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Olia’s odyssey

Categories: News and previews

Ahead of her upcoming demo, Olia Hercules explores the late-summer vegetables dishes she discovered on her travels around the Caucasus

“I love vegetables, especially in spring,” said Shota, our lovely guide who drove us around while I was exploring the region for my latest book, Kaukasis. It was a very simple thing, but it struck me so strongly. Oh, how right he is: those first fresh and crunchy vegetables after a long winter. Those who love and care about the seasons will understand.

But we are at the end of summer now, and I am trying to eat as many light and fresh vegetables as I possibly can before celeriac, turnip and cauliflower’s time comes in, slow-cooked, rich and brooding. There’s a runner bean and walnut pkhali salad that I particularly enjoy—I have a recipe for the pkhali paste in Kaukasis, but I did not include the bean dish. I regret it, as the reason for not including it was that the beans may be perceived as ‘overcooked’. Now that I think about it, they are not overcooked—they are definitely not al dente, but they are soft and comforting and get pounded with the walnuts and become this really unusual, but extremely delicious and nourishing dish. It’s like being at the crossroads of fresh zingy summer and oncoming cold seasons.

Guttural sounds
They also have a fantastic beetroot dish in Georgia, which I will be cooking at the Demo Kitchen on Thursday. It is called charkhali (there are quite a lot of guttural sounds you may need to get used to). All you do is cook some plums down with garlic, cayenne and some spices and herbs, boil some beetroot and then pickle the beetroot in this tart and spicy plum sauce. It is one of the most delicious beetroot dishes and has recently converted a few beetroot haters into beetroot lovers.

I have realised how good the plum sauce (called tkhemali—another guttural one for you) is as a dressing, in other things. Apart from the beetroot dish mentioned, tkemali is just a cold condiment for meat or fish. It is tart, spicy and aromatic and liquid enough to be whisked with a little oil and seasoning. It works wonderfully with crunchy leaves like chicory or kohlrabi—in my demo, I’ll be putting together a kohlrabi and sorrel salad with tkemali dressing.

Fading soft herbs
Also on my menu will be qutabs, which are very simple flatbreads stuffed with anything from herbs and cheese, pumpkin and pomegranate seeds or meat. I love a qutab with some offal—finely chopped chicken hearts, gizzards, liver, caramelised onions. Throw a couple of pomegranates into this one too, and it’s a thing of beauty. One of my favourites is just with herbs—lots of dill, coriander, red basil, tarragon, you name it. It is a brilliant recipe to use up your fading soft herbs in the fridge. It is such a tasty snack—in Azerbaijan you will find them in tiny kiosks or, like we also did, in a forest on the side of the road. The woman we met made really massive ones over wood fire. So, when making these a barbecue is always a good idea.

The Caucasus are full of the most incredible combinations of flavours. From dried fish, watermelon and fresh tandoori bread eaten (together!) by the border with Iran to pork collar basted with wine and salt over vine clippings in Georgia. But I love vegetables, especially at the end of a long summer, autumn, winter, spring…

Join Olia for tips, tastings and recipes on Thursday 7th September in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm