A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Pheasant’s Tears

At the beginning of last October, I arrived in Tbilisi for a month-long culinary sojourn across Georgia. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the many people who made that trip such a memorable and valuable experience. I’ve written about several of them on this blog already, but I let the chronicle fall by the wayside as the flow of life rushed on. I’m picking it back up with this post, one year later.

It seems appropriate, actually, to be writing about these autumn experiences as the season returns. As I type, woodstoves are being lit, persimmons and quince are being plucked from their branches, and grapes are fermenting into machari (slightly alcoholic fizzy grape juice), and then into wine. May that spirit of coming together to create warmth, enjoy the fruits of past labor, and put in the work required to create something new imbue your month as well, wherever you may be.

I left off in Kakheti, Georgia’s easternmost region and the one where the majority of its grapes are grown. My friends Wendy and Erin have come to spend a week traveling with me. We’re in Sighnaghi, a small town that underwent significant renovation within the past 10 years on a Georgian government-sponsored initiative to turn it into a tourist magnet. While the facades do at times feel superficial, the plan worked: thousands of people now visit the town every year.

View over the Alazani Valley, Sighnaghi, Georgia

View over the Alazani Valley, Sighnaghi, Georgia

One of the major draws of the town is Pheasant’s Tears, the product of a partnership between Georgian winemaker Gela Patalishvili and American artist (and shrewd businessman) John Wurdeman. I first visited Pheasant’s Tears in 2010, on a weekend mission to pick grapes and learn how qvevri wines are made while I was teaching English in Batumi. The restaurant and tasting room that were under construction at that time have since opened, and I wanted to come back to see how they’d turned out.

Before sitting down to dinner, we got a brief cooking demonstration from chef Gia Rokashvili, himself a Sighnaghi native whose kitchen is turning out some of the most enticing and creative food I’ve encountered in Georgia. He’s a calm, round man with a glimmer in his eye who sang to his vegetables as he pieced them together on the plate, as if they were his tiny children.

Chef Gia at work

Chef Gia at work

Gia’s love of fresh produce shows through in his dishes, which showcase fruits and vegetables from the kitchen’s garden in simple yet unexpected ways, like a salad combining blanched spinach, caramelized onion, fresh dill and watercress, and scallions with white beans and a dollop of water buffalo yogurt.

Spinach and watercress salad with water buffalo yogurt

Spinach and watercress salad with water buffalo yogurt

His cooking is solidly grounded in tradition but manages to surprise with subtle additions and twists that set it apart from more typical fare, like a beet salad marrying roasted, cooled beets with blue fenugreek, coriander, summer savory, garlic, cilantro, and tkemali (a tart plum sauce), garnished with dill. The flavors are all inherently Georgian, and if the beets and herbs were pureed, this would be traditional pkhali, yet there is that smoky fruit tang lingering in the background.

Beet salad with tkemali plum sauce and dill

Beet salad with tkemali plum sauce and dill

Dinner involved a series of dishes brought out in succession at pace with six different wines, starting with the lightest (a delicate chinuri) and proceeding to the darkest (a rich saperavi, a red grape so dark its name literally means “dye”). All the wines at Pheasant’s Tears are fermented in qvevri, but not all are fermented along with the grape skins and stems. We tasted two versions of a wine made with the rare red tavkveri grape, one with “skin contact,” one without. The grape skins lend color and tannins to the wine, so whether a vintner chooses to ferment the wine on the skins or not (and for how long the skins remain in the qvevri) profoundly affects its flavor and the way it feels in your mouth. The tavkveri fermented without the skins tasted light, easy-drinking, a little sweet. Skin contact turned it into a chewy, earthy, complex wine crying out for something animal.

The kitchen delivered: out came Gia’s take on kuchmachi, small pieces of chicken liver and ground walnuts tossed in a piquant pomegranate sauce. It’s very easy to overcook liver, which results in tough and unappetizing chunks of iron-flavored flesh. Thankfully, whoever cooked ours hit the sweet spot where the outside of each piece turns crisp and brown while the inside stays soft and creamy. We finished off the meal with a shot of chacha (Georgian grappa) aged in oak, which turns it a dark amber color and helps smooth off any rough edges. We ambled back to the van where our trusty (and sober) driver Beso awaited, stuffed and drunk and sleepy and content, a feeling I was getting increasingly accustomed to after just two weeks of travel.

