Celebrating Shabbat with Azerbaijani flavors

An exploration into the Azerbaijani kitchen.

Feride Buyuran's award winning cookbook highlights the great use of pomegranates, cardamom and basmati rice in Azerbaijani cuisine (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Feride Buyuran's award winning cookbook highlights the great use of pomegranates, cardamom and basmati rice in Azerbaijani cuisine
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
For next Friday night we plan to prepare a chicken course that’s very different from the Shabbat chicken dishes we are accustomed to. It’s called Ganja-style chicken with eggs and it is from the city of Ganja in western Azerbaijan. (See recipe.) We tasted this delicious dish, which looks like a pashtida (pie) and requires only a few ingredients, at a presentation by Feride Buyuran, the award-winning author of the cookbook Pomegranates and Saffron: A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan.
To go with the chicken we’ll prepare another Azerbaijani specialty – vegetable kebab salad made of vegetables grilled like kebabs. This salad needs no dressing because the juices from the grilled vegetables moisten it. (See recipe.) Fresh herbs are central to Azerbaijani cuisine. The dishes we sampled at Buyuran’s presentation were flavored with a variety of herbs – dill, basil, fresh coriander and mint. Herbs were used even in Buyuran’s sweet drinks, like her refreshing basil sharbat.
An easy Azerbaijani dish that we might serve for Shabbat’s midday meal is sweet-and-sour meatballs. The meatballs are browned in olive oil, and then simmered briefly in a sauce flavored with sautéed onions, tomato paste, red wine vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. (See recipe.) In addition to pomegranates, the national fruit of Azerbaijan, and saffron, which is used not only in savory dishes but also in desserts, some popular flavorings in Azerbaijani cooking are dried sour plums, which are used in stews, and verjuice, the juice of unripe grapes, which contributes a sour note to sauces.
Cardamom flavors Buyuran’s Baku-style baklava, which is different from flaky, Turkish- style baklava. Instead of phyllo dough, it is made with yeast-leavened dough. To make the baklava, you roll out the dough, brush it with butter, layer it with walnut filling, bake it, and moisten it with syrup. (See recipe.) And after all that effort, you still need patience. Buyuran recommends serving the baklava the following day!
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast
This dish is composed of “tender, simmered chicken and turmeric-laced fresh onions,” wrote Buyuran. When the dish is nearly done, beaten eggs are poured over it.
■ 1 medium chicken (about 1.4 kg. or 3 pounds), rinsed, patted dry, tail and excess fat removed
■ About 10 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 3 medium onions, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise (3 packed cups)
■ ¼ tsp. turmeric
■ 4 large eggs
■ Salt and ground black pepper
■ Chopped cilantro (fresh coriander), for garnish
Cut chicken into serving-size pieces (reserve carcass for making broth.) Place chicken in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat, skimming froth, about 40 minutes, or until chicken is fully cooked and tender. Remove chicken; reserve broth for other uses. Remove bones if desired.
Meanwhile, heat 8 tablespoons oil in a 30.5-cm. (12-in.) frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden, about 15 minutes. Add turmeric, stir to evenly coat onion, and cook for 30 seconds. Remove onion from pan with a slotted spoon and reserve, leaving remaining oil in pan.
Add 2 more tablespoons oil to same frying pan and add chicken. Cook briefly on all sides about 3 minutes, or until chicken just begins to change color; it should not be crispy or golden. Return onion to pan and season with pepper and additional salt to taste.
Stir to combine, then level with a spoon to form a single layer of chicken. Beat eggs lightly in a small bowl. Pour eggs over chicken and onions. Cover and cook until eggs are set, 5 to 7 minutes. (See note below.) Garnish with chopped cilantro.
Note: For a browner top, after adding eggs, bake dish at 205°C (400°F) until eggs set.
Serves 4
Buyuran wrote that this tasty salad is typically made as an accompaniment whenever meats are grilled. This salad “has a distinctive smoky flavor, achieved by roasting the vegetables over hot wood embers,” she notes.
■ 8 fairly small dark-skinned eggplants
■ 3 medium-size young sweet green peppers
■ 1 green chili pepper (optional, for a spicy salad)
■ 4 medium ripe but firm tomatoes
■ 1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
■ 1 cup mixed chopped fresh mint and fresh coriander
Salt and ground black pepper On a grill, start a bed of charcoal or wood, and burn until embers begin to glow. Spear whole eggplants, peppers and tomatoes through their sides onto separate 1.25-cm. (½ in.) flat metal skewers. Place skewers on grill. Grill, turning occasionally, 10 to 20 minutes until skins have charred and softened.
Gently pull vegetables from skewers.
When vegetables are cool enough to handle, peel off skins and cut out stalks.
Seed peppers. Chop or dice vegetables and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add onion and fresh herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste and mix. Serve warm.
Serves 4
Buyuran’s tasty meatballs are cooked in a subtly flavored sweet-and-sour sauce.
■ 680 gr. (1½ pounds) ground lamb or beef
■ 1 medium onion, finely grated
■ 1 tsp. salt
■ ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
■ 5 to 6 Tbsp. olive oil, for frying
■ 4 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
■ 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
■ ¼ cup red wine vinegar
■ 1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
■ Salt and ground black pepper
■ Chopped fresh coriander (for garnish)
For meatballs: In a mixing bowl combine meat, onion, salt and pepper.
