Spiced Meatballs with Pomegranate Gravy

Grits with Pomegranate Meatballs cropped

When I was growing up, the only time meatballs ever showed up on the table was at Christmas, when one of my aunts would make several pans worth of Swedish meatballs in their creamy, slightly sweet gravy. I got it into my head that making meatballs must be labor-intensive, because why else would these little balls of heaven that everyone loves only be made once a year?

I never really questioned this assumption until I watched a Russian acquaintance in Moscow make meatballs for her family’s weeknight dinner. She threw together the ground meats and an egg, tossed in some salt and a couple of spices, rolled out the balls while we chatted, and fried them up. The whole process took maybe 40 minutes, including the time it took her to grind the meat herself in a grinder she clamped on to her counter.

Years later in Georgia, I discovered abkhazura, meatballs from the mountainous region of Abkhazia spiced with tart barberries, red chili pepper, ground coriander, and other herbs. I created this recipe with those zingy flavors in mind, adding panko breadcrumbs for extra tenderness and a pomegranate gravy as a culturally appropriate nod to the saucy meatballs I loved as a child.

I love to ladle these meatballs over cheesy grits, a common side dish in western Georgia, but they go just as well over rice or noodles. They’re easy to take to work and reheat in the microwave, too. Serve them with garlicky roasted kale or a peppery arugula salad.

Spiced Meatballs with Pomegranate Gravy
Makes approximately 25 meatballs, enough to serve 5-8 people

1 lb. ground beef (ideally 85% lean)
1 lb. ground pork
½ cup panko bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
1 egg, beaten
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground sumac
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground fenugreek
½ tsp. dried summer savory (or thyme or marjoram)
½ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter or oil, divided
1 Tbsp. flour
1 cup pomegranate juice

Optional Garnishes
Red onion
Pomegranate seeds

Make the meatballs:

  1. Combine the meats, bread crumbs, garlic, onion, egg, and spices in large bowl and mix thoroughly. (Using your hands for this step is the best way to get everything evenly incorporated.)
  2. Roll small handfuls of the mixture into golf-ball-sized meatballs, about 1 ½ in. in diameter.
  3. Heat the butter or oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. (I use a cast iron pan. Nonstick pans are not ideal because they prevent the meat from browning properly.) Add the meatballs in batches, turning to brown all sides, about 6-8 minutes. (The key here is not to crowd the meatballs: if they’re too crowded, the meat will steam rather than sear.) Transfer the meatballs to a plate lined with paper towels.

Make the sauce: Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter or oil in the same pan. Sprinkle in a tablespoon of flour and let it cook for one minute, stirring often. Add ¼ cup of the pomegranate juice. Scrape the browned meat bits off the bottom of the pan with a spatula and mix them into the juice. Gradually add the rest of the juice, whisking to make sure no flour lumps remain.

Finish cooking: Reduce the heat to low and add the meatballs back into the gravy. Cover and cook another 12-15 minutes, turning the meatballs once at the halfway point, until they are cooked through.

Serve: Serve the meatballs hot over Smoked Cheese Grits, noodles, or rice. Garnish with thin sliced red onion, scallions, fresh cilantro, and/or pomegranate seeds if you like.

Make ahead: Meatballs 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.

How to use leftover meatballs:

  • Slice and layer them inside a pita sandwich with spinach, roasted beets, and mint-yogurt sauce
  • Reheat and serve them atop of a mound of linguini tossed with pesto and roasted cherry tomatoes
  • Quarter them and mix with couscous, raisins or dried cherries, feta cheese, and plenty of chopped herbs, served hot or cold

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Svaneti

After a few days in Samegrelo, I caught a marshrutka (public transport van) north to the breathtakingly beautiful, mountainous Svaneti region. The peaks here rise up quickly, and almost before you realize it you are switchbacking among steep, pine-covered slopes cut by plunging waterfalls and rushing streams. (Make sure to take a window seat on the van. The view from the passenger seat would be stunning but isn’t for the faint of heart, as the highway is only two lanes and drivers often veer into the oncoming traffic lane to pass slower vehicles, sometimes cutting it too close for comfort.)