Georgian Cooking Class at YMCA-Anthony Bowen

Join me in the kitchen at the YMCA Anthony Bowen on 14th St. and W St. NW in Washington, DC for a Georgian cooking class featuring Ajaran khachapuri (the kind with the egg in the middle) and two other classic dishes.

Thursday, Oct. 15, 7-9 pm
YMCA Anthony Bowen, 1325 W St. NW, Washington, DC
$30 for YMCA members, $40 for non-members
Register here
(Click the login link at the top right of the page and quickly create an account if you don’t already have one with the YMCA)

This YMCA has a beautiful kitchen where we’ll be cooking and eating. They do not have a license to serve alcohol, so this class will not include wine. If you can’t make this date or want to wait for an in-home class where wine will be served, have no fear–there’s more where that came from soon. You can subscribe to my e-mail list here to be among the first to receive notifications about upcoming classes and events.

Hope to see you on Oct. 15!

Join us in Brooklyn for a Georgian feast on Aug. 22

I’m teaming up with chef Marina Berger of Salt and Pomegranates supper club to host a family-style Georgian supra (feast meal) in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY on 7 pm on Saturday, Aug. 22. We’d love for you to join us and other lovers of Georgian food, wine, and culture!

Photo credit Nora Chovanec, Salt and Pomegranates supper club 2014

Photo credit Nora Chovanec, Salt and Pomegranates supper club 2014

We’ll be gathering at Court Tree Collective, a gallery and creative event space in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, NY (371 Court St., 2nd Floor). Tickets are $65 (including tax) and can be reserved through Feastly here.

We’ve got a mouth-watering menu planned to share with you:

Selection of Georgian Wines
Georgia boasts one of the world’s oldest wine-making traditions. We’ll offer a selection of Georgian wines fermented in the traditional style–with the grape skins and stems in clay vessels, called qvevri, that are buried underground where the temperature remains constant.

Assorted Pickles
Pickled leeks, garlic, tomatoes, and cauliflower.

Georgian Salad
A pan-Soviet classic; tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, garlic, opal basil, cilantro, sunflower oil, and red wine vinegar.

Pkhali Duo: Spinach and Beet
Small Plate
A duo of vegetable pâtés: spinach and beets (respectively), mixed with ground walnuts, garlic, cilantro, parsley, coriander, and vinegar. Served with authentic Georgian bread from Berikoni Bakery in Brighton Beach.

Roasted Chicken with Tkemali
Perfectly roasted chicken smothered in homemade tkemali plum sauce. Tkemali is prepared from tart green plums, garlic, mint, cilantro, coriander, and cayenne.

Small Plate
Somewhere between a sauceless lasagna and a savory noodle kugel, this dish is made from sheets of homemade egg noodles, layered with butter and a blend of Georgian sulguni cheese and crumbled Bulgarian feta. Baked to create a crispy golden crust, with a creamy, cheesy filling.

Badridzhani Nivrit
Small Plate
Tender slices of fried eggplant marinated in garlic, garnished with cilantro.

Kada is one of the few traditional Georgian desserts. It is a flaky, buttery strudel-like pastry whose filling derives its rich, nutty flavor from toasted flour mixed with butter and sugar.

Peach Sorbet/Walnut Ice Cream Duo
Inspired by the fabulous fruit of Georgia: a scoop of summer peach sorbet made with Georgian wine accompanied by a scoop of rich, homemade walnut ice cream.

Marina BergerAbout Marina: “As the daughter of Soviet immigrants, I grew up eating dishes from all the former republics without knowing anything about their origins. When I realized that some of my favorite “Russian” dishes were actually from Georgia, I decided to dig deep into this rich culinary tradition with my supper club, Salt & Pomegranates. I decided to take the plunge and go to culinary school. I graduated from The Natural Gourmet Institute in 2009, and have been working as Personal Chef in New York City ever since.”

We’d love your help getting the word out about the event, so please do share this post with others you know who might be interested in attending.

Hope to see you there!

Sign Up for My Georgian Cooking Class in DC

Georgian cooking class

I’m excited to announce that sign-up is open for my first public Georgian cooking class! I’ll teach participants how to make several classic Georgian dishes from scratch over wine and appetizers. At the end of the evening, we’ll sit down together to devour the fruits of our labor.

