Saturday, September 19, 2009

Basterma! The best thing about company

Pardon me, please.

This is Doug, intruding rudely into Robyn's latest post. She made the mistake of asking me to read through her serious, culinary observations about basterma and I reacted in truly juvenile fashion.

Basterma! Hey do we have any? WE DON'T? Oh, no? Oh, geeez. You're kidding! I want BASTERMA!

Sorry. I can't help it. Just say the word and I'm instantly six years old again. That's about the time I discovered this wickedly delicious Armenian version of dried, cured beef. It was sitting in a serving dish on Mom's coffee table alongside plates of cheese, bread, nuts, fresh and pickled vegetables.

All of it had been set out for company, but I snatched a slice before anyone noticed. Good grief! I thought I'd swallowed a chunk of burning charcoal!

This really was hot stuff for a little kid -- but strangely fabulous hot stuff. It was spicy, salty and meaty all at once. It was sliced so thin I could almost see through it, but it was still chewy and moist.

My mouth sizzling, I ran to the kitchen for a glass of anything cold -- but I grabbed another slice first.

Throughout my childhood, basterma was a rare treat that appeared only when we had company -- or when we were company at someone else's house. And it was definitely for adults first and kids only when the adults were distracted or in a particularly good mood after a few drinks.

Today, of course, we can have basterma any time -- that is, any time I get over my silly fixation on cholesterol, red meat and sodium. Which means, basterma remains a special-occasion treat.

All that this requires is a little discipline, and for me to act like an adult.

ROBYN ARE YOU SURE WE DON'T HAVE ANY BASTERMA???

Sorry. I'll go away. And now, back to our regularly scheduled post...

According to The Cuisine of Armenian by Sonia Uvezian, “basterma, (basturma, pasterma, “aboukhd” in Armenian) is (1) beef which has been salted, wind dried, and cured with a hot fenugreek paste made with a combination of spices and seasonings, then dried again.” (2) Caucasian grilled marinated meat.

What’s fenugreek?

Uvezian’s book states: “Fenugreek (Chaimen, Chaiman, Horom Chaman) is a Eurasian plant, with tiny reddish brown, aromatic, and slightly bitter seeds, which are ground and employed in the preparation of a spicy hot paste used in making basterma, the famous Armenian cold cut.”

Some refer to basterma as Armenian “beef jerky.” It's definitely an acquired taste, which I have certainly developed. If you find a store that sells basterma, ask if they will slice it.

If they don’t, be prepared to buy it in a chunk that you’ll have to slice yourself. Be warned, however. I ruined a brand new food processor years ago because I figured I’d save myself the hassle of hand-slicing. As it turns out, my Sunbeam food processor wasn't equipped to deal with the likes of that leathery meat.

The motor burned out and blade became instantly dull. Fortunately, the area repair shop for Sunbeam was in the next town. From then on, if the basterma wasn’t pre-sliced at the store, I didn’t buy it.

Basterma is best served as part of a mezza platter with pita triangles, Armenian twisted cheese, cured olives, and slices of ripe tomatoes and cold crisp cucumbers. If you feel adventurous, basterma can be diced and mixed into scrambled eggs, or left in strips and served in place of bacon.

Want to know more about basterma? Read this story posted by Nigol Bezjian in the on-line version of The Armenian Weekly. Thanks to reader Tsolin, who mentioned this article just as I was gathering my thoughts about this very topic!

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