A side view of Mount Ushba, one of the Caucasus' most notoriously difficult climbs, taken from the road between Etseri and Mestia

A side view of Mount Ushba, one of the Caucasus’ most notoriously difficult climbs, taken from the road between Etseri and Mestia

Like Samegrelo, Svaneti is a region named for its inhabitants, the Svan people. They also speak their own language, one full of intimidating consonants that spring from the back of the throat. As we hurtled upward, I marveled at how these highland people and the Georgians below them had ever mixed centuries before this road was laid. I can only imagine the courage and fortitude those emissaries, traders, explorers, and others must have had to make that journey into or out of this silent, truly awesome landscape, not knowing what they’d find on the other side. Among Georgians, the Svans still have a reputation for being stoic, suspicious of strangers, and better suited to self-defense than the hospitality Georgians so pride themselves on.

My destination was the village of Etseri, a jumble of homes and small farms at the 112 km marker off the main road from Zugdidi to Mestia, Svaneti’s regional capital. A Canadian man I’d met while teaching English in Batumi a few years ago and his Georgian wife have since opened a guesthouse there, the first one. Everywhere you look is a postcard view—hell, an expansive, mighty National Geographic view. There are no shops and no restaurants in Etseri, so Tony and Lali (and sometimes their hired kitchen help, a neighbor woman called Nana) prepare all the meals their guests eat from scratch.

The view from Hanmer Guesthouse

The view from Hanmer Guesthouse

What there are plenty of up here is cows. They roam freely across the hillsides—and in the road, down the path, next to the school, etc.—munching grass and getting muddy and placidly outnumbering people. Tony and Lali keep one of their own for milk. I went out with Lali one evening to milk their cow (unnamed, as she will become dinner(s) one day). I was surprised by how hard I had to pull on her udder to coax the warm milk out of it, not wanting to cause the cow any pain. “Once you see how hard the calf pulls on them, you stop worrying so much,” Tony reminded me.

Cattle Paradise

Cattle Paradise

They use the milk to make their own cheese and yogurt, which is the norm here rather than the exception. Yogurt could hardly be simpler: warm the milk on the stove, add a spoonful of leftover yogurt from your last batch, stir, wrap the jar in a blanket and set in a warm place overnight. Enjoy in the morning with tea, bread, and jam. (Tony makes his own jams from all sorts of fruits and berries, including sea buckthorn: tart, ball-bearing sized, bright orange berries that ripen after the first frost and make their own pectin when you heat them, so they gel naturally.)

The most common cheese in Georgia is called imeruli qveli (Imeretian cheese, for the central Georgian region of Imereti, though it’s ubiquitous everywhere). It’s a fresh, salted cow’s milk cheese that crumbles easily when cool and melts smoothly when hot. To make it, you heat the milk, add a few drops of rennet, let it sit until curds form, stir again, then dip your hands into the liquid and slowly begin to gather the curds into a mass at the side of the pot, letting the whey slide through your fingers. (This feels wonderful on a cold autumn night, where the only heat in the house emanates from the wood stove you’re standing over.) Once the curds have come together into a solid shape, lift it from the pot and set it in a colander over a bowl to drain overnight. In the morning, you have a basket-shaped block of cheese. Salt it on both sides: this helps to preserve it.

Homemade Imeretian cheese, ready to be turned into sulguni

Homemade Imeretian cheese, ready to be turned into sulguni

If you want to make the creamier, more pliable sulguni (think Georgian mozzarella), just cut the imeruli cheese into slices, melt them in warm water or fresh milk, and slowly gather the cheese back into a ball, squeezing out any excess whey as you go.

My cooking lesson with Nana the Svan began the next morning. She looks not much older than me but already has three children, and plenty of experience cooking for a crowd. She starts off with a chicken, potato, and tomato stew and a salad of shredded cabbage, carrots, and onions, then mixes the dough for khachapuri and kubdari, a savory pie stuffed with chopped meat and onions that is a specialty of Svaneti. We pause for lunch with Tony and Lali and the workers who are renovating the upper floor of their guesthouse, washing down the soup and salad with machari, or immature wine.

Like most Georgian village families, Tony and Lali make their own wine at home in the fall. The climate in Svaneti doesn’t lend itself to grapes, so they order theirs from Kakheti, Georgia’s wine region in the east. The white rkatsiteli grapes ferment for a few weeks in big plastic barrels, fizzing and bubbling while their natural sugar turns into alcohol. The barrels are covered lightly during this period to keep bugs and dust out, but not sealed completely, as the gases released during fermentation need somewhere to escape. You can drink this sweet-tart liquid (machari) until the barrels are sealed and the wine is left to age until springtime.

You can see these barrels all over Georgia in the fall, when families make their own wine at home.

You can see these barrels all over Georgia in the fall, when families make their own wine at home.

