Have I ranted about how wonderful and totally-better-than-all-other-cuisines Georgian food is? Well, it is. So there. With their heady and profound combinations of marigold, cilantro, pomegranate molasses, fruit and, above all, walnuts, those gosh darn Georgians just serve up the tastiest dishes.
I first heard of Georgian food in my college days when my bogglingly beautiful friend Ketevan described the mouthwatering grub her mother prepared back in Tbilisi. It piqued my greed, which went unfulfilled. It was with joy that I found, years later, that my indefatigable parents had independently gotten into Georgian food. My father quite often prepares lobio, an irresistible bean and walnut salad, and bhaji, the insanely scrumptious walnut and pomegranate molasses sauce that goes so well with grilled chicken, asparagus, eggplant and probably leather boots. Then there is makvhali, a blackberry sauce for meat ("Canning Summer," Sept. 30, 2010). Georgians are huge on meat and fruit, which has become pretty much my favorite combination ever.
The recipes below are for lighter summery things. Pkhali (the "kh" is pronounced gutturally — enjoy the names that vowels forgot) refers to a whole genre of cold vegetable mixes that could be served as a salad or a dip. It's very versatile —there are versions with nettles, dandelion greens, beets, cabbage, green beans — and the constant, for the fortunate consumer, is a walnut sauce base. I eat it with a fork alongside salmon or chicken, or spread it on bread and top it with edible flowers for a beautiful appetizer. It's very nutritious and loaded with that special piquancy Georgian flavors afford: sweet, buttery walnuts contrasted with sharp vinegar, spicy raw garlic, slightly bitter greens and round, full herbs. I also include a second simple recipe for another nice salad to be served cold or at room temperature — good to have alongside grilled anything. Our garden is chock full with fresh green beans right now, and it's healthy to expand beyond frying them with garlic chips.
An important detail for both the recipes is dry toasting the walnuts. Buying them raw and toasting them in a cast iron pan over medium heat until you can smell a nutty, toasty aroma adds an important depth of flavor. Don't walk away; walnuts burn suddenly.
Ingredients and method:
1 ½ pound spinach, washed, drained, stemmed and chopped
1 cup walnuts, toasted
4 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground fenugreek
Optional: ½ teaspoon powdered marigold (adds a saffrony note and hue, and is sometimes available at the North Coast Co-op)
1 pinch cayenne
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, or to taste
1 medium yellow or white onion, minced
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)
1 ½ tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon salt (more to taste)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the spinach and cook it just until tender, about 1 minute. Drain well and let it cool. When it's manageable, wrap the spinach in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out the liquid. Chop it as finely as possible (don't use a food processor or blender, which may puree it; it should have some texture) and set aside.
With a blender or mortar and pestle, combine the walnuts, garlic, coriander, fenugreek, cayenne and vinegar. Add 3 tablespoons of warm water and blend until you have a smooth sauce like a coarse mayo, adding a little more water if needed. Add the walnut sauce to the spinach and stir until it's thoroughly blended and smooth. Stir in the minced onion, cilantro and tarragon, and season with salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate the mixture for at least a few hours or overnight. Taste again before serving and adjust the salt and vinegar if needed.
To serve, spread on grilled bread and top with edible flowers, walnuts or pomegranate seeds. Or just enjoy it alongside any mixed grill as a salad.
Serves 3-4 as a side dish
Ingredients and method:
1 pound green beans, trimmed, chopped into 1- or 2-inch pieces
½ cup toasted walnuts, ground to the consistency of coarse sand with a mortar and pestle or food processor
2 cloves garlic, minced and ground with the walnuts
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferably rapeseed or sunflower
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt (more to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 dash crushed red pepper flakes
¾ cup finely chopped mixed herbs (cilantro, parsley, if desired basil, mint)
Bring 1 cup of salted water to a boil, drop in the beans and cover them tightly. Reduce the heat to medium and steam the beans 6 to 9 minutes, until tender but not limp. Drain, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking, and drain again.
Add ground walnuts and garlic, oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and herbs to the beans and toss them well to combine. Serve at room temperature.