Here commences the Great Soviet Experiment (or perhaps, that is, the second Great Soviet Experiment). I will be cooking something from each former republic, in order, because I am back in America and have nothing to do and miss the Soviet Union (historically and geographically).1 (That is, I will do this one and then probably forget about the whole thing.) I’m starting with Azerbaijan because it comes first in the Russian alphabet, and I’m doing this from a Russian cookbook.
It’s called Cuisines of the Caucasus and Central Asia, by William (or Vil’yam) Pokhlyobkin (Вильям Похлёбкин)—he’s also done cookbooks on the Slavic countries and the entire Soviet Union, which I thought was what I bought, but I guess it was too heavy so I got this one instead. It was a while ago in Bishkek, I don’t remember anything. (Important note about Pokhlyobkin, whose name is impossible to spell in English: it seems like he’s an expert on Russian cuisine, and just sort of decided to branch out into Central Asian and other former Soviet, so we should maybe not trust him too heavily. But it is nice to use the Russian-language cookbooks that one has bought. Also, apparently he once got into trouble for writing a book about tea.)
Anyway. For Azerbaijan, we are doing a chicken plov (#plov), because most of the other dishes were much meatier (mostly lamb), and no. Plov is basically a dish of rice and meat from Uzbekistan/Turkey/many other places that they eat all over the former Soviet Union because, at least in Russia, they are obsessed with the food of their culinarily better neighbors/take-over-ees. There are literally entire books about plov, which is something I would like to own, so I will not go into more detail on it here. It is very complicated.
Some badly translated2 words on plov, courtesty of Pokhlyobkin:
Azerbaijani plov consists of two foundations and three additional parts. All of these parts are prepared separately.
The two main parts of plov are boiled rice and gara (that is, the meat, fish, egg, milk, vegetable, or fruit portion).
The additional parts are the additions to plov: sharp greens (whole stalks of green leeks, garlic, basil, estragon, pepperwort, chopped fresh mint and kinza); kazmag (thin, hard-baked fresh lepyoshka [ed.—a yummy round bread, although it is a bit different in this context]); sherbets (most often sour—lemon, pomegranate, grape, barberry, and reykhan).
There are 1,000 different ways you can cook the rice, all of which are very complicated and important. We (my mother and I—I’m living at home at the moment. “We” is not, contrary to expectation, “me and the ghost of Fitzpatrick.” Although it could be said ghost, as I do not know where he/it is at the moment) are doing Method 3, because I don’t have any of the necessary cooking implements, none of which I know the words for in Russian. I just know I don’t have them. Within three seconds of starting to read the instructions, I burst into crazed laughter, in fact.
We are going to pretend that we have rice “of the type that are usually sold” (as opposed to “some types of Azerbaijani and international rice”), and do the easiest method of preparation (there are four) because we cannot understand the other three.
I ended up starting with the filling, though, because it was the most confusing. First, you are supposed to do something very complicated to raw chestnuts, but we only have already-roasted chestnuts. Omg, I am switching back and forth from Russian to English and I’m losing it. OK. So usually you would roast the chestnuts and then boil them in milk and water to the consistency of a boiled potato (possibly), so I’m just going to boil my roasted chestnuts in said milk while I chop up my other ingredients.
(The weird thing is that the recipe says nothing about any chopping, but I’m just going to anyway. SPOILER ALERT: You are not actually supposed to, it turns out.)
Next up is the alychi, or “cherry plums”—I Googled pictures of these and ended up buying some apricots and some plums. I suppose I could have added cherries for good measure. I chopped them as my heart desired, then almonds, garlic, onions. When that was all done I took the chestnuts off the heat, chopped them as well, and added them. They smelled so strange and warm and wonderful, though the insides hadn’t changed at all.
I fried them a bit in some oil, and then we put them on a bottom of the baking pan and covered them with chicken thighs. (We went the route of not a whole chicken and not stuffing it because laziness.) We sprinkled cinnamon, salt, and pepper and put them in the oven, at the random temperature of 375 because it was not specified.
In the meantime, I discovered that in order to do the kazmag (bread) thing properly, I would have to do a more complicated rice preparation, because you then get to cook them together in this ridiculously awesome way that I am skeptical will work. I made the dough—“exactly as you make pasta dough,” which obviously I did instantly and with no trouble at all because I cook pasta dough every five minutes—by combining some flour and salt, making a well for my egg, water, and (melted) butter, mixing with a fork, etc. It actually wasn’t that hard, I just mixed it, added some more water, made it into a ball, and put it into the fridge.
Meantime, I washed my rice very carefully, per instructions (I have never done this before and it was truly delightful; damp rice feels cool, and the grains were so carefully articulated and precise after), and left them to soak for a bit in warm water.
Now I’m just sitting around while the rice water boils, the rice soaks, and the dough chills. I also drank some pomegranate juice. It was good, and now I am immortal. And I am smelling the chicken; it smells amazing.
Things picked up a bit after this. There was some frantic pouring-rice-into-water, cooking-rice-until-half-doneness, melting-butter, and rolling-out-dough all at exactly the same time. I put the dough into a new pot to wait for the rice; we just used a regular pot, but I think a Dutch oven would be better. Ultimately, the rice half-cooked, I drained it, and put it into the little dough nest. This was so cool. I put in some, poured some butter in, smoothed it out, and adjusted the bread so it made a perfect little home for the rice; I put in the rest of the rice and it came up just to the edge of the bread. Then we put it on the heat, and the rice cooked, but the bread did not.
