Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

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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Caucasus PakhlavaToday is the spring equinox, when day and night balance out after six months of more darkness than light. For peoples across Central and South Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, this is a major holiday—Nowruz, or Persian New Year. (“Nowruz,” or various spellings thereof, means “new day” in Persian.)  Preparations for the celebration traditionally begin with a massive spring cleaning, buying new clothes and flowers, and days of cooking. Families pay visits to their relatives and friends at home, and it’s important to welcome your guests with snacks—tea and coffee, dried fruits and nuts, cookies and pastries like baklava.

I like the idea of a new “New Year” beginning in the spring. It’s another chance to revisit those resolutions you might have made in January and never got around to fulfilling, a good time to clear away clutter and must, both literal and figurative.

While I never celebrated Nowruz while I was living in the Caucasus, I did eat plenty of baklava. It’s a requisite dish at weddings, birthdays, and other holiday feasts throughout the region. There were the long, skinny diamonds dripping with syrup at my host sister’s wedding in Georgia and tiny squares of cardamom-spiced baqlava at the corner bakery in Azerbaijan, both exquisite. But my favorite was the cookie-like pakhlava that Inna Grigoryan, an Armenian friend of mine in Krasnodar (Russia), baked for her son’s 13th birthday party.

Inna making pakhlava in her mother-in-law's kitchen

Inna making pakhlava in her mother-in-law’s kitchen

Instead of the countless paper-thin sheets of phyllo pastry that most Americans associate with the dessert, this recipe calls for just four layers of a simple sour cream dough, with a sweet paste of ground walnuts, sugar, and egg whites slathered generously between each one. It’s elegant yet entirely unostentatious, satisfyingly rich but not cloyingly sweet. I came across it again at a New Year’s meal at another friend’s home in North Ossetia, hundreds of miles away.

Inna made her pakhlava “by the eye,” as Russians say, not measuring anything precisely and working from an old family recipe long since committed to memory. I’ve done my best to recreate it in my own kitchen, but I’m still tinkering with it. (I think there might be too much dough for the filling.) Please let me know how it turns out if you try it!

Pakhlava
Makes 1 9×13 in. pan

Dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, chopped into ½-inch chunks
¾ cup sour cream
2 egg yolks

Filling:
2 ½ cups walnuts (or a mixture of walnuts and other nuts), toasted
1 cup sugar
3 egg whites

3 Tbsp. honey
1 egg yolk and 1 tsp. water, beaten together with a fork
¼ cup toasted hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, walnuts or other nuts for topping

  1. To toast the nuts: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the nuts in a single layer on a large baking sheet (or two if necessary). Toast them for 10 minutes in the oven. Allow them to cool. Set aside the ¼ cup of nuts you’ll be using to top the pakhlava—don’t chop them.
  2. In a food processor or food mill, grind 1½ cups of toasted nuts to a sand-like powder (not a paste!). Finely chop the remaining 1 cup of nuts. (This can also be accomplished by sealing the nuts inside a large Ziploc bag and running a rolling pin over them repeatedly.)
  3. In a large bowl, combine the flour, soda, and salt. Mix in the butter with a pastry cutter, two forks, or your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse sand.
  4. Lightly beat the egg yolks into the sour cream and fold into the flour mixture. Turn the dough onto a cool, well-floured surface and knead it just until a sticky dough comes together, about 30 seconds. Separate dough into four equal balls, place them on a buttered plate, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  5. Just before rolling out the dough, prepare the filling: beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they become white and foamy, about 30-45 seconds. Stir in the walnuts and sugar. Set aside.
  6. When dough has chilled, butter and flour the bottom and sides of a 13×9-inch baking pan. On a cool, well-floured surface, roll one ball of dough into a 13×9-inch rectangle (or larger and cut it to fit) and place in the greased pan. Spread half of the walnut filling onto this layer, being careful to spread it all the way to the sides.
  7. Roll out the next ball and place on top of the walnut filling. Spread the honey on top of this layer. Roll out the third ball and spread the remaining walnut filling on top of it. Roll out the final ball and place on top. Brush the top layer thoroughly with beaten egg and milk mixture. Cover the pan and chill for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
  8. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Cut the pakhlava diagonally at a steep angle into 2-inch-wide stripes, then cut them crosswise in the same manner to form diamond-shaped pieces. Press a toasted hazelnut, almond, pistachio, or walnut in the center of each piece.
  9. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake approximately 10 minutes longer, until top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool before removing from pan.
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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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Like most us, I eat not only when I’m hungry, but also when I’m bored, when I’m sad or lonely or drunk, when I’m angry or anxious or feel like I deserve a reward. In almost all of these cases, what I want most is dark, dense, not-too-sweet cake. For that very reason, I almost never make such a cake. One must wear pants, after all, and I am not in a position to buy new ones every other month.

Still, there are times. I recently forgot about a bunch of black lentils I had left boiling away on the stove. All the water evaporated and they had burnt to a crisp by the time the biting stench reached my room. I started over with new lentils and managed to salvage the pot I’d been using, but no matter how many fans I turned on and how many windows I opened, I couldn’t get the bitter, charred smell out of the house. I had a friend coming over for dinner whom I didn’t want to repulse. Acrid lentil fumes begone: I would shoo them out, or at least mask them, with the warm and spicy aroma of fresh gingerbread, the ultimate snacking cake.

I found this recipe, which sounded exactly like what I was looking for–almost. I didn’t have the applesauce it called for, but I figured plain yogurt would do. I also didn’t have whole wheat flour but wanted the same dense, nutty quality it imparts, so I replaced it with a mixture of white and rye flour. I misread the recipe and thought it said only ¼ cup each molasses and maple syrup. That seemed like very little sweetener for a whole batch of muffins, so I dumped in some brown sugar. The other gingerbread recipes I had looked at all called for eggs, but this one didn’t—I cracked one in. I was in too much of a hurry to measure spices, so I tossed in a bit of this and a bit of that and hoped it would taste good.

When I pulled the muffins out of the oven twenty-odd minutes later, no trace of the lentil debacle remained. The muffins were a deep caramel brown, bounced back at the touch, and smelled like Christmas. Unfortunately it turned out that my guest doesn’t like ginger, but I devoured mine with fervor enough for two.

Gingerbread (for the Hungry, the Sad, and the Smelly)
Makes about 16 muffins or 1 8×8 pan

*Note: if you don’t have rye flour, you can use whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, or another whole-grain flour.

¼ cup molasses (not blackstrap)
¼ cup real maple syrup
½ cup plain yogurt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup brown sugar, packed down
1 ½ cup rye flour
1 cup all-purpose white flour
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. allspice
¼ tsp. cardamom
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1 cup hot water
1 tsp. powdered sugar for dusting, if desired

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line muffin cups with paper liners or butter and flour an 8×8 in. baking dish.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the molasses, maple syrup, yogurt, butter, egg, and brown sugar. Mix until well blended.
  3. In another bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ones, stirring until just combined. Stir in the hot water. Pour into prepared muffin cups or pan.
  4. Bake 20-25 minutes for muffins or 35-50 minutes for cake, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Sift powdered sugar over the top if desired. (Jiggling the sugar through a fine-mesh sieve works well for this.) Allow to cool before serving.
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