Thanks to my fun week-and-counting with some sort of stomach bug (and by “fun,” I mean “really not fun at all”), I’m way behind on this blog, so I’m largely going to skip over the preamble (beyond a description of what exactly it is that I made) and get straight to the cooking. (I am at least feeling enough better now that I can eat several foods and think about food in general without feeling sick, so that’s definitely progress!)
Ashak (also spelled “aushak”) could reasonably be described as a sort of Afghan ravioli – little pasta dumplings stuffed with leek and chives, served with garlic yogurt and an onion-y, tomato-y meat sauce. There’s also a similar dish called mantu in which the dumplings are filled with lamb, but (a) I like leeks and (b) leeks are a whole lot cheaper than lamb, so ashak it was.
You may also have noticed that this dish contains a remarkable number of members of the Allium genus (i.e. onions AND leeks AND garlic AND chives). I’m not sure I’ve ever put all four in one dish before, but given that all of those things are delicious, I was pretty eager to try.
Let’s get right to it.
The first step was to make the garlic yogurt. I used the full 16 ounces of that Greek yogurt on the grounds that if I had leftover garlic yogurt, it would probably make a good chip/veggie dip. (I have yet to test this theory, thanks to being sick, but I’m still pretty sure it’s true!) I did indeed end up with significantly more yogurt than I needed, so you could almost certainly halve the quantities I used and be fine. (On the other hand, I’m not an especially big yogurt fan, so I didn’t end up putting a whole heck of a lot of it on any given ashak plate. If you really like yogurt or sour cream-type sauces, maybe you do want to use the whole 16 ounces!) I extracted three good-sized cloves from my head of garlic and used a meat tenderizer to smash them to smithereens (and then chopped up a few of the stringier smithereens for good measure), and mixed that raw, fresh garlic into the yogurt along with the salt. Since I still had most of a head of garlic left and really like garlic, I decided to make the yogurt a little more complex in flavor, and tossed another ten or so cloves into a baking pan and let them roast in the oven at 250° for a bit. (I honestly didn’t time this, since I wasn’t worried about over- or under-roasting them – I pretty much just took them out of the oven when the kitchen started to smell like roasted garlic.) I smashed those up the same way as the previous ones and mixed them into the yogurt as well. Then that yogurt mixture went back into the refrigerator to sit and wait until the rest of the meal was closer to done. (When I was about an hour away from serving the meal, I scooped out enough of the yogurt for the number of people who’d be eating it that night and put it in a shallow dish to warm up to room temperature.)
Next up were the dumplings. I chopped my leeks nice and fine (just the white and light green parts – basically, the parts whose texture is extremely similar to that of an onion), chopped that bunch of chives finely as well, and put both in a mixing bowl along with the salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and peanut oil. (Any vegetable oil would work fine here – heck, melted butter would probably be great, too. I pretty much just grabbed the first bottle of oil in my pantry.)
The next step was rather delightfully described in one of the source recipes I read as “massage your leeks,” which sounds like it ought to be a euphemism for something, although I’m not quite sure what. The goal is to get the leeks nice and soft from the oil, and sticking your hands in there and kneading and, well, massaging them for a few minutes is pretty much the best way to do so!
As you can see, once the leeks had enjoyed their impromptu spa day, they’d greatly diminished in volume. Maybe the rest of the volume was made up of stress that I had massaged away? (Or, y’know, air. It could be that. But I like the stress explanation better.)
Now that I had my relaxed leeks, it was time to make the dumplings themselves. If I were trying to be perfectly traditional and authentic, I should have made the pasta dough for the dumplings from scratch, but (a) that would be way more work, and (b) a little research revealed that quite a lot of Afghans these days do exactly what I did and just use pre-made wonton wrappers. (Incidentally, I had not previously realized that pre-made wonton wrappers were a thing one could easily acquire at Asian grocery stores, and I’m frankly pretty excited by this discovery. I anticipate a lot of homemade wontons, ravioli, etc. in my future.) Since my wonton wrappers were purchased frozen, I’d left them out to defrost after taking my ingredient photo, which worked out well time-wise. I laid out the wrappers twelve at a time, moistened all their edges with water (I found the quickest way to do this was just to get a bowl of water, dunk my finger in it, and quickly finger-paint my way around each wrapper), and then put a heaping teaspoon of leek filling in the center of each one, like so:
Then I folded each dumpling along the diagonal, squeezing out as much air as possible as I did so, and pressed the edges together to seal them. I repeated this process until I ran out of filling, leaving me with a nice big pile of leek-filled triangles.
With that done, I set the dumplings aside and got to work on the meat sauce. The first step was to prepare the onions. For this recipe, I chopped them into what I’d think of as medium chunks. I put some oil in my big skillet, heated it up, threw the onions in, and sautéed them until they were nice and golden.
Once the onions were all pretty and caramelized, I scooped most of them out of the pan and replaced them with the ground beef. (I would normally have cooked the onions slightly less and then let them finish cooking alongside the beef, but I happened to have a particularly fat-filled pound of hamburger and I was aiming to make this meal a little more heart-healthy than it would normally be, so I wanted to be able to drain off at least a little of the oil before cooking the beef and at least a little of the beef fat afterward.)