After lunch Nana throws together some cupcakes filled with spoonfuls of jam or coffee cream and topped meringue and chocolate icing. As they’re baking, she finely chops chunks of beef and pork and mixes them with minced onions, garlic, oil, spices, and herbed Svan salt to make the filling for her kubdari. For the khachapuri, she crumbles a bunch of salted cheese into a bowl and adds chopped beet greens to half of it, then rolls tennis ball-sized chunks of filling for each of the pies.

Nana readies her cupcakes for baking in the wood-burning oven

Nana readies her cupcakes for baking in the wood-burning oven

Getting the filling inside the dough isn’t hard, but making sure the filling reaches the edges of the pie inside can be challenging. Nana has the technique down to a science, and I don’t think she’d quite realized that until she tried to teach me how to do it. Basically, she gently stretches a hummock of dough into a round slightly larger than the filling ball, pulls the edges of the dough up around the filling and twists them together at the top to seal it shut, flattens it with her palm, and then spreads the pie out by pressing down in concentric circles starting from the center. My attempts to copy her movements first mad her shake her head and then giggle, but after several more tries she seemed decently satisfied with my progress.

Nana forms khachapuri

Nana forms khachapuri

After stuffing, each pie sat for a few minutes on top of the wood-burning stove to proof, then baked for about 10-15 minutes inside. Nana poked a small hole in the top of each kubdari before baking to let steam escape. As each pie came out, she brushed the top of it with melted better. The aroma of woodsmoke and roasted garlic filling the kitchen was making me salivate. It wasn’t time for dinner yet but I couldn’t resist: I cut one kubdari pie like a pizza and dug in. No surprises here: just hot, chewy dough, juicy meat, pungent garlic, and satisfying salt. Perfect mountain food. Or for that matter, perfect pizza alternative anywhere in the world. Stay tuned for a recipe!

Kubdari and khachapuri cool on the counter. Hungry yet?

Kubdari and khachapuri cool on the counter. Hungry yet?

Have you ever tried kubdari? Where, and what was it like? Tell us in the comments.

Want to stay at the Hanmer Guesthouse yourself? Find them here on Facebook.

More photos from my stay in Svaneti are available on the Georgian Table Facebook page.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Samegrelo

After a few days in Tbilisi gathering contacts and getting ideas, I set off for my first homestay, in the western Georgian region of Samegrelo. Samegrelo is the home of the Megrelian people, most of whom speak both Georgian and Megrelian, one of the few languages in the world that is related to Georgian. To me, Megrelian sounds to Georgian as Portuguese sounds to Spanish—a little softer and swingier, with rounded corners.

The region is also known for its spicy food. When I asked Oleg (the man with the puppy from my last post, who used to host a travel documentary-style TV show about Georgia) why these people eat spicier food than the rest of the country, he said, “Simple: malaria.” He told me that this area of Georgia is swampy and was once a breeding ground for malarial mosquitos. People who ate loads of hot peppers seemed better-shielded against the blood-sucking buggers, so chilis appear in everything from soups and salads to meat and egg dishes here.

Oleg set me up with a family in Odishi, a village about 15 minutes’ drive outside the regional capital, Zugdidi. Sixteen-year-old Tako Qobalia and her father Beso met me at the train station at 6:30 am, when the stuffy, lumbering overnight train from Tbilisi arrives. The Qobalias have been hosting teachers from English-speaking countries in their home almost continuously since 2010, when the Teach and Learn with Georgia program began. (This is the same Georgian government-sponsored program that brought me to Georgia for the first time, as an English teacher in a public school in Batumi on the Black Sea coast.) As a result, their daughter Tako speaks fluent colloquial English, peppered with her own sly observations and quick wit.

The Qobalia family: Beso, Arleta, and Tako

The Qobalia family: Beso, Arleta, and Tako

The Qobalias live in the home that Beso’s grandfather built around 100 years ago, though hired laborers are at work on a new one they’ve commissioned a few yards away. Outside they keep a small orchard of hazelnut, walnut, and fruit trees, a kitchen garden, and a screened-in box on stilts where they dry their own apples and figs in the sun. Their calf is still too young to milk, but she makes herself heard with a well-timed moo whenever the herd of small dogs that carouse around the yard are getting overly riled up in their competition for the affections of Sausage, the family dachshund.

Tako’s mother, Arleta, is ethnically Megrelian but grew up in Abkhazia, the northwestern-most region of Georgia (at least officially). A devastating war between Abkhazian separatists (with Russian support) and Georgian troops in 1992-1993 forced more than 250,000 people to flee their homes. Arleta and her family were among them. Now the place exists for her in memory and in the foods she grew up with.