Using your hands, knead ingredients until well blended. Shape mixture into walnut-size round balls.
Heat frying oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Lower meatballs into hot oil one by one, in one layer, and brown on all sides, 5 minutes.
Remove meatballs and set aside.
Prepare sauce: Wipe leftover oil from frying pan. Heat 4 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add onion and fry until light brown, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook together, stirring, for another minute. Pour in 1½ cups water and stir to dissolve tomato paste.
Add vinegar, sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and bring to a boil.
Gently lower meatballs into sauce.
Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover pan and simmer for 10 minutes.
Transfer meatballs with sauce onto a serving platter. Garnish with fresh coriander and serve immediately.
Makes about 50 pieces “Among the country’s array of traditional confections, it is safe to say that pakhlava, or baklava, is king,” wrote Buyuran. “Rolling out the many layers of dough may seem like a daunting task, but have no fear – once you tackle the first layer, the next will come easily.”
■ ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
■ 2 cups warm milk (40.5° to 43°C or 105° to 110°F), divided
■ 6 cups all-purpose flour
■ ¼ tsp. salt
■ 2 large eggs, room temperature
■ 225 gr. (8 oz.) clarified butter or unsalted butter, melted and cooled
■ 570 gr. (1¼ pounds) walnuts, toasted and peeled (see note)
■ 500 gr. (1 pound 2 oz.) granulated sugar
■ 1 tsp. ground cardamom
■ ¼ tsp. vanilla powder (optional)
■ 170 gr. (6 oz.) clarified butter or unsalted butter (for brushing)
■ 140 gr. (5 oz.) clarified butter or unsalted butter (for soaking)
■ ¼ tsp saffron threads, ground to a powder with a mortar and pestle
■ 2 large egg yolks
■ 2 tsp. olive oil
■ Handful of walnut quarters
■ 2 cups granulated sugar
■ 1 cup water
Dough: In a medium mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in 1 cup of the warm milk.
Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Add salt and stir to mix. Make a well in the middle and add yeast mixture, remaining 1 cup milk, eggs and butter. Stir with your hand until a rough ball forms.
Scrape dough onto a flat surface and knead, punching it down with your fists, turning and folding it over until smooth and very elastic but not tight, 8 to 10 minutes. Add more flour if needed but not too much. Shape dough into a ball and return to bowl. Cover bowl with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and set aside to rest for 20 minutes.
Filling: Grind nuts finely in a grinder or food processor. In a mixing bowl, combine nuts with sugar, cardamom and vanilla powder. Mix well and set aside.
Generously butter bottom and sides of a 33-by-28-cm. (13-by-11-in.) rectangular baking pan.
Melt and cool the butter for brushing.
Assembling: Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface. Divide dough into 12 pieces – 10 of equal size and two a little bigger, and shape each piece into a ball.
The two larger balls will be rolled out thicker – one for bottom, another to top baklava. Work with one ball at a time and cover the rest with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap.
Lightly sprinkle work surface with flour.
Using a long, thin, wooden rolling pin, roll out one of the two larger balls into a thin rectangle to fit the pan, sprinkling dough lightly with flour from time to time and spreading it all over the dough before rolling. (This will make it easy to roll out the dough.) Wrap dough around rolling pin and unwrap onto prepared baking pan. Stretch to fit pan and fix the shape, if needed. Press edges to seal. If dough overhangs, trim excess. Brush layer with 1 tablespoon of melted, cooled butter.
(No filling is required on this layer.) Roll out one of the smaller balls to size of pan and place it on top of bottom layer. Press edges gently to seal. Brush with 1 tablespoon butter and spread ¾ cup of nut filling over this layer.
Continue rolling out remaining smaller dough balls in same way, buttering each layer and sprinkling some filling over it. Apply butter but no filling to top of the final smaller layer.
Roll out the last larger ball and place it on top of buttered layer. Trim any excess dough overhanging from pan.
Cut baklava into medium diamond shapes. Gently press onto baklava with one hand and with your other hand, cut with a sharp knife dipped in cold water along shorter side of pan into 9 or 10 columns. Then, along pan, cut 12 columns at an angle to form diamonds.
Let rest for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Melt butter for butter soak.
Glaze: In a small bowl, combine powdered saffron, egg yolks and oil.
Stir until well blended. Brush over top layer of baklava. Place walnut in center of each diamond and press gently so it adheres to dough.
Syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and water. Cook over medium heat a few minutes, stirring frequently to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and let cool.
Bake baklava on middle rack of oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Run a sharp knife along the cutout lines. With a ladle or a spoon, pour melted butter you prepared; soak evenly along those cuts. Return baklava to oven. Bake another 25 minutes, until top is golden.
Remove baklava from oven and pour syrup evenly into cuts in pastry. Let baklava cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, run a sharp knife along cuts of baklava and carefully lift out the pieces.
Arrange on a tray and let cool completely.
If top layer is loose, turn baklava pieces upside down for a few hours; this will help top layer to adhere.
It’s best to serve baklava the following day. Store baklava in a covered container up to 20 days.
Note: To toast walnuts, arrange walnuts in a single layer in a large nonstick frying pan. Toast over medium heat, stirring occasionally, 3 to 5 minutes, or until skins start to flake off. Transfer walnuts to a clean kitchen towel. Gently rub with towel to release skins; peels will not be completely removed.