Khachapuri Rising: A Georgian Cooking Class
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
7:00 pm – 10:00 pm (approximately–no rush)
Private home in northwest Washington, DC, easily accessible by metro or bus (sign up for location details)
$40 per person
Sign up through Bookalokal:

Spinach dip with walnuts and herbs (Ispanakhis pkhali)
Caucasus-style stuffed mushrooms (Soko mtsvanilit da qvelit)
Bread boat filled with melted cheese and egg (Acharuli khachapuri)
Spicy roasted chicken with ajika pepper rub (Megruli katami)
Fresh tomato and cucumber salad (Kitri da pamidori)
Sweet treat made with seasonal fruit
Wine, plus tea with dessert

Feel free to contact me at jenny@georgiantable.com if you have any questions. Looking forward to meeting some of you at the class!

Feast and Make Merry with the Georgian Table!

Flavors from the Other Georgia

The Georgian Table is hosting its first public event! I’ve teamed up with Wendy Stuart from Food Works Group consultancy to organize Khachapuri and Beyond: Flavors from the Other Georgia, a celebration of Georgian food and wine. Wendy and I traveled together in Georgia this past October and we are thrilled to be able to give DC denizens the opportunity to try some of the sumptuous flavors that define this country for us.

If you’re in the area, get your tickets now and join us on Friday, April 24 at Mess Hall, a new culinary incubator in the Brookland neighborhood of northeast DC. We’ll be serving unlimited wine and passed appetizers all evening, including (but not limited to!) decadent Megrelian khachapuri, spiced meatballs with pomegranate glaze, spinach pkhali, and fried eggplant with walnut-garlic sauce (as featured in the Washington Post last month).

Our friends at Georgian Wine House will be pouring Georgian white, red, and amber wines and will lead a guided tasting of five premium wines made in the traditional qvevri style at an additional charge. (Click here to purchase a ticket that includes this additional tasting.) We’ll also enjoy a surprise cultural interlude with special local guests.

Khachapuri and Beyond: Flavors from the Other Georgia

Friday, April 24
6:30-9:30 pm
Mess Hall
703 Edgewood St. NE, Washington, DC (Map)
(10 minute walk from either the Brookland or Rhode Island Avenue metro, and near the H2/4/8 and D8 bus lines. On-street parking available nearby.)

Get your tickets through Bookalokal, a community-oriented social dining service:

General admission: $65

Wine Enthusiast Special: $85
(includes admission plus guided tasting of 5 premium wines with an expert from Georgian Wine House)

Come taste what all the fuss is about!

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: How to Make a Kvevri

Zaza Kbiliashvili’s family has been making kvevris (clay vessels for fermenting and storing wine) for six generations. He is carrying on the tradition in Vardisubani, a village in eastern Kakheti, Georgia’s most prolific grape-growing region. A short, attractive guy with salt and pepper hair and a rugged face, Zaza has a predilection for uttering cryptic statements like “The kvevri raises the wine like a mother does a child.” He says he’d be happy to pass his knowledge on to his own son, but notes with a shrug that “the boy is still young, so who knows what path he will choose.”

Zaza Kbiliashvili explains kvevri-making

Zaza makes up to 30 kvevris of varying sizes each year, all by special order for both Georgian and European vintners. There are eight huge unfired kvevris drying in his workshop when we visit. He stands next to one of them, which dwarfs him, as he tells us about the process. These kvevris took him three months to make. The clay goes on in eight layers, from the conical bottom up to the lip at the top. He uses a potters’ wheel to form the pointed base so that the kvevri will be stable and even, but layers on the clay by hand after that.

Once the clay has dried sufficiently (which may take a couple of months, give or take: “When you are meant for this work, the kvevri itself tells you what it needs and when it’s done,” Zaza says), the kvevris are loaded one by one onto a horsecart and carried into the firing “room,” a three-sided brick structure out in the backyard. The fourth wall is then built up with bricks and a wood fire is made just in front of it. The firing process takes a full week and requires three truckloads of wood to keep the fire going constantly. It grows in size and heat over the course of the course of the week. By the end of the seventh day, the temperature inside the “kiln” has grown to approximately 2,200 degrees F (1,200 degrees C) and flames spit out from the vents in the back of the firing room.

kvevri firing room

The fired kvevris cool over the course of two days, as the fourth wall of the firing room is gradually dismantled. The kvevri maker coats the inside of each one with a layer of beeswax while the clay is still warm enough to absorb it. This seals the clay and helps prevent bacteria from entering the wine during fermentation and storage. Finally, most qvevris are coated with a thin layer of cement to protect them from indignities they may suffer once they are buried underground, like earthquakes and encroaching tree roots.

