Azerbaijan wasn’t on the list of places we planned to visit, until we read Feride Buyuran’s new book, Pomegranates & Saffron: A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan.Buyuran presents food that is a fascinating combination of the familiar and the exotic. Some Azerbaijani dishes recall specialties of Turkey – which, like Azerbaijan, is partly in Europe and partly in Asia.Buyuran’s grain and bean soup is topped with two sauces – one of dried mint heated in butter and another of garlicky yogurt; we’ve had this pair of toppings on Turkish stuffed pasta called manti. The hearty Azerbaijani soup is made of pinto beans, chickpeas, bulgur and rice, and is flavored with turmeric, onions sautéed in butter and lavish amounts of fresh greens – cilantro (fresh coriander), spinach, chives, parsley and tarragon.
Azerbaijani meatballs are not like those my Polish-born mother made.One kind, called Tabriz-style meatballs, are similar to meatballs we sampled at a Persian festival. They are composed of ground lamb seasoned with saffron and mixed with yellow split peas and rice, stuffed with almonds or walnuts and dried fruit, cooked in a tomato broth with fried onions and served sprinkled with cinnamon.Buyuran’s cabbage rolls have a filling of chestnuts, quince and dried sour plums mixed with turmeric-seasoned ground meat, rice and onions.She makes sweet rolled pastries that look like rugelach and have a similar sour cream dough, but instead of the traditional Ashkenazi jam or cinnamon-walnut filling, are filled with ground almonds flavored with cardamom.Like the Persians, cooks in Azerbaijan prepare elaborate saffron-flavored basmati rice pilafs with tahdig, a crunchy bottom crust called qazmaq in Azerbaijan. One tempting pilaf is topped with chestnuts cooked with butter, dates, dried apricots and raisins; another has a topping of lamb cooked with fried eggplant, fried onions, turmeric and verjuice.Some of these culinary similarities can be explained by geography. “Located at the crossroads of western Asia and eastern Europe, Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region,” wrote Buyuran. “To the north are...Russia and Georgia; to the south, the country borders Iran; and to the west, Turkey and Armenia... Azerbaijan’s unique cuisine is the product of centuries of cultural exchange between the East and West.”Buyuran’s gutabs, or stuffed flatbreads, remind us of gözleme, which we first tasted in Istanbul. As we strolled along Istiklal Street, we saw women in traditional village garb sitting in the windows of gözleme restaurants rolling out dough. We ate gözleme filled with spinach and feta cheese; the wrapper was so thin it seemed like a crepe. The stuffed flatbread quickly became one of our favorite Turkish snacks.Our most memorable gözlemes were those we tasted at a Kurdish family’s farmhouse near Adiyaman in southeast Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, where we were invited for breakfast. There, the women prepared gözleme the traditional way. As they sat on mats, they rolled out the dough on low tables, topped it with cheese and herbs, folded it and cooked it on flat pans set over a wood fire.Azerbaijani gutabs are made in a similar manner. They are stuffed with a variety of fillings – butternut squash, potato, fresh herbs or ground meat flavored with sour plum paste.Buyuran told me that in Azerbaijan gutab is a main course, and can be made for a casual lunch or dinner among family or friends. Usually, they are prepared in big batches so that everyone has enough. (See recipe). Sheilah Kaufman, author of The Turkish Cookbook (with Nur Ilkin), prepares gözleme using a technique similar to that for making gutab, but her dough has a small amount of yeast. Her favorite gözleme fillings are cheese, spinach with cheese, and sweet potato. (See recipe). The writer is the author of Feast from the Mideast. Stuffed Azerbaijani Flatbreads – GutabsIdeally, two or more people should work on making gutabs, wrote Buyuran, so they can be cooked as soon as they are rolled and stuffed. You can dry-cook or fry them.Makes 12 (about 6 servings) ❖ Butternut squash filling (see recipe below) ❖ 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading ❖ 2 tsp. salt ❖ 2 cups water, at room temperature ❖ Clarified or unsalted butter, for brushing or fryingPrepare filling. Sift flour into a large bowl; add salt and stir to mix.Make a well in the center. Gradually adding water, stir with your hand, until a rough ball forms.Sprinkle a large work surface with flour. Scrape dough onto floured surface. Knead dough until smooth but not too firm, adding more flour if it sticks to your hands, about 10 minutes.Do not add too much flour, or dough will be tight and difficult to roll out.Divide dough into 12 equal parts and shape each part into a ball. Work with one ball at a time, keeping rest covered with a kitchen cloth.Transfer one ball onto a lightly floured surface and sprinkle with flour. Lightly pat with your hand to flatten, then begin rolling with a thin rolling pin, rotating dough with each roll, until it is about 13 cm. (5 inches) in diameter.Sprinkle circle with flour and spread flour evenly to cover entire surface (to prevent dough from sticking and make it easier to roll). Begin wrapping circle around rolling pin at a slight angle from yourself. Wrap circle completely, then