I get really excited about cooking Central Asian (Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan) and Caucasian (Georgia, Armenia) food. Traditional Russian food is a tough sell. It's considered heavy and starchy. Every other recipe calls for beets or potatoes. It's not spicy or colorful enough for Westerners.
But, oh, the food of those impossible-to-pronounce-and-find-on-a-map Soviet republics:
The New York Times on Central Asian food:
"Reflecting the influence of silk and spice trades, there are tastes of China and India everywhere...Dishes that define [Central Asia] include lamb kebabs; shurpa, which might be a hearty vegetable-beef soup spiked with cumin or a thin lamb broth; and rice pilaf, whether chunky plov or one of the luxurious pilafs that adorn traditional Afghan banquets."
The Traveler's Lunchbox on Georgian food:
"The thing that appealed to me instantly about Georgian cuisine is both its familiarity and its exoticness. The foundations of the cuisine are all well known to the European palate: hazelnuts, walnuts, cheese, yogurt, plums, corn, peaches, apples, cherries, cilantro, basil, tarragon, dill, mint, cinnamon. What is not familiar are the preparations: beets with sour cherry sauce; beans with pomegranate and fenugreek; eggplant with walnuts and saffron; chicken with cilantro, dill and plums; rice with raisins and honey. It's as if the familiar flavors of Europe had been handed to someone who was instructed to forget everything he knew about the continent's gastronomic heritage and instead reinvent the wheel, which somehow he managed to do with subtlety, sophistication and finesse."
I know very little about the food of Central Asian and the Caucaus. My childhood palate was formed by borsh, blinchiki and potatoes in St. Petersburg. I do remember getting a whiff of grilled lamb from the shashlik stands during the summer, but shashlik was considered ridiculously expensive so I never actually tasted it.
I plan to cook a lot more of this exotic Stan-land food in the coming months. Today, I tackled hachepuri, Georgian cheese pies. Anya von Bremzen calls hachepuri the Georgian equivalent of pizza. I followed a recipe from the Traveler's Lunchbox almost to the letter. But instead of making six little pies, I halved the recipe and made one big pie. It was very good, if not exactly Georgian. In fact, it looked a lot like an American-style pie with cheese instead of fruit filling. That hardly stopped me from cutting it while it was still hot and eating the warm, gooey cheese filling with a spoon.
With the cheese pie I ate my favorite summer salad. I'm indifferent to lettuce salads but I can't eat enough of cucumber and tomato salad with dill. I sliced a couple of small cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes and tossed them with some fresh dill. The dressing was a glug of olive oil, a drop or two of red wine vinegar and a healthy dash of salt. The salad may very well have been better than the hachepouri. This salad is also great with a dressing made of sour cream and yogurt--a teaspoonful of each per serving, plus a splash of sunflower or olive oil.