Zaza and Beso pontificate

A group of European filmmakers visited Zaza shortly before we did to capture parts of this process for a documentary they are working on about kvevri wine in Georgia. See photos from their visit here. You can follow the film on Facebook for updates on its progress and related stories.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Iago’s Wine

Leaving the rocky moors of Samtskhe-Javakheti behind, Wendy, Erin, and I traveled up through the central Kartli region near Tbilisi and into the rolling hills of Kakheti, Georgia’s wine country in the east.

If you’re reading this blog, you might already know that Georgia boasts one of the world’s oldest wine-making traditions: people have been fermenting grapes into wine here for nearly 8,000 years. The country is home to 525 (!) native grape varietals that most of us in the US have never heard of. They’ve got colorful names like usakhelouri, “the nameless,” and kindzmarauli, “cilantro vinegar” (which must have been a ruse to deter someone from stealing the grapes, because these grapes produce a delicious blood-red semi-sweet wine that tastes nothing like either of its namesakes). During the Soviet period, Georgia supplied most of the wine for the entire USSR, and quantity took precedence over quality.

Today, things are changing. When Russia placed an embargo on the importation of Georgian wine in 2006, Georgia’s winemakers had to reorient their production for other markets. (Until then, Russia had been purchasing approximately 80% of all the wine Georgia exported.) Wineries revamped their standards to make their wines eligible for sale in Europe, and an increasing number of small producers saw the potential for marketing natural wines fermented in the classic Georgian style, which differs in a few key ways from the wines most Americans and Europeans are used to drinking.

Our driver Beso takes a break next to a full-size kvevri in Kakheti.

Our driver Beso takes a break next to a full-size kvevri in Kakheti.

First of all, Georgian wines are traditionally fermented in huge terracotta vessels called kvevris rather than in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. The kvevri is coated with lime outside and lined with beeswax inside to seal the clay, then buried underground where the temperature remains constant. Winemakers who produce “natural wines” don’t spray their grapes with pesticides, rely on the “ambient” yeast present on the grape skins and in the air to generate fermentation rather than adding cultured yeasts, and typically do not add sulfites (which are used as a preservative in most Western wines).

In Georgia, white grapes have traditionally been fermented along with their skins, seeds, and stems (the “pomace”) just like red grapes, whereas European and American vintners ferment white grape juice all by itself. This practice gives some Georgian whites an amber or orange color (from the skin contact) and a tannic, highly savory quality, which allows them to stand up to the bolder flavors most of us would typically pair with red wine, like grilled meat.

Iago Bitarishvili is one of the vintners making internationally renowned kvevri wine in Georgia today. Wendy and I had tasted his delicate 2010 chinuri (which takes its name from a native Georgian white grape) at Oda House in New York a couple of years ago and were thrilled to have the chance to visit his marani (the Georgian term for a place where wine Is made) in Chardakhi, a village about 30 kilometers outside Tbilisi.

Iago Bitarishvili explains the process of fermentation at his marani in Chardakhi, Kartli region, Georgia

Iago Bitarishvili explains the process of fermentation at his marani in Chardakhi, Kartli region, Georgia

Iago is a trim man with kind eyes and a dimpled smile. His easy speech (elegant English) and measured movements seemed to reflect an inner calm that set me right at ease. We had hoped to catch the grape harvest (rtveli) in action, but 2014 was a hot year so the grapes had ripened early, he explained. He walked us through the stages of fermentation while stirring the grapes in one of his open kvevris:

  1. The grapes are picked but not pressed and poured into the kvevris just as they are. Six of Iago’s kvevris are 300 years old! With a product that lasts for centuries, it’s no wonder that kvevri makers are so few and far between. The kvevris are covered loosely with tarps or mesh, so as to keep bugs and dust from getting in while allowing the gases produced during fermentation to escape.
The kvevri is covered with mesh during the first stage of fermentation to keep bugs out and let Co2 escape.

The kvevri is covered with mesh during the first stage of fermentation to keep bugs out and let Co2 escape. The kvevris in the background are decorative and not representative of the size of those buried.

  1. Within a few days, the grapes are crushed under their own weight and their juice (the “must”) begins to bubble: this signals the release of carbon dioxide as the grapes’ natural sugars are converted into alcohol. The grapes must be punched down and stirred a few times each day as this first stage of fermentation proceeds. Families who make their own wine at home often start drinking the immature wine (called machari) at this stage, when it tastes fizzy and tangy-sweet.
  2. After about 2-3 weeks, when the bubbling dies down, the must is filtered off the lees (the stems and seeds that have sunk to the bottom of the cone-shaped kvevri) and poured into another kvevri, where it is left to age for another 5-8 months under a tightly sealed cap. Many winemakers, including Iago, continue to ferment the lees into chacha, or Georgian grappa.

