Grilling with Peat, Russian Pork Shashlyks and Potato Lyulya-Kebabs

I’ve been using natural wood for grilling shashlyks and other kebabs for quite a while now (I explained the process in my lyulya-kebab recipe post). The wood smoke certainly imparts some flavor, but the relatively short cooking time of a kebab means that the exposure, especially on an open grill, isn’t sufficient to achieve the same results as, say, traditional American barbecue. While I don’t want to turn my meat into something that only smells like smoke, I’ve been searching for some middle ground.

Looking at other smoked products, there’s one prominent example where tradition turned to a different combustible, more for reasons of availability than flavor in the beginning: Scotch whisky. You might not think of Scotch as a smoked product, and yet… Historically, peat was used in places where it was the only consistent source of fuel, such as Islay. The peat smoke would permeate the malted barley drying in the kilns, and the flavor of the whiskies produced owed so much to that smoke that distilleries retained the practice even after technology rendered it no longer necessary. The aroma of burning peat is so intense in fact that it’s called peat-reek. You can read more about the influence of peat on whisky here.

This is all well and good, but this is a Russian food blog, not a Scottish food blog. But wait — aren’t there other parts of the world that have peat?

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Lyulya-Kebabs: An Epic Journey

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

I’ve often spoken of lyulya-kebabs, whether to criticize the ones I’ve eaten in New York  restaurants (such as here, here, or here), or to sing the praise of the ones I’ve had in Azerbaijan (here and here). Truth be told, it’s not all that easy to excel at preparing those skewers of ground lamb, partly because they need to satisfy two diametrically opposed criteria.  On the one hand, you want the meat to be moist, juicy, and airy. On the other, the whole dish is a challenge to the laws of gravity — do you know many other dishes that consist of hanging plump cylinders of ground meat on a stick horizontally over an open pit??? I shall now present to you this epic, 4-years-in-the making post — the ultimate reference for the Western lyulya-kebab aficionado!

In Kazan, Mangal, and Other Manly Pleasures, Stalik Khankishiev delivers his secrets to a great lyulya-kebab. Khankishiev’s rather derivative “recipe” consists of four pages of dense text with no ingredient list per se — you’re supposed to know them already: lean lamb meat, lamb fat, onion. But the recommendations are overall quite useful. Here are his 7 commandments, paraphrased and with my own remarks:

  1. Buy meat from the shoulder or the breast [I couldn’t agree more], that’s so fresh it’s never been refrigerated [easier said than done, not to mention that aging meat is essential to its taste].
  2.  Trim all the fat and silverskin from the lean meat.
  3. Cut the meat in small pieces, and chop it using two cleavers, one in each hand, turning the board 90 degrees between each pass, until you get a fine, smooth forcemeat “that pleases the eye”. [Yeah, and post the video on YouTube. Our Stalik tends to reject any tool or technique that was invented after the industrial revolution. However, if you live in the 21st century, I promise you that you can the same result with an electric meat grinder. I also don’t agree with the idea that the meat must be ground homogeneously. It seems to me that a good lyulya must contain various grinds, from totally pureed to large die.]
  4. Take a piece of tail fat and cut it into pieces the size of rice grains. [It is unfortunately unlikely that you’ll be able to find fat-tailed lamb at your butcher’s. But fear not, the cuts we use for the lean meat contain plenty of delectable fat, too. And here again, a meat grinder can do wonders.]
  5. Cut the onion into small dice. [By hand, of course.]
  6. Mix the lean meat, fat and onion, using 1000 / 200 / 150 as a guideline for the proportions. Season with salt, pepper and spices. For spices, don’t overdo it to preserve the taste of the meat.  It is recommended that you use only cumin and coriander. [And the $1M test…] Take a small amount of the mixture, form a ball, and throw it against the wall of the mixing bowl. If the ball keeps its shape, you’re good, if it smashes, you’re screwed. 
  7. Refrigerate the meat while you make the fire. You will need a pretty hot fire. [As opposed to most shashlyks, that are traditionally prepared on coals that are almost entirely consumed].

