Monday, November 15, 2010

Georgia - November 6th 2010

Sometimes there is no better way of making an international dinner "international" than preparing it with a friend visiting from outside the country.  My friend Kristiane was visiting from London and I asked her whether she would have liked to help me prepare and host one of my alphabetical dinner. She was very enthusiastic at the idea and loved the planning and shopping side of things... then I guess reality sank in when she realized that the effortless show put on by Nigella Lawson is hardly effortless!  So sorry, I hope she'll be my friend after all the hard work.  Hey, at least she's got a really good night sleep.  The poor thing was exhausted... I guess the combination of baking and jetlag was just too much for her! 
Funnily enough she couldn't be more far from Georgia... she's actually originally from Cameroon but has lived in London most of her life.  But the alphabet is the alphabet and it was time for G; beside, I've already had a Cameroonian dinner a while ago!

Now, most of you know that I live in Georgia but the dinner had nothing to do with Georgia in the USA.  I am not really sure why Georgia in the US is called like this and surely nothing to do with Georgia in Eastern Europe; probably after some George or other (surely I could check on Wikipedia but this blog isn't about this so I'll leave it to you to find out).  But I do know that Georgia, the country, is called something completely different by its inhabitants: Sakartvelo is what it is known by (and yes, I did find this out in Wikipedia); and it's a very very old country.  It goes back to as early as the 4th century and has a very different climate that makes it perfect for growing vines.  Georgia wines are quite famous apparently...  well, maybe.  We bought a bottle at a local store and have to say we would put it right there with the wines you get from Georgia, USA.  The leftover (we had 1 bottle and didn't even finish it) is being used for cooking.  A bit too sweet to go with any of the food.

The food itself was quite nice.  Nothing compared to my recent French adventure (it's going to be difficult to beat that one) but palatable nevertheless. 

Kristiane was the pastry chef and was therefore responsible for preparing the cake (I helped with the pastry dough which needed to be prepared the night before) but she did pretty much anything else.  It was rather good I thought and prettier than the pastries I normally make!

But I am jumping way ahead now, the cake comes at the end or dulcis in fundo as we say in Italy (yeah, this is probably Latin, but we do use it in Italy to say "finally").  There were many other dishes to prepare and to sample before getting to the cake.  Kiyomi and Floyd have come to my dinners for a while now so they know that it's a smart thing to do to fast during the day as you rarely leave hungry! 

Choosing the menu was interesting.  As of Thursday I still wasn't sure of what the main course should have been.  I was debating between turkey and lamb and eventually I decided that turkey doesn't sound too much like Eastern European to me (probably my own perception but I feel lamb is much more fun to cook with... and frankly I think it tastes a great deal better than turkey).  I also had a few too many side dishes to choose from and I needed to make a decision quickly.  But, eventually, all decisions are made. One of the factors I considered to make my decision was how easy the dish was as I really didn't want to expose Kristiane to the hard labor that sometimes I go through.  Now, despite my best intentions, I am pretty sure she's over entertaining for a while (at least the one that requires preparing food from scratch, I am sure Marks and Spencer in London has some great ready to serve food that would make any evening a success).  But from my point of view, this was one of the easiest meals I prepared in a while.  We even used half the day to go to the farmers market to get the ingredients.  Typically I do that a day or two before the dinner so I have the entire day to prepare!

As starters, I served Lobio and Badridzhani Mtsvanilit... I beg your pardon you say?  I promise this isn't offensive.  The first one is Georgian Style Beans.  The recipe called for dry kidney beans but that would have been too much work so I used canned ones.  The dish consists in beans cooked and then mixed with a sauce made with prunes and a balsamic vinegar reduction.  A really interesting concoction! I could see the look of surprise in my guests' faces when they put it in their mouth.  The vinegar and the fresh cilantro give it a really really nice flavor.  Eric, Kiyomi and Floyd really liked this and all picked out a different ingredient as the favorite in the dish which would suggest nothing was overpowering in it. 

The second unpronounceable starter was an eggplant salad.  If you like garlic and fresh herbs, you'll love this dish.  My friends all commented that you could really taste the garlic but since they all really like it, they didn't complain about it.  Now, this isn't the kind of dish I'd recommend you cook at your Valentine's dinner if you're trying to impress your date.  You might succeed in impressing but the evening is going to end there as you won't want to be within 3 feet of each other for a few hours...

