Both Piglet contenders deserve a spot on your cookbook shelf

Day 8 of Food52’s tournament is a close match with “Kaukasis” versus “King Solomon’s Table.”

​Keftes garaz, Syrian meatballs with cherries and tamarind. (Photo by Gabriela Herman)

​Keftes garaz, Syrian meatballs with cherries and tamarind. (Photo by Gabriela Herman)

Day 8 of the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks proved difficult to decide. “Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond” is the second cookbook from Ukranian born U.K. chef, Olia Hercules. Its competitor, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World” comes from award-winning James Beard Who’s Who inductee, PBS chef and prolific cookbook author Joan Nathan.

Food52’s competition has wrapped up, a winner announced, and still, I struggle to figure which to choose over the other.

Hercules takes us on a personal journey through, as the title clarifies, the Kaukasis. Her love for the region is tangible and the food only aids in pulling me further into her culinary story.

Nathan has already written many cookbooks on Jewish cooking and history, but “King Solomon’s Table” offers a renewed dive into her love of the culture, food and people. It’s a confident cookbook written with the ease that can only come from years of doing this.

Day 8 Piglet judge, food writer and publisher Stephen Satterfield noted: “Nathan set the bar on respectful culinary excavation years ago. It’s thanks to cookbook authors like her that Hercules has a foundation upon which to build, update and personalize.”

I’m inclined to agree with Satterfield, and therefore run with the surest bet, but the newbie is just as engaging. A tough choice, but based on which book spoke to me on a more personal level, and the one I would more likely cook from in my own kitchen, I went with “Kaukasis.” I have fellow Piglet competitors who chose “King Solomon’s Table” for the same reasons. Both deserve consideration for your cook shelf.

Lavash, chicken and herb pie with barberries

​Don’t let the recipe name scare you off — what are barberries? — golden raisins can be substituted. Hercules writes, “​This extremely simple dish, taught to me by an Armenian friend, is one of the best ways to turn chicken leftovers into something mind-blowing – although it would be totally worth poaching a whole chicken just to make this.​”​ ​

6 tablespoons plain yogurt

2 garlic cloves, grated

Pinch of saffron threads (optional)

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon dried barberries or golden​ ​raisins

Generous 1 cup poached​ ​chicken meat, torn into chunks

1 tablespoon chopped green onions

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon chopped dill

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

sea salt flakes

¼ cup unsalted butter, melted

1 large piece Armenian or Persian lavash​ ​(or any other thin flatbread)

1 tablespoon sunflower seeds (or sesame,​ ​pumpkin, or linseed)

To make a filling, mix the yogurt, garlic, saffron, cayenne and barberries together, then add the chicken, green onions and herbs. Season well with salt and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a shallow 6-by-8-inch baking dish with some of the melted butter.

Place one layer of lavash in the dish (tear it to fit), brush with melted butter, then spread the filling over. Cover with another layer of lavash. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with the seeds.

Bake until the pie is heated through, the top is golden, and the seeds are toasted, 15 minutes.

Tip: In addition to being a perfect way in which to use up leftover cooked chicken, this is also a great way to use up stale flatbreads; because you cover them with butter and the filling is so moist, the flatbreads revive beautifully in the oven. Makes 6 servings.

— Reprinted from “Kaukasis” by Olia Hercules with permission from Weldon Owen.

​Keftes garaz, Syrian meatballs with cherries and tamarind

​During our Piglet deliberations, my friends and I all wanted to run home and make these. So, here they are!​ Hunting down the right pepper is worth it.

For the meatballs:

½ cup pine nuts

1 large sweet onion, diced (about 1½ cups​)​

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds ground beef

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon ground Aleppo or Marash pepper

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground allspice

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate

2 teaspoons tomato paste or ketchup

½ cup breadcrumbs, fresh

For the sauce:

¼ cup olive oil

​1½ onions, diced (1⅓ cups)

1​½ tablespoons tamarind concentrate

2 cups pitted​ ​sour cherries or frozen dark red cherries

2 cups dried cherries

Juice of 2 lemons

1½ teaspoons ground allspice

Salt and pepper

1½ cups beef stock

1½ cups red wine

2 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and toast the pine nuts by stirring often, in a small dry skillet over medium heat, until lightly brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove to a medium bowl.

To make the meatballs: Saute the onions in the oil in a nonstick frying pan until lightly caramelized, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Add the onions to the pine nuts, then add the ground beef, garlic, Aleppo or Marash pepper, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Break the eggs into the bowl and stir in the tamarind and tomato paste or ketchup, mixing gently with your hands until just combined, then add just enough breadcrumbs for the meat to become clammy.

Take about 1½ tablespoons of meat and slap the beef several times into the center of the palm of your hand to emulsify. Shape into small meatballs, about 1¼ inches in diameter. Put on two rimmed baking sheets and bake for about 20 minutes, or until done but still juicy. You should get about 36 meatballs.

While the meatballs are baking, make the sauce: Heat the oil in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute until transparent, then add the tamarind, pitted sour or frozen cherries, dried cherries, lemon juice, allspice, salt, pepper, beef stock and wine. Simmer together for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the sauce is slightly thickened.

Mix the meatballs with the sauce and serve, sprinkled with chopped parsley or cilantro, over rice. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note​:​ You can make this dish ahead and freeze if you like. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight, then reheat in a pan, covered, over medium heat until warm.

— Reprinted from “King Solomon’s Table” by Joan Nathan with permission from Knopf.​

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