turn dough so that the rolling pin is parallel to you; holding tightly onto both ends of rolling pin with your palms, push the rolling pin away, then swiftly unwrap the dough as you roll the rolling pin back. Circle will get thinner with each unwrapping.Continue rolling until you obtain a thin 25-cm. (10-inch) circle. If the circle is not evenly round, place a plate on top and using a sharp knife, trim the edges.Spread a thin but dense layer of filling on half of the circle, leaving a 6-mm. (¼-inch) border around edges. Gently fold over other half of circle and press edges together to seal.Repeat with remaining dough balls, covering stuffed flatbreads with kitchen cloth.To dry-cook: Cook on a preheated saj (dome-shaped pan), griddle or non-stick frying pan – first on one side, until slightly brown blisters appear, then turn to cook other side. Remove from pan and transfer onto a plate. Brush top with butter while still hot. Cook remaining flatbreads in same manner, stacking the cooked gutabs on top of each other and brushing their tops only. Serve immediately.To fry: Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a non-stick frying pan, large enough to hold one or two gutabs. Cook gutab until light golden, turning once to cook on both sides. Add more butter to pan if needed for each new batch. Transfer cooked gutabs onto paper towels to drain; do not brush with butter. Serve immediately.Butternut Squash FillingMakes enough for 12 gutabs ❖ 1 small butternut squash (about 900 gr. or 2 pounds), peeled, seeded and cubed❖ 6 Tbsp. clarified or unsalted butter ❖ 2 onions, finely chopped (2 cups) ❖ ½ cup coarsely ground walnuts (optional) ❖ Salt and fresh ground pepper ❖ 1 cup fresh pomegranate arilsPut squash in a small saucepan with 4 tablespoons water.Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until squash is soft and liquid has evaporated, about 15 minutes, adding more water if needed. Remove from heat. Mash with fork or potato masher.In a medium frying pan, heat 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until light brown, about 10 minutes. Add to squash. Add walnuts and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add pomegranate arils and gently stir to mix.Spinach-Filled Anatolian Flatbread - Ispanakli GözlemeThis recipe is from The Turkish Cookbook. You will need an oklava rolling pin or dowel, 56 cm. (22 inches) long and 1.25 cm. (½ inch) wide; without one, it is difficult to roll the proper circles. You can substitute 280 grams (10 ounces) thawed frozen spinach for the fresh.Author Sheilah Kaufman told me how to freeze cooked gözleme: When they have cooled to room temperature, cover them with foil, wrap well, label and freeze. You can heat the frozen gözleme in the oven until hot, or thaw them in the refrigerator, then heat them in the oven.Makes 2 large or 4 smaller flatbreads Filling: ❖ 1 bunch green onions, whites and about 5 cm. (2 inches) of the greens, finely sliced ❖ 1½ cups fresh spinach leaves, washed, dried and coarsely chopped ❖ Freshly ground pepper to taste❖ 2 to 3 Tbsp. feta cheese, rinsed in cold water (to remove some of salt), crumbled (or more to taste) ❖ 3 to 4 Tbsp. grated Kashkaval cheese ❖ ¼ cup chopped sweet red pepper (optional)❖ ¼ cup chopped sweet green pepper (optional) Dough: ❖ 2 cups flour❖ ½ tsp. dried yeast❖ 1 tsp. salt ❖ About 1 cup water ❖ 55 gr. (2 ounces or ¼ cup) melted butter (optional) Filling:In a large bowl combine green onions, spinach, pepper, cheeses and sweet peppers. Taste and adjust seasoning; salt may not be needed.Dough: Combine flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center with your fingers and gradually add water, mixing well; using fingers, work flour and liquid together until a ball of dough begins to form. Add a small amount of flour if dough is too sticky.Knead dough in the bowl or on a lightly floured surface for about 10 minutes. Divide dough into 2 or 4 equal pieces, shape them into balls, place them on a lightly floured surface and cover with a slightly dampened cloth. Let dough rest for 5 to 10 minutes.On a floured surface, using oklava rolling pin, roll out each ball of dough into circles about 25 to 30 cm. (10 to 12 inches) in diameter. To roll thin circles, hold right side of rolling pin with your right hand outside circle of dough; with the heel of your left palm, roll dough into a circle that gets wider and wider.Keep flouring surface if needed, and turn dough to keep it even. Turn it over once or twice; dough should be as close to paper-thin as possible.Divide spinach mixture into 2 or 4 equal parts. Spread one part over half of each circle of dough. Leave a 1.25-cm. (½-inch) border between edge of filling and edge of dough; fold other half over filling, making a half-moon shape. Using fingertips, press gently all the way around edges to seal in filling.Heat a large griddle or a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat (or set electric griddle to 150ºC or 300ºF) and cook the gözleme, leaving space between each. Using a non-stick spatula, carefully turn gözleme over as soon as golden-brown spots appear on bottoms; they cook very quickly, so watch carefully! Cook until small spots appear on the other side.If desired, using a pastry brush, apply a thin coat of melted butter to top of finished gözleme. Remove from heat and serve immediately, folded like a wrap.