Sealed qvevris

  1. Finally comes bottling and labeling, both of which Iago does himself on-site. He produces only about 3,000 bottles a year, which he is now exporting to eight countries.

After our tour, we get a lesson in folding khinkali dumplings from Iago’s wife, herself a rare female winemaker, then sat down to eat them along with the other Georgian stand-bys of khachapuri, cucumber and tomato salad, eggplants with walnut sauce, and, of course, plenty of wine.

Iago's Wine

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Aspindza

The next day, Erin and Wendy and I meet Makvala Aspanidze and her sister Donari in a village near Aspindza, where Makvala lives in a ramshackle old house with her elderly mother and her nephew. The Aspanidzes and others native to this area of south-central Georgia call themselves Meskhi, or Meskhetians (hence the first part of the name of this region, Samtskhe-Javakheti). This area is one of the poorest in Georgia: 60% of the population lives below the poverty line and 80% are either subsistence farmers or unemployed.

land near Aspindza

What the land looks like around here

Makvala and Donari have agreed to give us a master class in Meskhetian cooking. They take care to don plastic hair nets and aprons before starting to cook, which is a considerate nod to American-style kitchen sanitation standards but makes me smile for its peculiarity in this context—we’re cooking in a structure with stone walls, a corrugated metal roof and peeling wallpaper. There is no sink and no soap in the kitchen–water is drawn from a well outside. Makvala’s mother is convalescing in the next room, where Makvala asks us to toss our coats and purses. Our Georgian guide Sofia and driver Beso seem more concerned about the shabby appearance of things than Wendy and Erin and I are. Beso spends the rest of the trip incredulous that someone would parade a gaggle of American tourists past their ailing mother–to him it seems the epitome of rural bumpkin-ness. Yet this is how they live, and I’d rather see that than have it whitewashed. Still, I hope our tour company is compensating them well for their food, knowledge, and time, all of which they gave generously.

Georgian honey cake

Honey cake

We’re having dessert before dinner today: Makvala brings out homemade cornelian cherry liqueur and a pan of honey cake (my favorite!). It tastes like someone slathered whipped cream between layers of graham crackers like a dessert lasagna, then poured more cream over them until the layers softened and melted into one another—in other words, heaven. Next is gently sweet tea made with leaves from their linden tree. (Lindens are closely related to the North American dogwood.) Now that we’re full and happy, the cooking can begin!

linden leaf tea

Linden leaf tea

Unlike most of the foods I’d encountered on the trip thus far, I’ve never so much as heard of most of the dishes they are about to show us how to prepare, which is exciting for me. First up is qaisapa, a sweet-savory “soup” made from dried apricots, a type of plum native to this area called chonchuri (also dried), plum jam, sautéed onions, and clarified butter. While the dried fruits are softening in hot water on the stove, Donari starts in on the obligatory khachapuri. She’s making penovani khachapuri today, which requires making her own puff pastry. She doesn’t put any yeast into her dough—just flour, water, and salt—and says the dough should be firm, which promotes the formation of flaky layers. She forms softball-sized balls, lets them rest for a few minutes, then begins to stretch each one into a sheet the size of a small tablecloth. She doesn’t have to do much work—the dough stretches neatly under its own weight as she lifts and turns it—but controlling the speed of the turn to make sure the dough stretches evenly turns out to be harder than it looks. (She bravely let us each try our hand at it.) Whereas Arleta in Samegrelo had spread the layers of her penovani khachapuri with margarine, Donari uses lard in hers, which gives the khachapuri an addictive porky note. The pastry’s paper-thin, crisp crust shatters when I bite into it, and the layers of rich dough pull apart to reveal a center oozing with salty cheese.

making penovani khachapuri with Donari

Spreading the puff pastry dough for penovani khachapuri with Donari

 Then comes tutmaji, another local specialty, this one a dough and yogurt soup that’s said to work wonders on hangovers. “The men always ask for this one,” says Makvala knowingly. Basically, it consists of little dough worms and lumps of egg, salt, and flour all fried in clarified butter (which has a very particular, pungent aroma to it here, likely due to whatever forage the cows are eating), then boiled in salted water, with a few cups of yogurt added at the end. It’s not my favorite.