She starts our lesson by taking two pepper mixes out of the fridge, both called ajika. One is a powdery rub made with dried chili peppers, the other a fiery red paste made with fresh chilis, herbs, garlic and plenty of salt. This paste was what they used in Abkhazia, she tells me. Just smelling it wakes me up. I taste a bit for heat: it makes my lips burn on contact and draws blood to my face, the way a good chili paste should.

We begin with ajika chicken. Arleta stabs a hen carcass with a long fork and holds it directly over the gas flame of her stove to sear off the remaining feathers, then butterflies the chicken to make it lay flat in the pan, smears ajika and salt all over the bird’s skin, and pops it into the oven half of her wood-burning stove to roast.

Searing off chicken feathers over a gas flame

Searing off chicken feathers over a gas flame

As in many Georgian village homes, the wood stove heats the kitchen and living room area throughout the winter (and is often the only source of heat in the house). As Arleta cooks, she continuously tosses new logs into the fire (contained in a box on the left side of the stove) to keep it hot. The oven half is on the right side. Any food cooked there must be turned halfway through to ensure even cooking. The flat top of the stove is used like a modern cooktop, though the cook can only turn down the heat by moving a pan from the side directly over the firebox to the other.

Next we move on to ghomi, the Georgian polenta, which is a staple throughout much of western Georgia. (This dish is called “ghumu” in Megrelian, and in both languages the “gh” is pronounced a lot like a French “r”). Historically, people in western Georgia relied on ghomi and other corn-based dishes as their go-to carbs, while people in the eastern part of the country ate bread.

Arleta takes her own dried corn to the local mill to be ground. She sifts the ground meal through a fine-mesh sieve at home, reserving the finest meal and rinsing the coarser grits ten times to remove any hulls and debris. She pours the grits into a pot of boiling water and lets them heat and thicken while we move on to other dishes. When the water boils, she’ll add some of the fine meal to bind the grits. Just before we eat, she’ll pile a hummock of ghomi onto a small plate for each person at the table, then stick a thick slice of smoked sulguni cheese into the center of each. If you melt cheese directly into the grits, you’ve got elarji, which tastes good with just about everything.

Continuing on with the cheese and carbs theme that runs through Georgian cuisine like a backbone, we prepare the dough for Megrelian khachapuri. (Its contents are self-evident in the name: khacho is one Georgian word for fresh cheese, while puri means bread.) Megrelians typically make this pan-Georgian favorite with an extra layer of cheese mixed with egg and butter or oil slathered on top of the basic cheese-stuffed pie.

Megrelian khachapuri

Megrelian khachapuri

Judging by Arleta’s practiced movements as she cooks and the easy transitions she makes between several dishes in various stages of completion, I get the sense that cooking 4-5 different dishes in one afternoon is nothing new for her. She says she spends half the day cooking, on average. She’s also the director of the pre-school up the road. As I’m pondering how she manages to fit it all in, she plops a plate of sticky black figs in front of me. “From our garden,” she says. “They dried in the sun.” I’m beginning to understand that here, nature is still very much a partner in labor for most people living outside of major cities.

While the khachapuri dough is rising (and the chicken roasting and the grits bubbling…feel like you’re in a nursery rhyme yet?), Arleta gathers the ingredients for another Megrelian specialty, gebzhalia. She presses freshly made sulguni (lightly salted cow’s milk cheese) into a flat rectangle, spreads it with a mild green chili and mint ajika, and rolls it up like a jelly roll. She cuts the roll into bite-size slices and covers them with a garlicky mint-yogurt sauce. I’ve rarely seen this dish on Georgian restaurant menus, but I’d certainly put it on mine if I ran one.

Sulguni cheese spread with mint ajika for gebzhalia, a regional specialty in Samegrelo

Sulguni cheese spread with mint ajika for gebzhalia, a regional specialty in Samegrelo

It’s time to think about dessert. Arleta pours a couple liters of grape juice (pressed from her own grapes, of course) into a pot on the stove, adds sugar and corn flour, and brings it to a boil, stirring constantly as it thickens to a pudding-like texture. Once the flour taste has cooked out, she pours it into flat dishes to cool. This is pelamushi, which is as fun to say as it is to eat. (It’s also known as tatara in parts of eastern Georgia, where it is made with wheat flour).

Finally, we stuff the khachapuri with cheese and bake a few pies in the wood-burning oven. She pulls out the bazhe (garlic-walnut sauce) she made yesterday to accompany the chicken, which she cuts into pieces with kitchen shears. A few chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers make a simple salad. A pitcher of sweetened feijoa juice goes on the table, along with a bottle of Georgian white wine. (Normally the Qobalias drink the wine they make themselves, so uncorking this bottle marks a special occasion.)

