste of the stems, feel free to discard them before chopping.

  1. If you’re starting with a whole chicken, cut it into parts, removing fat and skin as you go: separate the wings, the thighs, the drumsticks, and the breast, then cut the breast into 2-inch chunks.
  2. Heat butter or oil in a cast iron skillet until it begins to sizzle. (You can use any heavy-bottomed pan with high sides, but avoid nonstick pans, which keep things from browning properly.) Add the chicken pieces, salt, pepper, and cayenne, stirring to coat. Brown the chicken lightly on all sides.
  3. Remove the chicken pieces from the skillet and add the onions. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic until it turns fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes with their juice, the vinegar, and half the herbs, stirring to combine.
  4. Bring the stew to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and add the chicken back to the pan. Stir in the rest of the herbs and cover the pan. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Serve with additional herbs sprinkled on top, with crusty bread, pita bread or naan, or over basmati rice.
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For our family vacation, my father had one primary criterion: he wanted to go to a place like nowhere he’d ever seen before. The trip had to fit within his budget, the likelihood of contracting a gut-busting illness had to be fairly low, and the destination had to be challenging enough that it merited going now, before the aches and pains of age sweep it off the list. After a couple of years (years!) of deliberation and my brother’s design of a multifaceted, weighted rating system (no, really), we settled on two provinces in southwestern China, Guangxi and Yunnan.

Hear stories and see photos from the trip in this, my first attempt at an audio slideshow:

You might not know these provinces by name, but you’ve probably seen pictures of the limestone karst peaks pointing into the sky like stone fingers along the Li River in Guangxi, and you may have heard of Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, one of the world’s deepest gorges. While the southern part of Yunnan, which borders Myanmar, is low-lying and tropical, the mountainous northern part where we were rises toward Tibet, to the west, and Sichuan, to the north. Its cuisine is influenced by both those cultures and by its position on the ancient trade routes along which tea, spices, and so much else flowed west to India, Central Asia, and on to Europe.

Li River, Guangxi Province, China

Li River, Guangxi Province, China

In both provinces, “cooking” is nearly synonymous with “stir-frying.” Most every dish we tried had undergone some sort of transformation in a wok, even eggs over-easy (which turn out puffy and crisped on the edges) and apple turnovers (pure decadence). The fact that everything is cooked at such high heat is good news for travelers, since bacteria have little chance of survival when submerged in a pool of boiling oil.

Many of the foods we tried were reminiscent of dishes we were familiar with from decent Chinese restaurants in the States: fiery ma po dofu (tofu fried with red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns  that gently numb your lips and tongue), stir-fried pork with snow peas, garlicky Chinese cabbage. Others were new: spindly lakeweed stir-fried with chicken and chilies, a crispy tuile of deep-fried goat cheese dribbled with sweet rose petal syrup, chunks of eel simmered with cilantro in a spicy, numb-hot sauce. The yaks that roam northern Yunnan showed up on our table in various forms: raw yak meat that you cook yourself in bowls of boiling soup, bone-coating yak butter tea, crumbly yak cheese dipped in sugar, grab n‘ go yak milk yogurt that you drink through a straw for breakfast.

As much as I love eating out, the real food highlights of the trip for me were the cooking classes and market visits we did. This is where I learned, for instance, that Chinese cooks cut everything from pig’s legs to scallions with cleaver, and that a fairly good one can be had for the equivalent of about $9 at the market. (Of course I bought one.) I reveled in the umpteen varieties of dried mushrooms for sale, the aromas of spices I couldn’t identify, the mounds of lumpy mangosteens and spiny lychees.

Mangosteens at the market in Dali, Yunnan

Mangosteens at the market in Dali, Yunnan

Our warm and knowledgeable teacher at Rice and Friends Cooking School in Dali, Luxi, helped us identify a few fruits we’d never so much as heard of: the spherical yellow ren shen guo (ginseng fruit), which tastes like a cross between a tomato and a melon; and wax apple, which is shaped like a baby red bell pepper but tastes like a mildly sweet apple covered in waxy skin.

A huge thank you is due as well to Tanya and Alex Wang of Backroads of China Tours, who made the trip possible in the first place, and our local guides Bob and Mr. Mu and our trusty drivers, without whom we would have been utterly lost.

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