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

My recipe differs on several points:

  • I am adding cooked rice to the mixture to make it airier, and to absorb some of the meat juices and grease that will run during cooking. This also gives me the opportunity to add stock for extra lamb flavor.
  • I prefer cooking the onions before adding them to the ground meat, so I add them to the rice. I combine them with ground star anise, following Heston Blumenthal’s finding that it intensifies the meatiness of a dish.
  • For the spices, besides the star anise, I choose one of my usual favorite peppers, Urfa pepper, for its delicious fruity and smoky taste. I do agree, however, that cumin is a great match with lamb. I also agree that you should avoid masking the taste of the meat with too many spices. Feel free to experiment on your own.
  • Another flavor that I appreciate in great lyulya-kebab is a hint of tomato. I tried to use fresh tomatoes that I cooked with the rice, but it made the final mixture too soft to stay on the skewers, so I turned to tomato paste.
  • I included transglutaminase in the ingredients. Obviously, nobody uses that in Azerbaijan! If you happen to have some, use it. If not, just omit it and be extra careful when you grill the kebabs.
  • Finally, I should mention that I also experimented with xylitol, a naturally occurring sweetener with a scary chemical name. Studies have shown that adding 0.5% to 1% of the meat amount in xylitol to ground lamb makes the final result more pleasant to most tasters (plain sugar, on the other hand, makes it less pleasant). And I tend to agree, though of course it’s not exactly typically Azeri. Try it for yourself… Xylityol is available as a powder in vitamin stores.

Traditional accompaniments would be lavash, thinly sliced onion with sumac, and grilled vegetables  (by the way, the white traces on my vegetables are not ash, but salt). I’m adding my own touch here with a great charred eggplant purée.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

   The picture above shows a piece of lamb breast. What I usually do is, separate the fat from the lean meat and measure the amount of fat I need. I then remove the silverskin from the lean meat, and I use some shoulder meat (like the one in this post) to complement if necessary.

Lyulya-kebab mixture
Yields about 4 servings

4 oz peeled onion, small dice
1/2 oz rendered lamb fat (or olive oil)
1/4 tsp ground star anise
1 tsp tomato paste
3/4 oz rice
4 oz lamb stock
1 lb lean lamb meat (from breast and shoulder), chopped into 1″ cubes
3 1/2 oz lamb fat (from breast), chopped into 1″ cubes
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp Urfa pepper
1 tsp transglutaminase (optional)

  • Sauté the onion in the rendered lamb fat in a saucepan over medium heat until soft but not colored. Add the ground star anise, stir for a minute, then add the tomato paste and stir for another minute. Mix in the rice, then add the stock and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rice is very tender and the liquid fully absorbed. Remove from the heat, let cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.
  • Using the medium die of a meat grinder, grind 1/3 of the lean lamb meat. Mix in a bowl with another 1/3 of the meat, the lamb fat, rice mixture, salt, Urfa pepper, and transglutaminase. Grind the mixture, mix with the remaining meat, and grind once more. Cover and refrigerate. (If you use transglutaminase, refrigerate for at least 2 hours.)

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

Cheese and charred eggplant purée
Yields about 4 servings

1/2 lb Italian or Japanese eggplants, stems removed
2 oz gouda
2 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp smoked salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin
black pepper, ground

  • Char the eggplants on all sides over a gas burner or using a blow torch (or on the grill!). Let rest in a closed plastic container for 5 minutes.
  • Chop the eggplants into large chunks. In a blender, process the eggplants, cheese, heavy cream, olive oil, lemon juice, smoked salt, cumin, and pepper.
  • Pass through a chinois, transfer to a plastic container, and reserve.
  • Reheat before serving. The purée should be warm but not piping hot.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

Grilling the kebabs

Grilling lyulya-kebabs requires some special gear. First off, the meat goes on broad, flat skewers (see my photos below). You can purchase some here or here (at least at the Sheepshead Bay Rd location). If you’re familiar with Brazilian barbecue, large blade churrasco skewers are also fairly similar. Second, you’ll need a barbecue with a removable grill plate, so skewers can be placed across, right above the coals. Ideally, you would have a mangal, like on the above picture (available here, too), but any grill that will fit your skewers will work.

Time to make the fire. Do yourself a favor and skip the alcohol-soaked briquettes that stink up your backyard and your meat. At the very least, buy natural wood charcoal, the kind that don’t come in perfectly shaped ovoids. I like to go one step further and use wood chunks instead. If you use a starter, make sure it’s smell-free, too: odorless alcohol (typically sold in the paint department of your local hardware store), kindling, or newspaper all work well, with or without a chimney or a bellows. Shortly after all the flames have died, you are ready to grill— count about an hour for the whole setup. As Stalik said, you want the coals to be quite hot.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

To shape the lyulyas, dip your hands in hot water, then grab some meat and wrap it around a skewer. You can make the kebab as long as you want (within reason), but don’t make it too wide if you don’t want it to fall on the coals! Look at my close-ups — there’s just enough meat to form a comfortable blanket all around the metal. This also prevents the kebab from drying out while you cook it.

