Chikhirtma: The ultimate comfort food

Chikhirtma is the Georgian chicken soup with egg yolks and lemon juice. Source: Jennifer Eremeeva

Chikhirtma is the Georgian chicken soup with egg yolks and lemon juice. Source: Jennifer Eremeeva

Jennifer Eremeeva reaches back to a recipe that first inspired her lifelong love of Russian cooking: spicy, tangy lamb and lemon soup.

Ah, Chikhirtma: the first Russian recipe to ever capture my imagination! As a bored 13-year-old living in rural Massachusetts, two books fired my imagination: Robert Massie’s Nicholas & Alexandra (of course) and a more obscure book entitled The Admiral’s Daughter.

I’m not sure how we got a copy of The Admiral’s Daughter, though there is a lengthy and heartfelt inscription to my father on the flyleaf, dated Christmas 1979. I’m sure he never read it, but boy, I did. Over and over again.

The Admiral’s Daughter tells the true story of a star-crossed love affair between Soviet film star, Zoya Fyodorova and Jackson Tate, an American naval officer. They meet in wartime Moscow, fall in love, and are separated cruelly just as the war ends.

Jackson is sent home to Florida, and Zoya ends up in prison until Stalin’s death. It’s got a little bit of everything, including lots of descriptions of food. Early in the book, Zoya is lured to the house of Stalin’s sinister henchman, Lavrenty Beria.

He clumsily tries seduce her and she tries valiantly to control her anger and disgust, so that she can enjoy the sumptuous fare served by Beria’s maid: “…now a bowl of hot, golden chikhirtma — the Georgian chicken soup, rich with egg yolks and lemon juice beneath a film of olive oil — was placed before her.”

Ingredients:

2 liters of quality chicken stock;

1 thumb of fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced 5 cloves of garlic;

3 peeled and mashed, then thinly diced with 1 tsp of table salt, and 2 finely minced (for the frikadelki);

1 medium sized yellow onion;

1 tsp of tumeric; 2/3 cup of rice; 1 Tbl of olive oil;

juice and zest of 2 lemons;

1 egg and 4 egg yolks;

½ cup of red wine vinegar;

1 tsp of paprika; ¾ pound of ground lamb;

½ Serrano chili pepper, seeded and cored and finely minced;

¼ cup of breadcrumbs;

1/3 cup of whole milk, scalded;

1 tsp of nutmeg; ¼ tsp of cayenne pepper;

1 shallot, finely minced;

2 Tbl of finely minced parsley;

2 Tbl of chopped mint.

It sounded like the height of exotic fare, and I chalked it up as just one more reason why I wanted to go to Russia! I could not imagine a soup with egg yolks in it. I pictured them as yellow globes, floating in the midst of a redolent chicken broth.

What I didn’t realize was that my mother served up a version of Chikhirtma on an almost weekly basis: Avgolemono, or Egg & Lemon soup. Once I realized that Chikhirtma was just a spicier version of Avgolemono, I knew exactly what to do with those egg yolks: beat them until they acquire a slight thickness, then slowly pour the hot broth into the eggs, whisking steadily, then thicken on top of the stove.

Chikhirtma is made with either lamb or chicken, and gets its sour taste from either vinegar — popular in Soviet times — or lemons, which taste better. Instead of stewing the lamb, I used top quality ground lamb and traditional spices to make small meatballs, or what the Russians call “frikadelki.”

You can certainly just open a tin of stock, but I suggest taking a little more time to construct a rich broth with a number of flavor layers, and poaching the frikadelki in the broth will only enhance these flavors.

This is the ultimate comfort food, perfect for a cold winter’s night or that transitional day, when you are just getting over a cold and need what 19th century novelists would call “building up.” It’s even worth putting up with unwelcome advances from a monster like Beria.

Instructions:

    1. Zest, then juice the lemons.

    2. Combine ¾ of the ginger, half the onion, 3 of the garlic cloves with 1-1/2 liters of the chicken stock. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to a gentle simmer, cover and let cook for 30 minutes to infuse the flavors.

    3. In a small saucepan, heat the oil and sweat the remaining onions until they begin to soften. Add the rice and the turmeric, half of the lemon zest, and 1 tsp of salt and stir with a wooden spoon until the rice is coated and the ingredients are combined. Add the remaining chicken broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for 20 minutes until the rice is fluffy. Set aside.

    4. Separate the eggs and egg yolks and let them stand at least 25 minutes so that they can come to room temperature.

    5. Scald the milk; add the breadcrumbs and nutmeg to it. Set aside, covered, for 15 minutes.

    6. Combine the lamb, cayenne pepper, paprika, the remaining garlic and ginger, salt and pepper, lemon zest and minced shallot with the egg and then fold in the breadcrumb mixture.

    7. Keeping your hands wet, form the lamb mixture into small meatballs, or “frikadelki”, about the size of a large marble. Place the balls on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, cover, and chill for 20 minutes.

    8. When the broth is ready, bring to a rolling simmer, add the lemon juice, and then carefully add the frikadelki, using a wooden spoon to keep them separate. Reduce heat and let cook until the frikadelki bob to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

    9. Place the egg yolks in a non-reactive mixing bowl and whisk until their color pales and they thicken slightly.

    10. Slowly pour the broth into the yolk mixture, whisking steadily to ensure that the eggs do not curdle. Pour the mixture back into the pot, then set it back on low heat and stir for 3 minutes until the mixture thickens further. HINT: you may find it easier to first decant the broth into a heat-resistant pitcher or measuring cup, particularly if you are using a heavy pot.

    11. Fold in the rice and the frikadelki and serve immediately, topped with fresh cilantro or parsley.

    Priyatnogo Appetita!

    Jennifer Eremeeva is an American writer and longtime resident of Moscow.  She is the creator of award-winning humor blog, Russia Lite, and The Moscovore about all things food in Moscow.  Her first full length book, Lenin Lives Nextdoor is scheduled for publication in January 2014.

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