What fried? Saj-fried? You may ask.
And I will explain. Saj is a nifty kitchen utensil, my friends. And it has a long history.
Before the invention of frying pans and a gas stove, Azerbaijanis used a saj, a slightly dome shaped iron pan that resembles a shallow wok, both for cooking and bread making, depending on the side used. Rounded side up, saj was used for baking flatbreads, plain and filled, and Azerbaijani pancakes and crepes, while inverted to the hollowed side, it was used to cook various dishes. Actually it is still used for the same purposes.
Traditionally saj is placed directly over fire or wooden coals. In the days of yore, ever traveling nomads used to carry it with themselves, using it when necessary to satisfying all the baking and cooking needs. First saj found on the territory of Azerbaijan was made of clay and dates back to as long as 4 thousand years BC. Beginning from the XVIIth century clay saj was replaced with a larger and sturdier cast iron saj, that is used today.
Dishes cooked in a saj are called sajichi, that can be literally translated as “inside the saj.” Meat, chicken, fish – anything can be fried on a good cast-iron saj. The oldest saj dish is called saj-govurma, in which succulent cuts of meat and sheep’s tail fat are browned in butter, with onion added. So delicious! (That recipe will be in my cookbook).
Saj cooked dishes are served hot right off the saj that is mounted onto a sajayag, a three legged stand. I don’t own a sajayag, so my saj ends up landing on the table without any “legs.” I use a 13-inch saj for cooking (you can replace it with an equally sized wok, or Spanish paella pan, or a good old non-stick frying pan, but remember the effect will not be the same).
Below is the recipe for chicken cooked in a saj with vegetables. A typical sajichi toyug will have pieces of chicken and slices of vegetables browned separately in butter on a saj then combined together right on it and served. This recipe, although it follows the basic principle, has a new flair to it – here, the chicken is cooked drenched in a piquant tomato sauce that adds nicely to the finished dish. I received the recipe from the charming Mehriban Alizada in Baku. Note that I cook this dish on a gas stove - a deviation from the traditional method, but better than nothing. Nush olsun! Enjoy!
Saj-Fried Chicken with Vegetables (Sajichi Toyug)
1 medium chicken (about 3 pounds), cut into serving size pieces (leave the carcass for broth purpose, for other uses) or 2 pounds combination of chicken parts, such as legs, thighs, breast and wings
About 1/2 cup clarified butter (you can use regular unsalted butter with a few spoons oil added to it - this will prevent the butter from burning)
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut lengthways into medium-thick slices
2 medium green bell peppers (you can use a combination of green and red), cored, seeded and cut into quarters lenghways
Handful of white mushrooms, wipe cleaned, sliced into half, or if big, into three
2 meduim dark-skinned eggplants, cut into medium-thick slices lenghways (remove bitterness: put slices in a colander placed in a sink, sprinkle generally with salt, put a weight on top, let sit about 20 minutes, gently squeeze the bitter juices, rinse and pat dry).
2-3 medium ripe tomatoes, cut into halves or wedges (small tomatoes can be left whole)
For the Sauce:
1 cup chicken broth (from the recipe)
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar or apple cider
3 tablespoosn tomato paste
6 large cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Ground black pepper
One of my favorite categories of dishes in the amazing Turkish cuisine is the borek category. Borek (börek) is a savory pie. There are tons of borek recipes across Turkey - the regional varieties come in all sizes and shapes - small and big rolls, spirals, bundles, envelopes - differing in the fillings used. Albeit their differences, one thing that unites them all is their foundation - yufka (it is called yukha in Azerbaijan), a paper thin flatbread baked from a simple dough made from water, flour and salt. The yufka encases savory fillings made with meat, spinach, cheese, zucchini, mushrooms, potato and other ingredients. Phyllo dough that sells in the US makes a great substitute for yufka but because phyllo is much thinner than yufka, more layers of the former go into a single borek.
This recipe for layered spinach borek made with yufka comes from my mother-in-law’s recipe collection. She is the best borek maker I have known and made us all addicted to them.
You can use the same recipe to make borek with cheese filling (variation given), ground meat filling or any other filling you fancy as well. Look for Turkish yufka in the freezer section of most Turkish/Middle Eastern markets and even in online Turkish stores. Bring the flatbreads to room temperature before using.
Turkish Spinach Pie (Ispanakli Borek)
3 yufka flatbreads about 20 inches in diameter, or 2 larges ones - cut one into half to obtain 3 pieces total.
For the Spinach Filling: *
4 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound fresh spinach
1/2 cup coarsely crumbled feta cheese (or any other white cheese)
Salt (if cheese is not salted) and ground black pepper, to taste
For the Milky Wash:
1 cup milk
2 eggs (reserve 1 egg yolk for the top)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder (optional - but is said to give the layers a nice “lift”)
1/3 cup olive oil
For the Glaze:
1 reserved egg yolk + a few tablespoons milk or plain yogurt
Sesame seeds or Nigella sativa seeds
Prepare the filling: Heat the oil or butter in a medium frying pan. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is light golden. Remove from the heat and set aside. Meanwhile, cut the spinach coarsely and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoon water and a generous few pinches of salt on top. Rub the spinach with your hands until it is well wilted. Taking a handful at a time, squeeze the spinach to remove all the moisture (discard the released juices), until the spinach is dry. In a bowl, combine the onion, spinach, and cheese. If using unsalted cheese, season the filling with salt. Season with black pepper to taste (sometimes, crushed red pepper is added too, to taste, but it is optional). Set aside.
Prepare the wash to moisten the layers: In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the wash. Whisk gently to blend. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 380F.
Assemble the borek: Lightly grease a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish (I used a Pyrex dish). Layer the first yufka in the pan so that the sides are overhanging (best is one side is overhangling more than the other, so that it covers the top completely later). Evenly drizzle 1/3 of the milky wash on top of this layer. Arrange the second yufka by ruffling it so that it fits the pan without overhanging. Drizzle half of the remaining wash on top. Spread the filling evenly over this layer. Cover the filling with another “ruffled” yufka: moisten with the remaining wash. Bring the overhanging yufka to the top and cover the top completely.