Feijoa juice

Feijoa juice

With just about every inch of the table covered with something edible, we sit down to lunch: all this for just Arleta, Tako, and I. There is far more food here than the three of us could eat in three days, but that’s the Georgian way: variety and abundance are the hallmarks of hospitality. It will all appear again on the table over the next several meals, though seven new dishes will be added tomorrow (including two corn dishes, two meat dishes, another type of khachapuri, and two desserts). It will feed not only the family, but also the American teacher couple the Qobalias are hosting this year, the workers who are building their new home next door, and other friends and relatives who may stop by or stay the night. Bones go to the dogs, some vegetable scraps to the cow, used napkins feed the fire.

Lunch for three in Samegrelo

Lunch for three in Samegrelo

We end the day with a surprise midnight birthday celebration for one of the American teachers. Tako pops a balloon filled with confetti she’s made herself, Beso is standing by wine and shots of chacha (Georgian grappa), and Arleta has made a poofy layer cake with two different fillings, a third type of frosting, and more sweetened condensed milk than I care to remember. I’ve come down with a bad cold and should probably be sleeping. The teachers have to be at school early the next morning and should probably be sleeping. Yet we all sit in the kitchen with confetti in our hair, toasting to lofty ideals I can’t remember and giving ourselves a drunken bedtime sugar rush. It feels irresponsible and for that, all the more festive.

I’m generally wary of national stereotypes, but there is one about Georgians that I do support: let it never be said that this is a people who do not know how to party.

Note; Recipes for many of these dishes, adapted for urban kitchens, are forthcoming after I’ve had a chance to test and measure them with American ingredients back home.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Day 1

If you’ve been following my Facebook page, you know that I’m spending the month of October traveling around Georgia, learning to cook regional specialties and traditional dishes from home cooks, and generally soaking up experiences that I can’t have at home in Washington, DC. I arrived in Tbilisi on October 2 with an AirBnB booked for three nights and the phone numbers of several contacts gathered from friends and colleagues. I didn’t plan farther ahead than that because I wanted to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that I trusted would arise out of conversations with others: someone would know someone with a walnut grove in Imereti, or a cheesemaker in the mountains, or a particularly talented home cook who was game to show me the ropes. Besides, I thought, even the best-laid plans in Georgia tend to go awry. This is a nation of people who live life by the seat of their pants, and when you’re here, it’s difficult to do differently.

Anchiskhati Church; Tbilisi, Georgia

Washington (the quintessential planned city) attracts super-planners, so when I told people there about my barebones outline for the trip, I felt like maybe my refusal to plan more carefully was really just a cop-out and a reflection of my own weakness in this area (one I never felt I had until I moved to DC). Yet after my first meeting in Tbilisi, over coffee with a contact a colleague had put me in touch with), I knew this had been the right decision. Oleg seemed to have well-placed friends just about everywhere, and after just a few calls made on the spot, he’d found families who were willing to host me in their homes and teach me to cook favorite local dishes in three different regions.


My second meeting, arranged through a member of the Georgian choir who sang at a Georgian dinner several friends and I hosted in late September, led to an opportunity to appear on the cooking segment of a popular national TV program called the Day Show (“Skhva Shuadghe”) the following week. Two points for serendipity.

I stepped out of the café after that second meeting in a heady daze, amazed that all of this had come together so well after only one day in Tbilisi. I wandered down cobbled Shavteli Street and over the architecturally incongruous yet strikingly beautiful Peace Bridge to Rike Park, with its human-scale chessboard and grand piano fit only for giants.

Peace Bridge; Tbilisi, Georgia

This isn’t the only part of the city that makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland. I sense it while walking among the crooked homes that still stand precariously amidst the maze of streets behind Shavteli. They sag at acute angles, their roofs about to slide off, vines about to reclaim them, and yet the sound of dice on a table echoes from an upstairs window, laundry hangs from wires strung between them, lace curtains flutter in a window. In another hangs an advertisement for a spa where I could have tiny fish nibble the dead skin from my feet. I worry for the people inside, lest a gust of wind blow the whole thing over.

Old Tbilisi

I finished off the first night of my trip at Vino Underground, a little wine cave in the heart of the Old City. I stopped in for a taste or two but got caught up in conversation with the wine vendor, who’d come to Tbilisi from Abkhazia as a child refugee in the early 1990s, and with other visitors, many of whom were discovering Georgia for the first time. I left after closing time, well past midnight, with The Beegees “Stayin’ Alive” playing on the stereo. Wonderland, indeed.

