East Meets West: Azerbaijani Hingal and The Floating Island

January 30, 2010 § 4 Comments

One thing I really like to do every once in a while is to take a trip around the world on my plate, which sometimes also means a trip down the proverbial memory lane. I am, after all, from the culture that was Middle-Eastern in both mores and flavors, and even though I’ve never been a world class cook of the native cuisine, I have a great wealth of culinary memories to draw upon for inspiration. Call it the Driftless-Transcaucasian fusion. And it is usually a lot of fun, especially for Jacob.

Similarly, I like to cook foods from other cuisines, though they pretty much have to be known for the dishes that are:

1) High in animal fat – I am a great believer in the fat’s insulating value, especially given my passionate love for subzero temperatures, as well as its ability to put cheer in your heart in the deepest dead of winter.

2)Nearly devoid of any hint of being pepper-hot.

That pretty much rules out Mexican (not counting Margaritas) or any kind of Asian food, both of which, with some exceptions, I find unsatisfactory, but welcomes the French, German, Italian, and Slavic cuisines with the open arms.

It was just that kind of cosmopolitan food we had last night. For dessert I made the floating island, which is French, and for the main course my less-than-perfect recreation of a traditional Caucasian dish called “hingal.” What that is is essentially squares of pasta-type dough, rolled out thinly and boiled in salt water, which are then topped with the browned beef and caramelized onions and drizzled with a garlic-yogurt sauce. It is somewhat of a relative to steamed/boiled dumplings, except the filling is on the outside instead of the inside.

Now I have to tell you that I had never made hingal myself until yesterday, nor have I ever watched anyone do it. Since I am not ethnically Azeri (I come from a Jewish family), my mom didn’t make very many Azeri dishes, drawing mostly from the Jewish and the Russian traditions instead. In fact, I might have only had proper hingal once or twice in my entire life. Whatever the case, I still remember the topping: the sweet, buttery caramelized onions and the savory browned hamburger, probably lamb, topped with the tangy and pungent yogurt-and-garlic goodness (in general, this sauce pairs perfectly with different kinds of boiled dough). It was so, so very delicious.

Knowing Jacob’s love for boiled dough, I decided to make this for him last night. Unfortunately for me, and despite of what my reputation might be, I am not great friends with rolling and kneading and messing with flour, especially when it comes to having to roll something out thinly, so it is no surprise that mine came out kind of sub par. But the topping, man, oh the topping! For the first time in my life I’ve caramelized onions with stellar results – they were perfection itself. Here’s what it looked like:

So, in the end, I decided that I would definitely make the topping again, but serve it over regular pasta instead – mini lasagna seems like a great busy-American-cook substitute for the original hingal noodles (The Azeris reading this might think this a blasphemy, but hey, that’s what the melting pot is all about).

Having made that clear, I would like to encourage you to try this! The preparation takes less than an hour, making it a perfect quick mid-week dish.

Here’s what to do (I apologize for the lack of the step-by-step pictures – I really didn’t originally plan to post about this, that is, until I tasted it):

Azerbaijani Hingal

  • 2 large or 3 medium onions (or more, if you prefer), sliced thin, but not too thin
  • Montreal steak seasoning (can also use salt and pepper instead, but it’s not the same – don’t peruse your local food cooperative for this – it is found in your ordinary grocery store aisle)
  • additional salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 to 1 1/2 lb ground beef
  • oil, for browning the beef
  • 6 T butter – for caramelizing the onions + 3 to 4 more, for the noodles
  • 2 C of plain yogurt and 1-2 cloves of garlic, pressed, for the sauce
  • a packet of mini lasagna noodles

Here's what the onions look like somewhat half-way through - they are not done yet!

Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet (extra large is best, so there’s lots of room), and add the onions. Turn the heat to high, and cook the onions in butter, turning frequently. When you notice that they are starting to burn (about 10 to 15 min later), turn the heat down to medium, and continue cooking, stirring and scraping frequently with a spatula. When they begin to burn again, turn the heat to low (a little burning is OK), until the onions have wilted significantly and are a translucent-golden-brown and sweet smelling. The entire process will take about 20-30 min.

Heat the oil in another cast iron skillet, and add the beef, crumbling it into the pan. Make sure that your oil is nice and hot first (almost smoking). Stir and scrape frequently, until all of the liquid has evaporated and the meat has browned. I usually add the seasonings, salt, and pepper pretty much in the beginning, which will cause the meat to release more juices, but I don’t think it matters that much when you add them. Just don’t forget!

Boil the mini lasagna (or some other flat, wide noodles of your choice) according to the package instructions, drain, and add a few T of butter to the hot noodles. Stir until all of the butter has melted – you want your noodles nice and buttery.

That's what the onions are supposed to look like when they are finished.

Spread all of the hamburger on top, following by a layer of the caramelized onions. (If you find that the whole thing is getting cold, you can zap it in the microwave at this point).

Now tell me: Don't you think I've gotten a tiny bit better with my point-and-shoot photography?

Drizzle a generous amount of the garlic-yogurt sauce on top (recipe follows). Serve immediately, pouring more sauce on top of the individual portions. Yum! I am already jealous of you.

Garlic-Yogurt Sauce

(Rebecca – this one is for you, sister!)

Simply press a clove or two of garlic into the yogurt, and stir. Cover and chill for 30 min before serving.

Next, I made this…

…using this recipe for The Floating Island (Ile Flottante) from the Tasty Kitchen website (a great resource, really!).

What we have here, is, essentially, three things in one – a custard sauce, known as Creme Anglaise, in which you float meringues steamed in milk, and then drizzle with melted sugar. The sugar here is hard, and not a soft caramel sauce that it looks to be. In flavor and texture it reminded me of the old-fashioned homemade suckers (which is basically the same thing), back like you would get in the Old Country (where all the good stuff used to be homemade like that, sold either at farmer’s markets or street corners, without any regard for income tax collection or health inspection).

Jacob suggested to increase the sugar in the sauce, and I would also recommend increasing the sugar in the meringues and add some vanilla. Ina Garten, the author of the fabulous and ridiculously easy Barefoot Contessa in Paris cookbook, suggests to also add some booze to the sauce (you can find Ina’s slightly more labor-intensive recipe for the Floating Island here).

Now, I would also suggest the following variation – instead of melting the sugar, try heating some real maple syrup (the real stuff, please – no corn-syrup-based substitutes) to thread stage (230 degrees on a candy thermometer), and drizzle that on top of the meringues instead.  This will be a much softer sauce rather than the hard candy, with the maple flavor for a change. If, like me, you love the maple snow taffy this will be right up your alley.

And that concluded my magic casserole ride for the day. Now try these and let me know what you think!

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