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Flash in the Pan

Tommy the Turk’s tartari

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Thomas Goltz, known to his friends as Tommy the Turk, has worked as a war correspondent, authored numerous books on war-torn Central Asian and trans-Caucasian countries and serves as a professor of these subjects at Montana State University. He was recently planting fruit trees in Turkey when war broke out in Georgia, where he is now.

In his line of work, it helps to know how to hitch rides from militiamen, or how to board an Mi-8 super helicopter swarming with desperate refugees. And he has subtler skills, like how to talk to spies, earn the trust of corrupt politicians, deal with survivor’s guilt when friends get shot and leave a few drops of vodka in the bottom of the bottle to prove you believe in next time.

On my birthday this year, which also happens to be Azerbaijan Independence Day, Tommy the Turk taught me to make his special tartari (his spelling). In addition to being delicious, Goltz’s tartari is a microcosm of the current situation in Central Asia, a mashed up mixture of minced meat with a tangled, improbable history and far-reaching consequences. And it’s served uncooked, raw as a flesh wound.

We don’t need insider information to know the situation in Georgia is tense, or that John McCain’s recent statements on Georgia apparently were lifted from Wikipedia. But members of Goltz’s e-mail list have had a front row seat to the tune of 9,000 words—that’s two or three Independent cover stories in length.

In one, Goltz calls Georgia an “ancient nation of poets and artists,” and says the Russian military is digging in, “…flaunting its success, quite content with allowing a damaged Georgia come to understand the enormity of the disaster which had just washed over it, and tacitly encourage a spirit of revolt to fester against the government of the young, brash President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom many have incorrectly blamed for igniting the conflict in the first place.”

Many have suggested that Saakashvili overplayed a weak hand in the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, giving Russia the pretext to invade. Goltz, who had at least one 3 a.m. discussion with the president, reports:

“Saakashvili decided that even if he ducked and dodged on August 8th, there would be another provocation, and then another, and the only thing to do was make a stand, allow the conflict to escalate, and then hope for some sort of international intervention. Brinksmanship, in a word, in true Caucasian style.”

The Russians, Goltz says, began planning to invade as soon as Georgia was denied fast-track status into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) last April. Ironically, while France helped negotiate the current ceasefire, France opposed fast-tracking Georgia into NATO fearing Georgia’s membership could force the alliance into conflict with Russia, should Russia invade.

And like the disintegrating and bloody situation in the region from which it sprang, tartari, that bloody mix of dissonant ingredients, has far-reaching implications around the world. While the possibility of a return to the Cold War with Russia carries the specter of a global conflict with weapons capable of pulverizing the world into burger, tartari, that pile of chopped red meat, is what gave rise to the hamburger. It’s a poster child for the movement of information and ideas around the world.

Conquest and conflict aren’t new to the Georgians, nor was it new in the 13th century when the Mongols rode their ponies into town. The invaders were famous for riding for days on end, which can take a toll on the rear end. For extra cushion, they took to placing meat under their saddles, which also tenderized the meat while bathing it in the pooled sweat from the horse’s back. Yum!

By some accounts, when the Mongols took Moscow they brought their culinary habits with them, including this meat tenderizing technique. It was later refined in high-end kitchens with the addition of some extra ingredients and christened “tartari,” after the Tatar people from the region north of present day Georgia.

From Moscow, tartari, or tartare, as it’s more often called, found its way to the German port of Hamburg, where it then jumped the pond to America, becoming the hamburger. Meanwhile, someone had the idea of dressing up mayo tartare style, instead of meat, which became tartar sauce.

Goltz, a vocal critic of the cattle industry, uses wild game for his tartari recipe. And while his dish can be made with any red meat, I prefer wild game here, as well. Whichever meat you use, it should be well-frozen first to kill parasites. And it should be good, clean, healthy meat, and ideally local.

Mince or grate a partially thawed tender cut of meat. For every half-pound, mix in a teaspoon of minced capers, a tablespoon of horseradish or mustard, a tablespoon of smoked Hungarian paprika, a shot of brandy, salt, pepper and 1 egg white (most tartare recipes use the yolk). Mix, taste, and adjust seasonings.

Place the tartari on a bed of ultra-thin-sliced onions, a garnish of parsley, perhaps, and serve with crackers or toast. Leftovers should be cooked immediately, hamburger style, with or without breadcrumbs mixed in, and stored as cooked patties or eaten immediately, perhaps with mayonnaise—that ubiquitous mortar of Russian cuisine—and thus reunite the tartar, the sauce and burger in the same mouthful.

If only geopolitics were so easy.


Ask Ari: Pekmez to the rescue

Q: Dear Flash,

I accidentally left some apricots in my dehydrator for a whole week (long story). They are brown and crispy, and have a browned but not blackened taste with strong molasses flavor. They don’t exactly taste bad, but they just don’t really taste that good either. Do you have any ideas for how to use them?

—Spaced-out Sister


A: I did some digging around, SOS, and found this stuff called pekmez, also called fruit molasses, a Turkish syrup made from fruit that’s popular in the region.

You can try soaking your apricots to reconstitute them, changing the water twice to remove any bitterness from the browning. Then puree in a blender with water and cook slowly for hours, adding water when it thickens, and then filter. Mix with honey, or not.

If you’re a little more daring, here’s a firsthand account of pekmez-making that Barbara Sher posted to her webpage, barbarasher.com. It calls for grapes, but apricot pekmez is also made:

“The steps all take place within a few feet of each other, beginning with a man or woman stomping grapes in a little porch-like area with a pipe coming out the bottom. The juice drips into a pan. It’s put into brass pots about 2 feet high until there’s a kind of foam on top (a few days?). Then it’s hung in bags the size of a small lamb from a little structure made of branches. The syrup seeps to the surface and dozens of bees hover around it. It’s put in very large shallow pans and boiled over an open fire until it becomes thick. They gave me some in a soup bowl with a big spoon. I almost went into sugar shock but I would have died happy.”

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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