Georgian Chicken Salad (as Seen on TV)

I demonstrated this recipe on Georgian TV earlier today, on Rustavi 2’s “Day Show.” It’s quick, colorful, healthy, and simple to make. (Simple enough to make on live TV without worrying that something will come out wrong!) You can watch the clip below in Georgian and English.

Chicken salad is as popular in Georgia as it is in the US, though Georgians don’t typically put it on sandwiches, as I did on the show. This recipe uses Georgian flavors like pomegranate, cilantro, and walnuts to dress up what might otherwise be a fairly bland dish. I love the clean taste of yogurt here instead of the more traditional mayo, but either will work. You can also play with the herbs: parsley, basil, mint, or tarragon would all fit in well here.

Serve the salad as is, stuff it into a baguette, pita pocket, or wrap, or pile it into hollowed-out tomato halves.

Georgian Chicken Salad (Katmis Salati)
Serves 6

1.5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 stalks celery, finely sliced (or 1 bunch celery leaves, finely chopped)
3 green onions, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. crushed red pe­­­pper flakes
¼ tsp. black pepper
Juice of half a lemon
1 ½ Tbsp. wine vinegar
½ cup plain yogurt (thin, not the thick Greek-style yogurt) or mayonnaise
½ cup walnuts, ground
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
½ cup chopped fresh dill
½ cup pomegranate seeds
Lettuce, arugula, or spinach

To make a sandwich:
Baguette, pita pocket bread, or wrap

  1. Put the chicken in a pot with enough water to cover the pieces by one inch. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer 15 minutes or until cooked through. Remove the chicken to a plate and let cool. Reserve the broth for another use.
  2. Shred the chicken into thin pieces. In a large bowl, mix the chicken with all the other ingredients except the lettuce or other greens. Adjust seasonings to taste. If you have time, cover the bowl and chill the salad in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving to allow the flavors to meld.
  3. Serve the salad on a bed of lettuce, arugula, or other greens. For a sandwich, layer the chicken salad and greens on a baguette, stuff inside a pita or roll into a wrap. Alternatively, hollow out halves of tomato and stuff the cups with chicken salad.

Green Bean Salad with Peppers and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Green Bean Salad with Peppers and Roasted Cherry Tomoatoes

Green beans are so often an afterthought, seemingly included only to add a bit of green to a plate dominated by protein and potatoes. Not so here: the natural sweetness of green beans plays off the acidity of the dressing, the smokiness of the roasted tomatoes, and an extra kick from the raw red onions to make this a salad second to no main. Serve it with grilled lamb and tkemali plum sauce, Trout with cilantro-walnut sauce, or alongside Ajaran khachapuri.

Green Bean Salad with Peppers and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Serves 4-6

1.5 lbs. green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-in. pieces.

2 Tbsp. oil for frying (olive, grapeseed, canola, or other)

3 mild chili peppers (such as poblano, Anaheim, or Italian frying peppers), chopped into thin 2-in. strips

½ cup thinly sliced red onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup cherry tomatoes


¼ cup walnut or extra-virgin olive oil

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses

Kosher salt

A few grinds of black pepper

Dash of crushed red pepper flakes

On Top:

Fresh cilantro leaves

Thinly sliced red onion

1. Arrange a rack in the top slot of the oven and preheat the broiler. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil on the stove. Boil the green beans until crisp-tender, about 5-7 minutes. Drain in a colander and run the green beans under cold water or place them in an ice bath to stop the cooking.

2. Heat the oil for frying in a saute pan. Add the onions and peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, under crisp tender, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds more, until very fragrant. Remove from heat.

3. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the tomatoes on it. Broil about 5 minutes, turning once, until the tomatoes blister and begin to fall.

4. Make the dressing: whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes together in a small bowl.

5. Mix the green beans, onions and peppers together in a medium bowl. Add the dressing and stir to combine. Top with roasted cherry tomatoes, fresh cilantro, and very thin slices of raw red onion.

Georgian Potato Salad (Kartopilis Salati)

Georgian potato salad

I grew up eating classic Midwestern potato salad, with a healthy glop of mayo and chunks of celery and hard-boiled egg mixed in. It was always on the buffet table at family picnics for summer holidays like Memorial Day and Fourth of July, and even shows up from time to time at Christmas. (When you have to bring a dish large to feed 75 people, potato salad goes a long way.)

