Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Posts from the ‘cooking’ category

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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Food of LifeI received a Persian cookbook as a gift a couple of months ago (Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij) and haven’t stopped cooking from it since. I like the way these dishes make my kitchen smell—rich and garlicky and warm, with sweet and earthy spices. They have so much in common with the foods I loved in the Caucasus—delicate combinations of sweet and sour flavors, fruits stewing along with meats in savory dishes, recipes packed with nuts and fresh herbs. This is no surprise—the ancient trade routes brought ingredients and techniques from Central and South Asia west to Iran, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Turkey and back again, forming a culinary continuum that persists to this day.

This swath of Earth Is my gastronomic home. 90% of my most-used cookbooks (including Silk Road Cooking (also by Batmanglij), Plenty, Please to the Table, Classical Turkish Cooking) focus on cuisines in this group. I love tracing how the names for foods made subtle shifts as they made their way across it. For example, eggplant in Hindi is baingan or brinjal, in Farsi bademjan, in Georgian badrijani, in Russian baklazhan, in Turkish patlican, all the way to the (British) English aubergine.

While I already had most of the spices required to make Persian dishes in my pantry and could get most of the ingredients I needed at my local grocery store, there were a few gaps that necessitated a field trip to the Persian store in the ‘burbs. (Sure, I could have filled them online, but that wouldn’t be half the fun!) With a list of items I never knew existed (e.g. verjus (unripe grape juice), dried limes, grape molasses), my intrepid culinary adventure partner Wendy and I set out for Yekta Market, reputedly the best-stocked Persian store in the DC area.

Nuts and dried fruits at a market in Kyrgyzstan, part of the same culinary continuum

Nuts and dried fruits at a market in Kyrgyzstan, part of the same culinary continuum

It took a few U turns and more than a few curses at the GPS Digital Dolt, but we made it half an hour before close. I walked in and wanted everything: the hummocks of raw nuts—almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts. Heaping mounds of fresh herbs and bulging bags of dried ones: tarragon, mint, lovage, fenugreek. Pomegranate and sour cherry juice. Flatbreads other than pita. The most interesting jams: mulberry, fig, quince, walnut. Huge blocks of feta bathing in brine, waiting to be cut on the spot. Barrels of olives. Pickled turnips. Dried dates, figs, apricots, cherries, prunes, persimmons. The spidery script over everything. The same dusty clutter I remember from the Russian store in Minneapolis. People come here to taste home.

pomegranate seeds

Georgian pomegranate

We could have easily stayed another hour to peruse everything on the shelves, but the shop was closing and our stomachs growling. We went to the restaurant next door for dinner, where the star dish of our meal was fesenjan, chicken braised slowly in a thick stew of pomegranate, ground walnuts and spices until it falls off the bone. It was the kind of meal I was tempted to prolong by running my finger along the inside of the bowl when all the flatbread was gone and there were still traces of sauce leftover.

I managed to restrain myself at the restaurant, but made a similar dish from Batmanglij’s cookbook for a potluck dinner party with friends the next week. I’m not the only one who couldn’t get enough of it. I promised to share the recipe and haven’t yet, so here it is:

Pomegranate Khoresh with Chicken (Khoresh-e fesenjan ba jujeh)

From Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij
Makes 4 servings

½ lb. (2 cups) shelled walnuts
5 Tbsp. oil, butter, or ghee
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 lbs. chicken legs, cut up (I used a package of chicken thighs and didn’t bother cutting them up)
1lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-in. cubes
4 cups pure pomegranate juice
2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses
1 tsp. sea salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground saffron dissolved in 1 Tbsp. rose water (I skipped this)
2 Tbsp. grape molasses or sugar (optional)

Garnish:
Arils of 1 fresh pomegranate
2 Tbsp. toasted walnuts

  1. To toast the walnuts: Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Spread the walnuts in a sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes. Set aside.
  2. In a Dutch oven, heat 3 Tbsp. oil over medium heat until very hot, and sauté the onions. Remove from pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add 2 Tbsp. oil and brown the chicken. Add the butternut squash and sauté for a few minutes.
  3. In a food processor, finely grind the sautéd onions with the toasted walnuts, add 1 cup pomegranate juice, the pomegranate molasses, salt, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron-rose water (if using), and grape molasses or sugar,  and mix well to create a creamy paste.
  4. Add the creamy walnut paste and remaining pomegranate juice to the chicken in a Dutch oven, stirring gently. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent walnuts from burning.
  5. The khoresh should be sweet and sour and have the consistency of heavy cream. Adjust to taste by adding pomegranate molasses for sourness or grape molasses (or sugar) for sweetness. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with more pomegranate juice.
  6. Transfer the khoresh from the Dutch oven to a deep, ovenproof casserole. Cover and place in a warm oven until ready to serve with chelow (saffron-steamed rice). Just prior to serving, sprinkle with fresh pomegranate arils and walnuts.
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