Albanian cuisine is another new one for me – cooking methodically like this has already made me realise how limited my usual repertoire is, despite my best intentions. Someone is always eating something somewhere that you’ve never heard of, or thought to cook. Today’s dish is gjellë me arra, a dish of slow-cooked meat in walnut sauce. Gjellë basically means ‘filling’, and as such can be cooked with any meat, but in this case tends to be either veal or chicken. In a bid to be both adventurous and authentic, I’ve gone for veal in this case, and served it with fried potatoes and green leaves.
Before we get stuck in, let’s have a brief wander through Albanian cuisine. I have to admit, I found it a little difficult to find something this week that I really wanted to cook. One of the country’s main dishes is lamb baked with yoghurt, but I was all lambed-out from last week, and this blogger‘s experience of cooking it (he gives it a 7/15) didn’t help. Lots of other dishes–baklava, kofte, boreki–sounded yummy, but shared a lot with Turkish and Greek cuisine. Albania’s proximity with Greece makes this perfectly understandable, of course, and Albania does seem to put its own spin on these dishes. But I wanted something you wouldn’t eat in many other countries, so kept hunting.
It seems there is a lot of regional variation in Albanian cooking, as my Albanian friend Eranda pointed out:
We have a variety of national dishes in Albania and they vary from region to region…In my region (South of Albania) we cook a dish called Arapash – made with the juice and fat of the lamb and farine de mais. It looks like polenta but the taste is very different. Then there’s Ishmer, Byrek, Stuffed Peppers, Stuffed Aubergines, and of course the Albanian Pasticio. Further North they have Fli Kosove which I have tasted but don’t know how it’s made.
I also found out that communism and scarcity have left deep scars on Albanian cuisine, especially in the poorer inland areas. The food of the Ottoman empire was rich in butter, fat and other coronary-inducing goodies, but a lot of that heritage disappeared in the era of rationing. There is a renewed interest in food today, but from my limited research, it seems Albanian food is often still quite simply cooked.
That said, the recipe I ended up going for incorporates A LOT of butter, so perhaps it’s a dish the communists couldn’t get their hands on. It’s simple and easy to make, but the sauce is really interesting – two big handfuls of ground walnuts in a thick, rich roux-like puddle of goodness. Slow-cooked meat in a rich sauce has a special place in the heart of Albanians, apparently: it is the standard lunch (what sandwiches are to the Anglo-saxons, for example), and is cooked over a very low flame.
All recipes of gjelle me arra that I could find online seem to stem from this one, and I’ve made only a few minor changes:
What Did I Need?
2 tablespoons flour
15 finely crushed walnuts (I pulsed mine in the food processor to make a walnut paste)
2 egg yolks
1 minced garlic clove
120 grams of butter
1 kg veal, cut into cubes
milk, as needed
salt and pepper to taste
How Did I Do It?
Place the veal in a saucepan and cook over medium heat with a little water or stock, until tender (one hour or so). Season to taste. In another saucepan, stir the flour over medium heat until it becomes light brown in colour (do not overcook!) and add the butter. Cook for a minute or two to slightly brown the butter. Add the walnut paste and minced garlic clove, stirring constantly. Add the juices from the veal (if any remain) and stir for 5 minutes or so, to cook out the taste of the flour. If the sauce becomes too thick, add a little milk and stir well. Add the egg yolks and cook for 30 seconds or so, before removing from the heat to avoid solidifying the egg yolks. Fold in the veal. Serve with rice, or with potatoes fried with garlic and spring onions.
So How Did It Taste?
Again, surprisingly good, for such a simple dish. Well, not so surprising, I suppose, given all that butter! Just as I had never thought to bake basmati rice in an oven until last week, I’d never considered making a walnut sauce before. The taste was super-walnutty, mixed with the soft mild flavour of the veal. If there’s one thing I would have changed, it’s the amount of flour in the sauce, as I used less meat than the original recipe called for. The result was a rather thick sauce to which I had to add a lot of milk, but the 2 tablespoons should be fine if you’re using the full 1 kg of meat and keep adding milk until you have the right consistency. I’d like to try this with almonds, cashews or even macadamia nuts sometime. And the walnut paste was so oily and oozy and soft that I’m thinking I’ll make a spiced walnut butter soon too.
What did Joe think of it?
Wow. It’s like having the taste of walnuts injected directly into your tongue. Great!
Next week we head south-west to Algeria for some spicy couscous. Be sure to join me for the next leg of my global food odyssey!