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

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

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.

Lamb Stew with Eggplant and Potatoes (Chanakhi)

Chanakhi (Lamb stew with eggplant and potatoes)

(Note: This post originally appeared on my personal blog, Eat with Pleasure, in 2013.)

This hearty stew is traditionally baked and served in individual clay pots called chanakhi, which is where the dish gets its name. It’s also the custom to make slits in each eggplant and stuff them with herbs and chunks of lamb fat before layering them into the stew to braise. Most Georgian home cooks today make a simpler version like the one I present here.

My notes from the time Shushana (my host mother in Batumi) and I cooked it together make me laugh now. Apparently the gas ran out midway, so Shushana had to call the utility company to bring out a fresh propane tank. My host father Misha wandered in to find out what the holdup was, then spread a layer of sour cream on some bread to tide himself over while I drank a glass of homemade Cornelian cherry juice and Shushana tackled the dishes. My host sister Diana came home with a scarlet red dress she’d found for her engagement party. Half an hour later, the guy from the gas company showed up to screw in the new tank on the balcony. We were back in business, the stew again bubbling away on the stove. (Shushana preferred the stovetop to the oven, which is where she stored her pots and pans.) “Now I remember why I never make chanakhi,” Shushana chuckled as we sat down to eat around 11 pm.

This is certainly not a recipe to whip out in a time crunch. Luckily it’s the kind of dish that actually tastes better the second and third time you reheat it, once the flavors have had a chance to meld. I’d advise making it a day ahead of time.

Lamb Stew with Eggplant and Potatoes (Chanakhi)

2 lbs. lamb stew meat (like boneless lamb shoulder), cut into bite-size (1 in.) chunks
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more for salting the eggplant
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 Tbsp. vegetable oil or butter, divided
2 medium onions, cut in half and sliced into ½-inch wide strips
10 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 ½ Tbsp. red wine vinegar
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered and cut into ½-in.-thick wedges. (No need to peel.)
1 medium globe eggplant or 4 narrow Japanese eggplants (about 1 ½ pounds), stemmed, quartered lengthwise (or cut into eighths if your eggplant is large), and sliced into ½-in.-thick wedges
2 medium bell peppers, any color, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-in. pieces
1 ½ cups each fresh basil, cilantro, and flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped. (At my grocery store, this is one full bunch of each herb. If some stems get in there, it’s no big deal.)
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the oven rack so it is in the bottom third of the oven and there is enough room above it to slide in the pot you’ll be using with its lid on.
  2. Toss the eggplant slices with a good handful of kosher salt, mixing to coat. Set aside for half an hour, then use your hands to knead down the eggplant slices, squeezing out their dark juice as you go. Rinse well and pat the slices dry on a dishcloth or paper towels.
  3. Mix the lamb with ½ tsp. of the kosher salt, the black pepper, and the cayenne pepper, stirring well to coat. (Your hands are the best tool for this. Just wash and dry them well afterwards.)
  4. Heat 2 Tbsp. of the oil or butter in a large Dutch oven or deep enameled cast iron pot with a tight-fitting, oven-safe lid. Brown the lamb over high heat, 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove lamb to another dish and set aside.
  5. Add the remaining 2 Tbsp. of oil or butter to the pot and heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add half the minced garlic and cook for another 30 seconds or so, stirring, until you can really smell the garlic. Turn off the heat or remove the pot from the burner (if using electric stove).
  6. Add the lamb back into the pot and stir to mix with the onion and garlic. Add the contents of the can of tomatoes (with juice), the red wine vinegar, and the remaining 1 tsp. of salt. Then layer half the potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and herbs on top, each in its own layer. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, eggplant, and peppers, continuing to layer. Add the fresh diced tomato on top. (Your vegetables will likely be nearing the top of the pot at this point.) Pour 4 cups of water over the vegetables. Do not stir.
  7. Cover the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Do not stir. Move the pot to the oven and bake for 1 ½ hours. Remove the pot from the oven and increase the temperature to 400 degrees F. Add half the remaining herbs and the rest of the minced garlic to the pot. Put the to back in the oven, uncovered, and bake for 15-20 minutes more, until the broth has thickened slightly.
  8. Serve hot with crusty bread. Sprinkle the remaining herbs over each serving at the table.