Now, here, I have to pause to talk about the unfortunate thing that went wrong this week. As soon as I put the beef in the skillet, it was immediately apparent from the smell that something wasn’t quite right. It didn’t smell rotten or unsafe, but it did smell…weird. I didn’t have any other meat available to use, I’d already made the dumplings and yogurt, there was nothing besides the odd smell to indicate that anything was amiss about the beef, the rest of my family was very certain that the beef was fine and that I should just finish making dinner, and I didn’t really want to wait and make the meal another day, so I went ahead and used it. You may, at this point, be thinking that this explains why I’ve spent the last week with my digestive system in open revolt against me, but that actually appears to be purely coincidental. Multiple people ate the ashak, none of whom thought the beef smelled wrong, and none of whom have had any trace of poor health afterward. (It should perhaps be noted that it has been previously established that my nose is significantly more sensitive than the noses of my family members – we had a notable event some time back in which I insisted that a particular room smelled like some creature had died in there, my family insisted that there was no such smell, I thought I was going crazy because the room really obviously reeked of rotting dead animal, and then a few days later, when the smell had become so overwhelming that I was avoiding that whole side of the house, my family members finally smelled it too. Sure enough, something had indeed died in there and was rotting and stinking up the place. It was terribly gross, but hey, at least I was vindicated, and now I know my nose isn’t crazy. The jury’s still out when it comes to the rest of me.) My own health issues began nearly a week after my Afghan dinner – and shortly after eating some questionable bar food, so if there’s a food-based culprit, that seems far more likely. My best guess is that there was nothing “wrong” with the beef per se except that the cow it came from had an unusual diet in some way. The problem, then, was simply that to me, both before and after cooking, the beef smelled (and therefore tasted) profoundly weird, and it drove me crazy and made it hard for me to accurately evaluate the dish as a whole. So when we get to the end of this post and I talk about my verdict, it will, unfortunately, be a verdict with an asterisk, because I’m only going to be able to offer my opinion of what I’m pretty sure the dish would have tasted like with normal-smelling beef and what other people who couldn’t smell any oddity thought of it.
Anyway, I browned my weird-smelling beef in the skillet, then added the onions back in, along with the crushed tomatoes, minced garlic (I went ahead and pulled out my can of pre-minced garlic for this, because I was tired and didn’t feel like mincing more fresh garlic by hand), turmeric, parsley, salt, and pepper. I coarsely chopped my fresh tomato and threw it in there, too, and quickly grated some ginger (but not too quickly, lest I relive the Seychellois Finger-Grating Incident) and added it as well. Once all of that was mixed in, I turned down the heat and left the sauce to simmer.
Incidentally, I should note that while I’m referring to this as a “sauce,” there’s not a lot of liquid in it – this is definitely more a meat-based sauce with tomatoes than a tomato-based sauce with meat.
While the sauce simmered, I boiled a pot of water. Once it came to a boil, I added a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of vinegar. (I don’t normally bother adding vinegar when boiling pasta, but multiple sources suggested doing so when using wonton wrappers, so I figured it probably wouldn’t do any harm, and indeed, it did not.) Then in went the dumplings – in batches, because my pot wasn’t large enough to hold more than about a third of them at a time without them all ending up stuck together.
The dumplings took about four to five minutes to cook (per batch), and once they were done, dinner was ready to be served! It still required just a bit of arrangement, though, because ashak needs to be assembled in the proper order.
First, each plate was covered with a layer of garlic yogurt…
…then the yogurt was covered with a layer of leek dumplings…
…and then the dumplings were covered with a layer of the beef sauce, arranged in a ring with another dollop of yogurt in the center. Finally, the whole thing was sprinkled with dried mint, and then it was ready to eat!
THE VERDICT (*)
Like I said above, I have to qualify this verdict. The garlic yogurt was good, with a zingy garlic bite. The leek dumplings were excellent. And the meat sauce…well, everyone else liked it, and it tasted to me like a sauce I would like if the beef just smelled like I expected beef to smell. Even with the odd beef, I finished off a plate of ashak and thought it was decent-tasting, and the rest of the family seemed to enjoy it unreservedly, so I think it was probably a success? Ish? The beef, unfortunately, made it by far my least favorite thing I’ve cooked so far, but I really do think it’d be pretty good under normal circumstances.
Aside from the beef, the only other thing I didn’t entirely like was the “mouthfeel” (to get all foodie-ish on you) of yogurt sauce on pasta. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not a huge yogurt person, and that’s pretty much entirely because I don’t care for its texture. For me, yogurt on pasta is clearly a bit of an acquired taste, but as far as actual flavor, they went very well together, and if you’re not “meh” about yogurt or sour cream sauces in general, I can’t imagine this would bother you. I also suspect if I were to eat ashak a few more times, it would stop bothering me, too, since it really wasn’t a “ew, no, these things do not belong together” reaction so much as a “huh, I am not used to these things belonging together” reaction.
If I made this again, obviously, I’d use a different brand of beef – and there’s actually a pretty good chance I will make this again, largely because I’d really like to find out what it tastes like when I’m not being distracted by the weirdness of the beef. And hey, there’s probably some more leeks out there that could use a good massage!
For the garlic yogurt:
16 ounces Greek yogurt
approximately 12 cloves of fresh garlic
1/2 tsp salt
For the leek dumplings:
3 large leeks, finely chopped
1 bunch fresh chives, finely chopped
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp peanut oil
white vinegar and a pinch of salt (for boiling)
For the sauce:
1 lb ground beef (try to get some that doesn’t smell weird!)
2 medium onions, chopped
peanut oil sufficient for sautéeing onions
1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 Roma tomato, chopped
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
pinch dried parsley
dried mint (for garnish)
I’m so far behind on blogging that I’ve literally already cooked the next country’s dish, so obviously, that name will go up just as soon as this post does, and with any luck I’ll have a post about it within the next couple of days. Stay tuned!