Georgian holiday feast, part I


"When life hands you plums, make tkemali."

A year and a half ago friends in Southern Oregon had a preposterous bounty of plums, so many they were breaking branches on the trees. So many, in fact, that my relatives still have frozen quarts of plum juice and pulp. So when it came time to make Christmas eve dinner for those same friends, I thought of Georgian sour plum sauce, or tkemali. I could serve it with salmon for me, and chicken for the folks who don't eat fish. This lead to a whole Georgian-style holiday meal.

I encountered Georgian food three years ago when I went to Moscow for a technical conference. Georgia is regarded as sort of the France of Eastern Europe: the country with deep cuisine history where all the good cooks come from. Even during war between Georgia and Russia, the Georgian restaurants in Moscow did not close down. The food is that good.

The meal started out with pkhali, a paste made with beets, walnuts and garlic (pictured above). Pkhali is a kind of "Georgian hummus", and is actually made with a variety of vegetables, depending; beets are common, but so are leeks, spinach, or eggplants. What's constant is the walnuts, garlic and vinegar.

Since it's served cold, we had this out as an appetizer course, together with Butte Creek Mill's beer batter bread. Originally, I'd put the pkhali in little jello molds with the idea of unmolding them as amusing shapes, but for some reason it didn't stiffen up in the fridge this time, and wouldn't come out of the molds. A quick save with the cookie scoop, and you have the little pyramids you see here.

It's traditional to top pkhali with onions and pomegranate seeds, and also made a terrific Christmas color combination.

Beet Pkhali

2 lbs large beets
1 1/2 cups walnut halves
1 small-medium head garlic (or 1/2 large head)
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt, plus more
2 Tbs red wine vinegar, plus more
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley and/or cilantro

Cook the beets: wash and trim them, leaving a little bit of stem. Wrap them up in heavy foil in bunches of 3-4, stem sides down. Cook at 300F for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, depeding on the size of the individual beets. Allow to cool until just warm enough to handle, and rub off the peels and trim. Dice large.

Roast the garlic with the beets: when the beets are 40 minutes from being done, trim the end off the head of garlic exposing the tips of the cloves, and wrap it in foil, cut side up. Cook it alongside the beets and take it out of the oven at the same time.

Put the walnuts, parsley and salt into a food processor or food grinder. Pulse until finely minced. Add the beet dice, coriander, and red wine vinegar. Squeeze the roasted cloves out of the head of garlic into the mix. Pulse until reduced to a rough puree. Taste; add additional salt and vinegar if necessary; the phkali should be slightly acid.

Serve with marinated red onions and pomegranate seeds on top.

Marinated Red Onion

1 large red onion
1 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp salt

Trim and peel the whole onion. Slice it into thin rings, about 1/8" inch thick (3-4mm). Separate the layers.

Toss the onion rings with the vinegar and salt. Put in a nonreactive container, cover and seal, and refrigerate overnight or up to 1 week. Drain and blot dry before using.