So we ate the chicken with the apricot stuff; it had kind of liquified and turned to mush, which was really tasty, but I would leave the pieces a lot bigger if I did this again; they all just kind of fell together into a soft commingling, which was very nice, but the fruit bits did disappear somewhere. I also do not think I like chestnuts, and would probably not bother with them next time, unless I figured out the milk-boiling thing better. After like half an hour or so we did find that the bread was mostly cooked, and this was a great hit. Huzzah.
Overall, yum. Basically. And I want to go to Azerbaijan really badly.
Oh, and the bread did cook, after a while.
Plov with Young Chicken (Плов с цыплёнком)
Recipe from Pokhlyobkin, cited above; some of this is translated by me (I *can* translate better. I am just currently not) and some of it I just wrote up myself. (Also, the recipe was spread over eight pages, and you had to keep flipping back and forth and looking around to find the relevant parts. None of it made any sense, and also it was all in very beautifully written, exalted literary Russian.)
As usual, I’ve taken this so far from its original (and, uh, the book was written by a Russian) that I am not quite sure whether this is really Azerbaijani food—I don’t know enough about it and I really don’t want to infringe on its good name—but I hope it’s at least something close. I would like to learn more.
For the gara:
1 young chicken
1 cup alychi, cherry plums (or dried kizil, cornelian/dogwood cherry)
.5 cup chestnuts (or 1 large female potato)—raw is preferred, but you can use preroasted if you must
10–15 almonds, diced
.5–.75 cup pomegranate juice
1 head of garlic with greens (I couldn’t find the greens, alas), minced (just the garlic part, that is)
1 teaspoon cinammon
.5 teaspoon black or red ground pepper
.5 teaspoon salt
Various “spicy” greens for toppings—estragon/Russian tarragon, scallion greens, garlic greens, pepperwort, mint… basically whatever you can find
1.5 cups rice
100 g butter (THIS IS WAY TOO MUCH. IT WILL JUST TASTE LIKE BUTTER AND A LITTLE RICE)
1 pinch of saffron (see note below)
1.5 cups flour
1 tablespoon water (add more as needed)
25 g butter or oil
.5 tsp salt
Roast the chestnuts in their skins in the oven. Then pour boiling water on them to remove the skins, and then boil them in milk, like a potato, under a very low flame. “Only in this way may prepared chestnuts (that is, half-prepared) enter into meat dishes and be led to their final softness together with the meat sauce, buillon, or butter; or in the case of using them in the capacity of an independent dish, it is necessary to boil them to doneness in milk (cream) and add butter.” (I could have translated this better, but I very much like how it sounds.)
Combine the nuts, fruits, onions, and garlic and lighty fry them in oil. (Chop or don’t chop the things that are unspecified, as you will.)
I don’t know how to cook chicken. I recommend having your mother deal with it for you. If you are doing an entire chicken, rub the inside with the mix of salt, cinnamon, and pepper, and then stuff the chestnut filling inside. Roast it on a grill/broiler, pouring the pomegranate juice over. (We did about half the juice; I would probably do a bit more, because we had too much left over at the end, and we just poured it on—as per the recipe—and it got too soupy.) Otherwise, just put the chicken over the fruit/nut mixture in a baking pan, and bake. The recipe does not say how long. Follow your heart. Also, if you are vegetarian, you can totally just not do the chicken, but maybe add in the cinnamon elsewhere because it’s nice.
Combine the flour and salt; make a well in the middle and add the egg, water, and oil/butter. Mix it all together with a fork. Add more water if you need to. Form it into a ball with your (dry, floured) hands, and let it rest in some wax paper for a few minutes. (This is just how I did it—I have no idea if it is right. There are no instructions in the book.)
There are many different ways you can make the rice; this one uses the least specialized equipment, but still allows you to cook it with the kazmag. “In a large quantity of lightly salted boiling water in an enamel pot sprinkle in the rice and boil to half-doneness, the whole time removing the foam from the surface of the boiling water. When the rices will still hold within themselves some hardness, throw the rice into a colander, wash with cold, boiled water.”
“Then pave/line the depths and walls of a Dutch oven [kazan] with the kazmag and put in the kazmag 1 to 1.5 cups of the boiled rice, mixed with half of the stated amount of melted butter, having evened out this mixture in a thin layer; on top sprinkle on the remaining rice, put on it the remaining butter, densely close the lid and stew on a weak fire for about half an hour (to the readiness of the rice).”
In my own words: Roll out the kazmag as thin as you can; you’ll need it to be at least an inch or two larger than the bottom of the pot on all sides. Line the pot with the kazmag—you should probably put some butter or oil around the pot first, for ease of removal—and add the rice, mixed with the butter (but use less than stated; it was way too much). Put over a low heat for probably about, indeed, half an hour, though the rice may be done before the bread.
“After the rice is done, separate a portion of the rice, usually half or a third, and color it with an infusion of saffron to a bright yellow color. For this, mix 1 tbsp melted butter with 1 tbsp sharply boiling water and into this mixture add the infusion of saffron or a pinch of dried turmeric, and then mix the colored butter mixture in the rice in a separate plate. You can then either pour the colored rice on top of the white rice in symmetrical rows, or equally mix it with the uncolored rice.” This entire step is optional, because saffron is expensive and you can’t really taste it.
Then basically you pour the remaining pomegranate juice onto the chicken and serve it all separately. But on your plate together; serve it with the chopped-up green things.
I realize this all sounds slightly ridiculously complicated, but if you have a free afternoon and are avoiding making major life decisions, you should do it! It’s not that hard, it just takes a while.
1. I am not actually a fan of the Soviet Union, don’t worry. I know all about politics and life and stuff. And I tagged it “Russian” not because I think Azerbaijan is part of Russia but because the Russian language was involved in the making of this particular recipe.
2. I can actually translate pretty well, in real life! If you wish to employ me, do not take this as a sample of my work.