Now, don’t go thinking your job is done once you place the skewers over the coals! The kebabs need to be turned very frequently; according to Stalik, they should be turned whenever they get a shade darker, and whenever you see grease dripping on the coals. The goal is to keep them moist and stop the grease from causing too many flames that will burn the meat. Personally, I think that a few small flames licking the meat once in a while are OK and add some flavor, but only a few! FYI, the pictures above were taken at approximately 1 minute intervals [how scientific of me]. By the fourth picture, the skewer on the right is ready. As a matter of fact, the meat is ready when the outside is a nice medium-brown color, and the inside is at that point where it just turned from pink to grey — a lyulya-kebab cannot be served rare, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.

I recommend that you start small, a couple lyulyas at a time, and proceed with larger batches as you get more confident.

Lyulya-kebabs have to be served and consumed immediately. They should not be eaten cold or reheated. To paraphrase Stalik Khankishiev one last time, human words aren’t enough to describe a good lyulya-kebab.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 1

It’s been a long time since I last posted about my adventures in the Caucasus, and the Azerbaijan stories promise to be plentiful. I’d like to start this series with a quintessential Azerbaijan experience: the outdoor restaurant. This humble place, which always follows the same principles whether you’re in the mountains, arid plains, or shady forests, will indeed occupy a particular place in any visitor’s journey. This is most likely where you will eat most of the time when outside of the capital (and even in the suburbs of Baku, you can find similar garden restaurants).

The restaurant I’ve chosen to illustrate my point is located in Ordubad, in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. I must concede, however, that this particular place is an unlikely and quite remote lunch destination. Nakhchivan is a landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan that can practically only be reached by air. The Armenian border is closed, and most travelers are unlikely to enter from Iran or the single, very-remote crossing from Turkey. After alighting in Nakhchivan City, you must travel another hour and a half by car to reach Ordubad, the Republic’s second largest town with a whopping population of 10,000. You will then find the restaurant slightly outside of town, on a road that leads to the not-so-friendly triple point between Azerbaijan, Iran, and Armenia. The restaurant is called Şora Çeşme:

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Crawfish Lyulya Kebabs

Here’s the second dish in my trilogy of Lake Sevan’s Gifts (the Trout Kutap was my first)! Lyulya kebabs are originally an Azerbaijani dish consisting of a mixture of ground lamb cooked on a skewer. They’re so popular that they spread far beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, and variations are being offered, with other main ingredients such as potato or crawfish.

I actually had crawfish lyulya kebabs at a restaurant on Lake Sevan, but the mixture used way too much egg and barely tasted of crawfish. By contrast, my version is almost 100% critters, and their flavor is highlighted by the shallots and piment d’espelette. Make sure you buy crawfish tails that don’t come from China, as they hardly have any taste — not to mention that I don’t see the point of getting from the other end of the world something that lives in almost any river near you! You don’t have to spend your weekend turning rocks in a nearby stream, either — you’ll find plenty of online stores shipping the goods straight from Louisiana. Or if you live in New York, you can go to The Lobster Place.

This recipe calls for transglutaminase to bind the mixture, but it’s not absolutely necessary. If you substitute an equal amount of flour, the worst that can happen is that your kebabs will break more easily during cooking. Speaking of cooking: a real lyulya kebab should be grilled on a mangal. As it’s been raining every other day since April around here, I took the liberty of using a cast-iron grill instead.

I serve these kebabs with sour cream and plain lavash (top picture) or zhingalov khats (bottom).

Crawfish kebabs
Yields 4 servings

3/4 oz shallot, small dice
1 oz butter
1/2 oz bread, crust removed, small dice
8 oz crawfish tails
1 tsp transglutaminase
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp piment d’espelette
2 tsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

  • Sauté the shallots in half of the butter until soft, and reserve. Sauté the bread in the other half of the butter until golden brown, and reserve, as well.
  • Coarsely chop the crawfish. Process half of the chopped crawfish with the transglutaminase and olive oil in a blender until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, and stir in the rest of the chopped crawfish. Add the shallots and bread, and season with salt, pepper, piment d’espelette and parsley. Shape the mixture into 4 sausages, about 5 1/2″ x 1 1/4″ x 3/4″ (approximately, this is not a math test!). Roll in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
  • Heat a cast-iron grill over medium-high heat. Brush with a little bit of olive oil, and cook the unwrapped kebabs on both sides until you get a nice cross-hatch pattern. All of the ingredients are already cooked, so you just need to get them hot. Serve immediately.