One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Georgia on My Mind: Circassian Chicken a.k.a. Çerkez Tavuğu

Georgia the country that is, and not the US state. One of the first people I met after arriving in the States for grad school was a girl from Georgia called Thea. We hit it off immediately and she remains a dear friend to this day. Being of a generous heart, Thea invited a bunch of us to dinner soon after our first semester started. Among the dishes she cooked was a chicken dish so delicious that it became renowned and had me begging her to make it all the time. Strangely enough, it also tasted very, very familiar. It wasn't until much later that I realized she was making a version of a dish that is very popular in Turkey as well: Circassian Chicken, or in Turkish, çerkez tavuğu. It consists of poached chicken in a garlicky sauce made from walnuts and vinegar. Thea's dish was very soupy whereas ours has a thick sauce with the consistency of porridge, but the flavors were the same. Now, my patriotism kicked in when I first came to this realization, and I thought that the Georgians must have simply learnt of this dish from Turks during Ottoman times, when we ruled over them, but further research reveals that the opposite is true. It originated in Georgia, where walnuts are a hallmark of the cuisine. In fact, the provenance of the dish is obvious even from its name, "Çerkez" being the Turkish designation for a region which encompasses parts of modern-day Georgia.

The Ottoman empire ruled over vast swaths of land in its heyday. The sultans were always embroiled in some war or other to enlarge their territory and when victorious, returned from the newly conquered lands with wives, servants and soldiers to add to their court. Each of these people brought with them native dishes that entered the Ottoman culinary repertoire, so that over the years, Ottoman cuisine became a melting pot of influences ranging from Eastern European to African and Arabian. Circassian Chicken no doubt arrived in Turkey this way, then was subjected to elaborate reworkings in the huge kitchens of the sultan's Istanbul home, Topkapı Palace, before trickling down into the households of ordinary Turks. The Topkapı Palace had a veritable battalion of cooks whose only job was to prepare sumptuous feasts for the royal court, therefore the recipes that have come to us from them are usually elaborate and time consuming to prepare. Circassian Chicken is no exception but the explosive flavor and exquisite texture are well worth the time. The combination of garlic and ground walnuts with the silky chicken and the sharp vinegar is unexpected but one you won't soon forget. It is also a make ahead dish, as the flavors benefit from a day of melding together in the fridge.

Circassian Chicken
A drizzle of paprika cooked in oil is the traditional finishing touch for this dish. If you want to be hardcore, you can obtain the oil by putting the blended walnut-bread mixture in a cheesecloth and squeezing hard to extract the oil from the walnuts, but I'll leave this finicky step to the palace cooks. I use olive oil. Walnut oil, if you have it, will give the best flavor. This makes a lot - enough to serve 8-10 people as an appetizer. If you want to halve the recipe, just poach a bone-in, skin-on chicken breast. Serve cold or at room temperature, with bread.

1 whole chicken, 3-4 lb (1.5-2 kg)
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 small carrot, washed but not peeled, halved
Few sprigs of parsley (optional)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups walnuts
White bread, crust removed and torn into pieces, approximately 1.5 cups
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vinegar (you can use red or white wine vinegar or even regular distilled vinegar)
1 tbsp olive oil, walnut oil or butter
1/4 tsp hot or mild paprika

1. Put the first four ingredients in a pot big enough to hold the chicken. Pour in just enough cold water to cover the chicken completely.

2. Turn the heat to medium-low and let the water come to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Don't let the water boil - bubbles should not be breaking the surface. After 30 minutes, turn off the heat but keep the pot covered and leave the bird in the hot water for another 30 minutes.

3. Take the chicken out of the pot. Discard the onion, carrot and parsley but not the poaching water as you'll be using it to make your sauce. Cut into the chicken's thigh and breast to make sure that the juices aren't pink. If they are pink, simmer the chicken for a bit longer until it is completely cooked. Once cooked, put the chicken in a bowl of iced water to halt the cooking and let it cool for a bit.

4. Once the chicken is cool, take off its skin and discard it. Using your hands, take as much meat off the bones as you can and shred it.

5. In a food processor, grind the walnuts, bread and garlic until the mixture has the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Transfer this mixture to a large skillet.

6. To make the sauce, add a ladle-ful of the chicken poaching liquid to the skillet and stir until it is absorbed by the bread-walnut mixture. Repeat this step until the sauce has the consistency of porridge. I usually end up using about 2.5-3 cups of liquid. Stir in the salt and vinegar.

7. Mix in the shredded chicken. Taste and add more salt if needed. Refrigerate until serving time.

8. To serve, put the chicken mixture on a wide plate. Heat 1 tbsp oil or butter over medium-low heat in a small skillet and cook the paprika for a minute or two, then drizzle this over the chicken. Serve with bread.

Note: If you have any remaining poaching liquid after making the sauce, don't throw it away. You can use it in any soup that calls for chicken stock. It can also be frozen.

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