Makvala shows off the finished penovani khachapuri

Makvala shows off the finished penovani khachapuri

Donari is now rolling out a softer, yeasted dough (which she prepared before we arrived) to make bishi and bushtulebi, essentially two different forms of fry bread. Bishi are flat discs about 6 inches in diameter, while bushtulebi look like golf balls. Donari fries them in sunflower oil (which is ubiquitous in Georgia) until they are golden and crisp on the outside, satisfyingly chewy on the inside. These are unsweetened, but Donari suggests drizzling honey over them if we like. Our stomachs are so full of dough by now that we can only muster a few. As throughout Georgia, running out of steam before the food is gone is expected here—if there isn’t too much to eat, there’s not enough.

Meskhetian feast

A Meskhetian feast

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Vardzia

My friends Erin and Wendy joined me in Georgia in mid-October for nine days of travel, adventure, and more food than most people consume in a month. After a quick two-day sojourn to Yerevan, Armenia (which I found less charming than Tbilisi but with a more varied and colorful fresh food market), we passed back into south Georgia and met our guide for the next week, Sofia.


Sofia is about my age, and her eyes sparkle with a playful mischief that endeared her to me almost immediately. As we travel along bumpy dirt roads towards the caves of Vardzia, she regales us with tales of Georgia’s Golden Age in the 12th century as if she lived it herself. Her command of dates, place names, and other facts about her country is encyclopedic but never boring. Sometimes she brings us back to the present with funny anecdotes from her real life, like the time she was assigned to memorize portions of Shota Rustaveli’s 12th century epic poem, “Knight in a Panther’s Skin” (as all Georgian school children must do). “I used to put the book in the refrigerator,” she tells us, “to punish it.”

Back when Rustaveli was writing his poem, while the rest of Georgia was enjoying its golden age under badass Queen Tamar, the area we’re driving through was constantly being invaded by bands of fearsome Turks. The land bouncing by out the window is stark, rocky, and wind-blown—unlike remote Svaneti with its watchtowers and saw-tooth peaks, Meskheti (the name for this region) would be tough to defend. It’s the kind of place you grow potatoes, not wage guerilla warfare. (Indeed, the best potatoes in Georgia are in fact grown here.)

near Saro village

The local people devised all sorts of ways to protect themselves, including hollowing out more than 400 rooms spanning 13 stories inside of a cliff. I can only imagine how painstaking and exhausting this work must have been. Yet they continued to chisel away for some 50 years. At its height, 50,000 people called the Vardzia cave complex home.

Alas, an earthquake in 1283 shook loose the outer wall of the cliff into which these caves were built, revealing them to the valley below like a natural dollhouse. Today the site draws tourists like us but is also a working monastery, where a handful of monks still live among the caves and tend the small church hollowed out of the rock.

Varzia cave complex

After an al fresco lunch (including potatoes, yes, and whole smoked trout), we headed up the cliff to scamper among the caves ourselves. Sofia pointed out depressions in the floor of certain rooms that would have served as ovens for baking bread, and hollows in others where they would have buried the qvevris (clay amphora) in which they fermented wine. The beds, I’ll admit, didn’t look very comfortable, but the view? Stunning.

view from Vardzia

Smoked Cheese Grits

Corn grits are a staple across western Georgia, where you’re likely to find them piled on a plate with slices of smoked sulguni cheese sticking up from their depths like sharks’ fins. In Georgian, plains grits are called ghomi, while grits with cheese mixed in are  elarji. I love serving them with Spiced Meatballs and Pomegranate Gravy, shishkebabs of any sort, or garlicky roasted chicken.

Smoked Cheese Grits (Elarji)
Serves about 6 people

3 cups water
3 cups whole milk
½ tsp. salt (or ¾ tsp. if you are using mozzarella instead of gouda)
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground white corn (hominy) grits (not quick-cooking or instant)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup smoked gouda or smoked mozzarella cheese, grated

  1. In a medium saucepan, bring water, milk, and salt to a boil. Add the corn grits in a steady stream, whisking continuously to prevent lumps from forming.
  2. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, whisking frequently, for 10-15 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed and the grits are thick and soft. Remove from heat.
  3. Stir in the butter and grated cheese until melted. Serve hot.

Grits can be made in advance and reheated. Store them in the fridge for up to one week and in the freezer for up to 6 months.