The main dish was Chakapuli and no it isn't a new wave essence... as I mentioned above, I chose lamb for the main course and this dish was braised lamb chops.  The lamb cooks for quite so it's very tender and then it's mixed just before ready with a sauce called tkemali .  The tekmali sauce is made with cooked plums grinded with garlic, spices and herbs.  While everyone agreed it was very tender and flavorful the actual score was mixed: Eric felt it was a bit too greasy and Floyd thought the flavors of the sauce and spices were overpowering so you couldn't really taste the lamb. The recipe says to serve the meat separate from the juices but the quantity of herbs is so much that there isn't really much of a broth left (unless I did something wrong which wouldn't be the first time).  I have to say that this is one of those rare meals that really require a lot of fresh herbs.  Typically I end up using some of the bundle I buy but this time I kept on washing, drying and chopping herbs for many of the recipes and sauces (thank God for the mezzaluna...)

I served the lamb with Charkhlis Chogi (why I insist on writing things with their foreign name I have no idea, nobody has any clue of what this is unless you happen to be from Georgia/Sakartvelo): beets with cherry sauce.  I think I was more intrigued by the cherry sauce than the beets, although I've come to appreciate beets in the last couple of years. I like the sweetness of this vegetable plus it's really healthy.  I thought it would have been interesting to couple the sweetness of beets with the tarte/sweet flavor of dried cherries.  I can't remember much about this dish and the comments were mixed ("not bad... for beets" says Eric, "not a fan of beets" says Kristiane and "not sure it was intended as a side dish" says Floyd.  Would he have preferred it as a dessert?  That's an idea, beets pie). 

Also accompanying the lamb was what was supposed to be the star of the night: Khachapuri, Geogian Cheese Bread.  You can find a ton of recipes for this all over the web; apparently it's quite a famous dish even outside of Georgia.  Really, what's not to like, it's a bread stuffed with cheese.  Almost like a pizza!  Unfortunately I don't seem to have a picture of this but it looked quite good.  It also tasted good but you would enjoy more if you're lucky enough to get a piece from the middle where most of the cheese is (a mix of havarti and salted mozzarella... well I used smoked mozzarella).  If you end up with a piece from the outside (like apparently Floyd and Kiyomi did) it's just like a piece of pizza crust really...  although I am sure it would be great stuffed with salami! 

And finally the dessert; Nigvzis Torti or Walnut-Raisin Torte.  It is a layered pastry stuffed with a mixture of walnuts and raisins cooked in a ton of sugar.  Very sweet but I actually quite liked it. Even Eric liked it.  He is beginning to appreciate desserts in his older age?  Or is it because I insist on him trying the dessert that he's finally realizing that dulcis in fundo is actually quite a good idea? But nothing summarizes this dish as the comment made by Kristiane: "Pastry slightly overcooked but the chef is stunning".  Dare I say anymore?

It had been a long day and I could see Kristiane's chin getting closer and closer to the table and in the haste of getting her to bed I completely forgotten to give the guests their goody bags.  As a testament that Kristiane was asleep, she also forgot even though she was the one that prepared them.  The bag contained a bag of candied walnuts (honey and walnuts) and a jar of pickled garlic (garlic pickled in pomegranate juice).  Both will last a while so I'll see Kiyomi and Floyd soon and bring them theirs but the other one (which was for Kristiane but she really couldn't fly with it) will probably go to Dan's for his birthday (Dan, are you reading this, this year your birthday present is going to be pickled garlic!!). 

Here is the menu with the scores:

Lobio (Georgian Beans)  8.4
Badridzhani Mtsvanilit (Herbed Eggplant Salad) 7.9
Chakapuli (Braised Lamb Chops)  7.6
Charkhlis Chogi (Beets with Cherry Sauce) 6.3
Khachapuri (Georgian Cheese Bread) 7.8
Nigvzis Torti (Walnut-Raisin Torte) 7.3
Overall    8.3

Next on the list, Hungary. 

Stay Tuned....


dan le said...

Pickled garlics for my birthday! Yum. Anything would go with bubblies or good old-fashion Georgian Vodka. Enjoy the blog.. very funny.

Susan said...

I'm sure you didn't scare off Kristiane. :-) She seems to be made of stern stuff. Sounds like a very interesting meal, as usual.

By the way, Georgia (the state) is named for King George II who was the king of Great Britain at the time the state was formed.

Anonymous said...

We didn't have any idea about Georgian cuisine. It was beyond our imagination. All of the dishes really had so much flavor. We enjoyed them all.

Thanks for the lovely dinner Rossana and Kristiane!

KJ and FJ

Sylvie said...

One has to fly to Atlanata at least once in a life time to try one of your alphabetical dinners!