Birthdays are an interesting thing. Of course as a little kid, birthdays were the best day of the year—you are the birthday prince or princess and anything you say or want, goes. But as you grow older, things change. The day looses its luster for some and then others find that they’re better off without the yearly reminder that time is ticking away. Most likely the hedonist in me, I’ve always loved birthdays. Not only is it an excuse to eat, drink, and be all sorts of merry, but it’s also an occasion to bring together the people in your life to do so. And even when it’s not your birthday you’re celebrating, you can do what I did as a 4-year old and pout in the corner until you get a present too. Sorry, Mom.
This past week I turned 24 and it was a whirlwind of cake, wine, lots of cooking, new and old friends, and of course, family. My birthday party in Charlottesville fell on a gorgeous evening that left me feeling extremely loved and cared for. How did I get so lucky to have such fine folk as friends? I was fortunately able to use the first produce of the summer season to make some party snacks—crostini with fresh ricotta and balsamic heirloom tomatoes, roasted beet salad with goat cheese and marcona almonds, and Georgian fried eggplant rolls with a cilantro aioli to name a few. Unfortunately, I was so busy putting it all together and playing host that I didn't get to snap a picture of the spread! My talented and lovely friend Molly baked me an almost too beautiful to eat cake, and that was most definitely photographed.
I was lucky enough to celebrate a second time with my family at home in Rhode Island which, happily for my stomach, meant more cake! This berry-studded cake is my all-time favorite dessert and it's simply not my birthday without it. However, before we sat down that night for cake and tea, a whole day had been spent in the kitchen cooking away with my mom and aunt. We took advantage of my brief visit home to teach me a few of Georgian dishes. One hour melted into another as we prepared the night's meal, laughing, joking, and of course, bickering (we wouldn't be a family if we didn't). "No Olga, let me show you how to do it," states the Commander a.k.a my mom.
The dish we mainly focused on is a Georgian chicken dish with herbs called chakhokhbili (chak-ho-bili). Chicken simmers away on the stove, along with tomatoes, garlic, and handfuls of garden fresh herbs. What you get is a refreshing, slightly tangy fricassee of sorts that is perfect eaten with a good chunk of bread for sopping up the sauce or, as we Russians do, served over creamy mashed potatoes.
In addition to chakhokhbili, we also prepared khinkali (meat dumplings), bazhe (chicken in a spiced walnut sauce), khatchapuri (cheesy bread), and ghomi (polenta) among other things.
Even though I was the birthday princess, I didn't mind being put to work. To sit down with my family and take part in the bountiful feast we so lovingly created together- that was truly the best present and I couldn't have asked for a more ideal way to greet my 24th year. Thank you Mama, Tyetachki, and everyone else who made my birthday celebration(s) so special!
Chakhokhbili - Chicken with Herbs and Tomato
The Georgian word for pheasant is khokhobi from which the name of this dish is derived. Historically this dish was indeed prepared with pheasant, but these days chicken is more commonplace. This fricassee is light and refreshing, making it perfect for a summer meal. Interesting to note, Georgian girls used to be deemed marriageable according to their ability to cut up chicken for chakhokhbili. So women, be careful who you're cooking for! You might be being judged. Serve with a good bread, mashed potatoes, or rice.
¼ cup chicken schmaltz, sunflower or olive oil
1 4½ pound chicken, cut into 12 to 16 pieces, well rinsed and patted dry
4 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
5 large tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced, plus 2 garlic cloves, crushed in a garlic press
⅓ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon khmeli suneli* (optional)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large skillet, render enough chicken fat and skin to make ¼ cup schmaltz. Discard (or eat) the remains. Alternatively, use sunflower or olive oil. Heat oil and sauté onions until golden in color, add garlic, salt and pepper.
2. Meanwhile, in another large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add the bone-in chicken pieces first and allow to brown on one side first, 2-3 minutes. Flip to brown the other side for the same amount of time. Push aside to add remaining chicken pieces and brown them on all sides. Add white wine and allow to cook on low heat.
3. While chicken is cooking, add the tomatoes to the onions, season, and let simmer for 7-10 minutes. Add tomato-onion mixture to chicken carefully, making sure not to stir the chicken too much. Gently add and mix in khmeli suneli (if using), red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. On medium-low heat, simmer chicken, covered, for 45 minutes or until the chicken is done. Again, do not stir. The chicken will release quite a lot of juice.
4. Add herbs and pressed garlic. Bring to a simmer and cook for another 5 minutes. Taste and season appropriately. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.
*Khmeli suneli is a spice blend that gives Georgian food its characteristic taste. Every home cook has his or her own blend but at it's most basic form, the blend compromises of dried coriander, blue fenugreek, and dried marigold petals. In addition, the herbs can vary from dried parsley, basil, dill to tarragon, summer savory, bay left, and mint. Feel free to substitute coriander and fenugreek whenever a recipe calls for this blend.