“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” said the great French epicure and gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. If I were to divine this via my great grandmother’s recipe books, the answer would not be simple. Contrary to the popular stereotypes of Eastern European food as dense and heavy fare of cabbage and potatoes, generalization are impossible to make. Certainly, 70 years of Soviet rule have made an impact upon the cuisine in all of the former Soviet republics, but even before the revolution of 1917, the regional differences were quite pronounced and the cross-influences distinctly felt. The picture is even more complex if one considers the class differences in terms of food preferences. The yellowed pages of the notebooks which my great grandmother kept ever since she got married in the 1930s contain a fascinating array: poppy seed rolls, plum stewed meats and sour cherry vareniki (boiled stuffed dumplings) reflecting classical Ukrainian fare; walnut cream tortes alluding to influences from the former Austro-Hungarian provinces of Ukraine; and spicy meat and eggplant dishes betraying the love affair with the vibrant cuisine of Georgia, an affair that started since Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century. What better way to understand the culture than to eat through it!
Although I never met my great grandmother, who passed away when I was still a baby, babushka Lena as she was called by my mother (babushka meaning grandmother in Russian) was always a strong presence in my life due to the stories of her and especially of her amazing cooking. Whenever my mother described the honey soaked pastries, weightless cheesecakes and tart soups made by babushka Lena, I felt as if it were really me who had eaten all of these delicacies, rather than my mother. Babushka Lena was ready to spoil her grandchildren, and my mother loves recalling how she and her sister, Yelena, would write individual menus for their dinners. Surely, if one wanted red borscht (made with beets), another would request green borscht (with sorrel and spinach). If one sister craved vareniki with red currants, another would demand vareniki with potatoes. Babushka Lena would be happy to treat them. After my great grandmother passed away, the deep nostalgia my mother and Yelena felt over their vanished childhood translated into cooking from babushka Lena’s notebooks.
“Every Georgian dish is a poem,” said Alexander Pushkin, the renowned Russian poet. The careful balance of spices and herbs in every dish is similar to that of a beautiful verse or a fine perfume. Red kidney bean salad called lobio (lobio means bean in Georgian) is one of the recipes that my great grandmother recorded in her notebooks, right next to the recipe for crumbly lemon biscuits and a tip for radiant complexion (mash a few ripe strawberries, thicken with sour milk and apply for 20 minutes to the face before rinsing). The earthy sweetness of beans is foiled in the tartness of pomegranate and the vivid green sharpness of herbs. The velvety walnut sauce grounds the combination lending it a deep and complex flavor. Lobio makes for a great main dish served warm with some flatbread and salty feta cheese, or as a salad alongside grilled salmon or meat. The preparation is rather straightforward, with the only time consuming thing being the cooking of the beans. The purist in me is deeply opposed to using canned beans, but if you do, just be sure to compensate for the flat taste of canned produce with extra spices.
Red Lobio (Kidney Bean Salad Georgian Style)
Serves 4 as a main course, 5-6 as a side dish or part of an appetizer spread
1 ½ cup of dried red kidney beans soaked overnight in 5-6 cups of water
1 ½ cup of shelled raw walnuts
2 medium onions, diced
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
2 cloves of garlic, pound into the paste with a bit of salt
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of dried summer savory
1 teaspoon of dried fenugreek leaves*
1/3 cup of minced herbs (such as basil, parsley, dill, cilantro or all of the above)
cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper to taste
Garnish (optional, but recommended)
1 cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons of minced herbs (see above)
¼ cup slivered sweet onions marinated in red wine vinegar to cover, a pinch of salt and sugar, then drained
Simmer beans for about 2 hours until they begin to fall apart. This step is important, because the finished consistency should be soft and velvety. If they absorb water before being finished, add extra hot water and continue to simmer the beans.
While the beans are simmering, sauté the onions in oil until they soften and turn transparent. Grind walnuts finely, add salt, pepper, garlic and the dried herbs.
Once the beans are ready, add onions and simmer for about 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to blend. Then add the walnut sauce and correct the seasonings. You can make lobio as hot or as mild as you like.
Remove from the heat and let the beans cool down slightly before adding pomegranate juice (or red wine vinegar), minced herbs. The tartness of vinegar depends on the brand, therefore start by adding 2 tablespoons, taste and only then add more if needed. Just be sure that the flavors are balanced—first the sweetness of the beans and the tartness, then the brightness of herbs, and finally the warm heat of spices. My family would usually serves lobio sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and onions marinated in red wine vinegar, salt and a pinch of sugar. The thickness of lobio depends on your personal preference. I like mine to have a little bit of sauce. Just keep in mind that lobio will thicken as it cools.
*An authentic addition would be a spice called utskho suneli in Georgian, which consists of dried tops of blue fenugreek (Trigonella Caerulea). It has a delicate aroma – green, resinous with a milky maple syrup note. However, unless you live near a Russian store, it might be difficult to locate. The best bet is to substitute dried fenugreek leaves available freely at Indian grocery stores and Kalustyan’s (also called kasoori methi). If all else fails, add a pinch of ground fenugreek seeds or just omit.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin. First photo: great grandmother’s recipe notes (click to read the recipes; in Russian.) Second: red lobio.