Thursday, September 24, 2009

Azerbaijan - chestnuts

I don’t know anything about Azerbaijan. I don’t even know how to pronounce it.

After researching it, I found it is surrounded by Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Russia and has a long coastline on the Caspian Sea. It has a majority Turkic and Shi’ite Muslim population and it was the first country in the Muslim world to establish a democratic and secular republic. Because the country is an eclectic blend of different traditions and flavors, Azeri cuisine combines Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia.

For our Azeri meal, I decided on cooking a layered rice pilaf with dried fruits and chestnuts. It was either that or khash, an oily soup made of boiled cow feet. Laugh now, but it is said that the Azeri people owe their legendary long lifespan to this soup. I suppose I could have tried making it and it would have been amusing. But then I found this rice pilaf dish, and, I don’t know, it sounded like something we’d actually want to eat. Given that I am cramming all these ethnic dishes down my kid’s throats (okay - not really they dig this project), and then when I’m not cooking lu lu kabobs and Algerian couscous, I’m ordering pizza and running to fast food because I can’t bring myself to cook (how is it that I’m supposed to cook something normal now? I mean, how boring!), and then, can you imagine, I serve them pig's feet?

I know I must get a bit more exotic and daring – that’s where the mopane worms come in handy – but I remind you – I am still in the A’s. I will have plenty of chances to eat pig feet, worms, and exotic meats (maybe even balut). But for our Azerbaijan meal, it’s rice pilaf.

So you think I had it easy? Wrong! Try finding chestnuts when it’s not the Christmas season (though the stores are already sending out Christmas catalogues and it’s only September, so go figure). I also had a bit of trouble finding saffron, but I did find it at the third store I went to. But I was running all over trying to find chestnuts, and I hate running around to different grocery stores trying to find stuff. That’s why I am not a bargain shopper. When I’m at a store and I see what I want I get it. I don’t even want to know that I could get the same thing for two dollars cheaper at a store across town. For me, my time is valuable and it’s not worth it.

Now, here is where I’m feeling like an idiot (as you’ll learn that feeling comes around quite often). After many tries to find chestnuts (and feeling pretty damn desperate) I went into this grocery store and I found a SIGN in the produce section that said chestnuts! I almost cried when I saw it. I love this store. I love this store, I kept saying to myself. But then I looked under the sign and all I saw were these little round things that sort of looked like chestnuts if you got creative about it. I must of known these were not chestnuts, but I so badly wanted them to be that I literally tricked myself into thinking they were. I grabbed a plastic bag and greedily fill it up. But my delusion (or whatever it was) came crashing down at the cashier’s line.

“What are these?” the cashier asked.
Gulp. “Chestnuts?”
“I don’t think so…”
“They’ re chestnuts. There was a sign right above these and they said chestnuts!”

The cashier eyed my find suspiciously. She held up my plastic bag and yelled across several aisles, “Jan, aren’t these lychees?” The cashier turned back to me. “These are lychees. Chestnuts are darker and have a harder shell.”
Yes, I know that, I thought. Why can’t you just play along?
The woman in line behind me chimed in, “Lychees are really great in martinis.”
“But are they at least like chestnuts?”
“No, dear,” the woman behind me said. “They’re a fruit, not a nut.”

I ended up going back to the produce section believing that there must be chestnuts, and lo and behold, I did find some – they were in a bag and already peeled. This made cooking the rice pilaf easier, but I really did want to learn how to peel a chestnut. I guess I’ll have to wait until Christmas.

Side note: I looked up lychee on the internet, and honestly, I’m not sure I had lychees either.

While I made our Azerbaijan meal John had three boys over so that that they could, supposedly, do a school project. It was a bit of a mad house while I stir-fried dried fruits and chestnuts and cooked rice. The dish was not bad – it was a one-pot meal sort of thing. It also had chicken and onions. I served black tea with the rice pilaf because I read that the Azeri people drink a lot of black tea.

The kids said they liked it – Julia took a couple of helpings. John ate it but he is not a fan of dried fruit. I wonder if he'd preferred pig feet?

Now at last, I am officially done with the A’s!

Layered Rice Pilaf With Dried Fruits and Chestnuts (Parcha - Dosheme Plov)

3 cups white Basmati rice
4 TBSP butter, melted
1 cup peeled chestnuts
1/2 cup pitted dried apricots
1 cup dried sour plum, pitted
1/2 cup pitted dates
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 1/2 lbs skinless, boneless chicken cut into cubes
1 med. onion, sliced in half circles
1/3 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 3 TBSP hot water
Salt and pepper

RInse the rice. Soak the rice in a container filled with lukewarm water mixed with 1 TBSP of salt. While the rice is soaking, prepare the fruits and chestnuts. In a pan, heat 2 TBSP butter over med. heat. Add peeed chestnuts and fry for 3 min. Add dried apricots, plums and dates and stir-fry for 3 min. Add raisins and fry for 1 min.

In a large sauce pan, combine 10 cups of water and 2 TBSP salt. Bring to a boil. Drain the soaked rice and add it, in batches, to the pot. Boil for about 7 to 10 min, stirring occasionally. The rice is ready when it surfaces to the top. The rice should be barely done - not soft. Drain rice and set aside.

Melt 1 TBSP butter in a pot over med. heat. Arrange meat in one layer at the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Follow with a layer of sliced onions. Simmer over med. heat uncovered, without stirring, for about 3 min.

Place half of the rice in the pot over the onion. Arrange the dried fruits and chestnuts in one layer on top of the rice. Pile the rest of the rice on top of the fruits. Pour 1 TBSP melted butter over rice. Place a clean dish towel over the pot and cover firmly with a lid to absorb the steam. Lift the corners of the towel over the lid. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 min. Then open the lid and sprinkle the saffron water on top of rice. Cover again and simmer for another 30 min. When ready, meat should be cooked and lightly golden on the bottom.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is an awesome way to introduce your kids to different foods and culture. Also fun and creative for you (the cooking and the writing). Congrats on finishing the A's. The rice pilaf looks great.