I still love that familiar version, but at home I like something with a little more kick to it. This Georgian version is a creation of my own kitchen rather than an adaptation of a traditional Georgian dish (though it wouldn’t be out of place there).

I prefer to keep the skins on the potatoes for the flavor they add, but you can peel the potatoes after you boil them if you like. Experiment with different combinations of herbs. For the most authentically Georgian flavor, seek out the glossy purple “opal” basil, which is sharper and clovier than the green Genovese basil most commonly found in the US.

This salad can easily be made a day ahead of time and stored in the fridge overnight.


Georgian Potato Salad (Kartopilis Salati)
Serves 4-6

2 lbs. boiling potatoes, preferably fingerling or red, scrubbed clean
3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
½ tsp. kosher salt + another teaspoon for the boiling water
Several grinds of black pepper
Dash of crushed red pepper (I use about ¼ tsp.)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
3-4 scallions, finely sliced
1 cup chopped fresh herbs (any mix of cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, dill, tarragon, and/or basil)
Sprinkle of ground sumac to garnish, if desired

1. In a pot, cover the potatoes with an inch or two of cold water and add a teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender all the way through, around 10-15 minutes. Drain and rinse several times under cool water to stop the cooking. Chop the potatoes into bite-size chunks and transfer them to a mixing bowl.
2. Add the mayonnaise, ½ tsp. salt, black and red pepper, vinegar, scallions, and herbs. Mix well. Adjust seasonings to taste.
3. You can chill the salad at this point if you are making it in advance or prefer to serve it cold. Otherwise, transfer it to a serving dish and sprinkle ground sumac over the top if desired.

Eggplant-Pomegranate Dip (Badrijnis Khizilala)

eggplant pomegranate dip

You can find this dip throughout the Caucasus and the rest of the former Soviet Union, where it’s often called “eggplant caviar.” Creative branding, to be sure, since it tastes nothing like fish eggs and costs a fraction of the price. Maybe the eggplant seeds reminded someone of sturgeon roe, or eating it made the plebes feel like kings.

I first encountered this dip in Russia, where college students buy it in jars from the grocery store and eat it on slices of dense, tangy black bread with caraway seeds–a sort of Slavic equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich. It even comes in a creamy variety (like this recipe) and a chunky one (more of a salad). Later, I made a variation of it with my friend Inna for her son’s birthday party. Her husband Gena lit up the grill in the backyard, skewered whole eggplants on sharp iron rods, and let them roast over the open flame until they glistened and oozed drippings into the grill box. Inna and her mother-in-law let them cool in a bowl of salted water, then beat the smoky pulp to a smooth paste and added tomatoes, oil, herbs, and spices to make a dipping sauce for the shishkebabs Gena was still grilling out back.

This version is my own. You can mix up the herbs you use, add a squeeze of lemon juice or a drizzle oil over the top of the bowl if you like, or throw in a handful of pomegranate seeds if you really want to play up the caviar analogy.

Eggplant-Pomegranate Dip (Badrijnis Khizilala)
Makes about 1 ½ cups

1 large globe eggplant or 3 of the smaller, narrower kind (Asian or Italian)
¼ cup pomegranate juice
2 Tbsp. olive or walnut oil
¼ cup fresh mixed cilantro and dill, chopped
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
½ tsp. kosher salt
Dash crushed red pepper flakes

  1. Prepare the grill or preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Prick the eggplant in several places with a fork and place it on the grill grate or on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment paper. Grill or bake the eggplant until its skin wrinkles and it collapses into itself. In the oven, this takes about 45 minutes. The flesh should be totally soft by this point. Allow to cool, then scrape out the flesh into the bowl of a food processor.* Discard skin and stem.
  2. Add the other ingredients into the food processor and pulse until smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Serve with bread, pita chips, crackers, or vegetables.

*Note: You could also use an immersion blender to puree the dip.

Chicken Soup with Egg and Lemon (Chikhirtma)


The Georgian palate gravitates toward tart flavors in all sorts of dishes, and soups are no exception. This elegant chicken soup takes its tang from lemon juice (or, alternatively, vinegar). It appears creamy due to the addition of eggs, but it contains no dairy. The hint of cinnamon adds a touch of sweet perfume, but the flavor remains delicately savory.

I like to serve this soup as a first course before a vegetarian entrée, or as a meal in itself with a thick slice of grainy bread and a mixed green salad.

