What is it? A beef stew from the country of Georgia that's like no beef stew I've ever tasted. It's full of fresh herbs, stirred in just before serving. And it contains an ingredient that I haven't seen in other recipes--ground fenugreek.
This is easy to get, if you are anywhere near an Indian market. Just ask for methi seeds--they're an Indian staple--then powder them in a spice grinder and enjoy the delightful celerylike aroma they produce.
Where did I have chashushuli? In my own kitchen, thanks to the recipe in "Tasting Georgia," an extraordinary book by writer/photographer/cook Carla Capalbo.
A travel guide as well as a cookbook, "Tasting Georgia" tells what to see, where to stay, where to eat, what to drink and introduces you to local cooks. The subtitle is "A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus."
Be aware that after reading it, you're likely to scrap your vacation plans and go to Georgia instead of to the beach. Capalbo's stunning photos alone are enough to convince you.
Chashushuli is in a section that covers the route toward Georgia's southern borders with Turkey and Armenia. The recipe was inspired by a beef and tomato stew served at Valodia's Cottage, a hotel near the cave city of Vardzia.
Capalbo tested this and the other recipes at her home in London but gives American equivalents to the metric and Imperial measures.
On my first try--and there will be more--chashushuli worked like a dream. It's especially congenial to California cooks, with its striking use of cilantro--a small bunch is plunged into the center of the stew (above) and more is stirred in at the end, along with basil, parsley and raw garlic. There's a speck of heat from chile too.
Capalbo cooks the stew in the oven but says that Georgian cooks would probably simmer it on top of the stove. I tried that alternative and it worked just fine, but the oven might be handy if you are making a large amount for a party.
There's much more in this book, including instructions on how to make the famous Georgian cheese-filled bread khachapuri. It's available in my area, but I have yet to try it.
What I have tried is Georgian wines, thanks to a couple of tastings in Los Angeles. They're a bit startling at first but grow in appeal as you taste them and learn how they are made, buried in the ground in terra-cotta pots called qvevri.
Capalbo focuses on these natural, artisanal wines, not the big scale, commercial producers in Georgia. The wine that stood out for me was Saperavi, a lively red made from an indigenous Georgian grape. This is what I would serve with chashushuli, if I could locate a bottle--a challenge, because Georgian wine distribution is growing but still pretty limited.
BEEF AND TOMATO STEW
From "Tasting Georgia" by Carla Capalbo
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 pound stewing beef, cut into 1 1/4-inch cubes
1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups water or plain meat broth
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup tomato pulp, fresh or canned (without juice)
Finely chopped medium-hot fresh chile to taste
1 ounce cilantro, tied into a bunch
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped basil, purple and green
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a heavy, cast-iron or other ovenproof casserole, melt half the butter. Stir in the onions and cook over low heat until translucent, 7 minutes.
Turn the onions onto a side plate and add the remaining butter to the pan. Stir in the meat, raise the heat and brown the beef on all sides. Add the onions the fenugreek and half the garlic. Cook for a minute more.
Add the water, salt and tomato pulp and bring to a boil. Add the chile. Remove from the heat, pushing the bunch of coriander into the middle of the stew.
Cover the casserole and place in the center of the preheated oven. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 70 to 90 minutes or until the meat is tender but not dry.
Remove the stew from the oven. Pull out the cilantro bouquet, squeezing it against a spoon to extract all the flavor; discard. Stir in the chopped cilantro, basil, parsley and the remaining garlic and allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving.
Makes 3 to 4 servings.