Serves 4-6

1.5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts at room temperature
7-8 cups water or chicken stock
2 Tbsp. butter or oil
1 large or 2 medium onions, diced
1 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
Juice of one lemon*
2 eggs, beaten
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
Chopped fresh herbs to garnish (any mix of cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, basil, dill, mint)

*Tip: Roll the lemon around on the counter, pressing down on it hard with the palm of your hand, before slicing it in half and juicing it. This softens the membranes inside the lemon and will allow you to squeeze more juice out of it.

  1. Place the chicken breasts in a pot and pour the water or stock over them. Bring the liquid to a simmer (not a boil) and maintain it there until the chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the chicken and strain the liquid through a fine-mesh sieve. Reserve the strained broth. Use your fingers to shred the chicken into bite-size pieces.
  2. In the large pot, cook the onion in butter or oil until soft, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle the flour, salt, coriander, and cinnamon over the onions, stirring well to combine. Add the strained broth to the onions and bring to a simmer.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the beaten eggs and lemon juice with 1 cup of the warmed broth, stirring constantly to prevent the eggs from clumping. Add the egg mixture to the soup, stirring as you pour. Add the chicken pieces back to the soup and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through.
  4. To serve, ladle the soup into shallow bowls, grind a bit of black pepper over each and top with chopped herbs.

Serving suggestion: if you like a garlicky soup or are trying to ward off a cold, add 3-5 cloves of minced garlic to the soup when you add the chicken pieces back in towards the end.

Fried Eggplant Rolls with Walnut-Garlic Filling (Badrijani Nigvzit)

badrijani nigvzit

The one-two punch of garlic and salt melts into the subtle creaminess of eggplant in these addictive little morsels, which can be found on nearly every Georgian restaurant menu. They make a unique appetizer served simply on crackers or bread alongside a glass of red wine, but are rich enough to stand up to heartier fare like grilled pork ribs and cornbread.

Georgians make this dish with Chinese eggplants, which are long and narrow, with thinner skin and sweeter flesh than the elephantine “globe” variety found in most American supermarkets. Either will work for this recipe, but it’s easier to cut and fold the Asian variety, which are sometimes available at farmers’ markets in the US. Ground fenugreek imparts a slightly tart, nutty flavor and is worth seeking out. It can be found in Indian, Persian, and Middle Eastern grocery stores, purchased in small quantities from stores that sell bulk spices, or purchased online at Penzey’s. Georgian utskho suneli (“foreign spice”) also known as blue fenugreek (trigonella caerulea), is less bitter than its Asian counterpart (trigonella foenum graecum), the kind typically sold in the US. Use it in this recipe if you can find it (and let me know where you got it!)

The filling can be made up to three days ahead if stored in the refrigerator. The eggplant slices can be fried the night before combining and serving.

Fried Eggplant Rolls with Walnut-Garlic Filling (Badrijani Nigvzit)
Serves 10-12 as an appetizer

12 Chinese eggplants or 3 medium globe eggplants (about 1 lb. each)
Neutral-tasting vegetable oil (e.g. canola, sunflower or grapeseed) for frying
1 cup walnuts
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ tsp. white wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground fenugreek (if you have utskho suneli from Georgia, use 1/2 tsp.)
¼ tsp. ground red pepper flakes or small pinch ground cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup water
Fresh cilantro, thin-sliced onion, and/or pomegranate seeds to garnish

1. In a food processor, grind the walnuts, garlic, vinegar, spices, and water together until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. (Ideally, do this several hours or up to 3 days before you plan to serve the dish, as the flavors benefit from time to meld. Store in the refrigerator if making ahead.)

2. Wash and cut the tops off the eggplants. Do not peel. Cut lengthwise into ½ in.-thick slices.

3. Optional but recommended: Salt the eggplant slices generously and let stand for 1 hour, then press out the dark juice, rinse, and pat dry thoroughly with a kitchen towel or paper towels. This is one common technique for minimizing bitterness in eggplant. Using very fresh eggplants will also cut the risk of bitter flavor.

4. Heat 2-3 Tbsp. of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Brown eggplant slices on both sides, working in batches so as not to crowd the pan and adding oil as necessary. Wait until both sides have turned golden brown, then remove eggplant slices to a plate lined with paper towels. (They should be floppy, not crisp.) Continue until all slices are fried and set aside to cool.

5. Spread a layer of filling on one side of each eggplant slice and roll up to enclose the filling inside. Arrange the rolls on a platter and sprinkle with fresh herbs, thin-sliced onion, or pomegranate seeds (if desired) to serve. You could also serve the rolls on top of crackers or crostini to make them easier to eat neatly as finger food.