Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't crack that shell!

As food scares go, this one hits too close to home.

The FDA is warning Americans to avoid any product containing pistachio nuts while it investigates reports of Salmonella contamination.

This is serious. How in the world can Armenians be expected to carry on with business -- much less play backgammon -- without the ubiquitous crunch of their national snack food?

These days, of course, everyone seems to be a pistachio fan. The one-time ethnic favorite has enjoyed a boom in popularity since being identified as a heart-healthy food loaded with fiber and antioxidants.

It's sad to think it may now be identified with violent and potentially deadly illness.

The problem surfaced last week when Kraft Foods alerted the FDA that Salmonella had turned up in some of its trail mix. The source was identified as pistachios from Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc., a California processor.

Setton sells in bulk, and its pistachios are sold in a variety of food products under different labels, including Setton's own brand of roasted nuts.

The company has recalled specific lots, but the FDA says it's best to just steer clear of pistachios while it tracks all potentially tainted products.

Salmonella can cause "serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems," the FDA says. It can be extremely serious -- and debilitating -- even if you're not in one of those categories.

Check www.fda.com for updates and specific product recalls.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mise en Place...

What every cook should know.

Mise en place: that’s French for “everything in its place." It’s a phrase that’s vital for efficient food preparation.

Have you ever watched a cooking show where the chef is preparing a recipe in front of the audience and/or camera? There are many little bowls of chopped, diced, and sliced ingredients set out on the work surface, ready to be added to the recipe at the precise moment. This pre-preparation is necessary in order to make the recipe quickly and accurately.

Mise en place refers to equipment and tools, as well as ingredients. 

Before you start any recipe preparation, carefully READ through both the ingredient list and the directions. Don't be in a hurry! Make sure you have all of the necessary tools and ingredients before you start - this will save you a lot of time and energy.

Sunday, March 29, 2009



Hummus is not an Armenian recipe, but Armenians sure do love it. We’re not the only ones, either. That’s become quite evident with the broad selection we find in our local grocery stores these days.

I never had hummus as a child; neither of my grandmothers prepared it. The first time hummus crossed my lips was in the early 1970’s, when I was in Massachusetts, visiting my sister and brother-in-law, Dawn and Ara. They took me to an ASA (Armenian Students’ Association) dance at the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Harvard Square. What fun! Great music, lots of young, interesting people, and MEZZA. There was a dip on the plate that was unfamiliar to me, but that didn’t stop me from giving it a try. I was hooked with that first taste!

The hummus recipe I have was given to me by one of my sister’s Armenian friends, Christine Shamsey. I still use it, but I don’t measure the ingredients as precisely as I used to.

It’s simple and delicious. Give it a try.

1 - 20 oz. can chick peas, drained
1/4 c. olive oil
1 / 4 c. to 1/3 c. fresh lemon juice (you decide how much)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 small cloves garlic, peeled
2 Tbsp. Tahini (sesame seed paste)

1. Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor.
2. Blend until smooth. (If the hummus seems to be too thick, add a little more oil - or water - if you’re worried about the extra calories)
3. Adjust seasonings, if necessary.
4. Cover and chill to allow flavors to develop.
5. Serve with pita bread triangles, or vegetables - carrots, peppers, cucumbers, etc.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Making Rice Pilaf

Rice Pilaf
It's so darn easy!

I had a request the other day from my cousin in San Francisco asking me to teach her how to make pilaf. She, and you, will be happy to learn there's really nothing to it.

So, Valerie, this one’s for you.

Selecting the rice: I prefer to use Uncle Ben’s parboiled rice for pilaf, however, Basmati or Texmati work well also. Just be sure to read the manufacturer’s directions for the proper proportion of rice to liquid, and the recommended cooking time.

Rice Pilaf
Yield: 4 servings

2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup fine egg noodles
1 cup rice
2 cups chicken broth (canned or homemade)
Dash salt , optional

1. Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan. Add noodles and cook, stirring constantly, until noodles are golden. Do not let the butter or noodles burn.
2. Stir in the rice, and cook another minute or two.
3. Add the chicken broth and salt, if using, and stir. Bring to a boil, then cover the saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and lower the heat to simmer.
4. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until all of the liquid is absorbed.
5. Remove the pot from the heat, place a paper towel between the top of the saucepan and the lid to help absorb any excess moisture. Allow the pilaf to rest for a few minutes before serving.
6. Place pilaf in a bowl or on a platter; serve immediately.

That's it! Now it's your turn to try.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Wash your hands…PLEASE!

I always started the school year teaching my culinary students about safety and sanitation - even before I would instruct them on basic cooking skills. I wanted to be sure they understood the importance of safe kitchen practices and proper sanitation concepts.

“Sanitation is not an option, it is an obligation” to the health and safety of your family, friends, you - or anyone you feed. This begins with one simple task - HAND WASHING. That’s right, washing your hands regularly, and correctly, can help reduce the spread of bacteria significantly.

Think about what you do with your hands, the things you touch. When you cough or sneeze into your hands, or blow your nose, do you wash them immediately? What do you do if you’re using a public rest facility where soap and hot water aren’t readily available?

Hand washing helps prevent cross-contamination, that is, the spread of germs or bacteria from your hands to another person, food, utensils, equipment and/or work surfaces.

Personal hygiene is very important when working with food, too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The reluctantly movable feast

In October 1978, as the season's first frost descended on the Northeast, I announced excitedly that I'd found a great job in South Florida.

Robyn had two questions:
1) Is there an Armenian church?
2) Can I buy bulgur?

Luckily, there was indeed a church -- no building, but a small yet enthusiastic congregation.

Bulgur, however, proved problematic.

Growing up in New Jersey, we'd both taken for granted all the wonderful things that come along with a large Armenian community: Fresh lamb. Church picnics. Armenian dances.

Moving to a suburb of Fort Lauderdale brought the rudest sort of culture shock. We spent many weekends driving up and down the coast, searching for suitable grocery stores. We'd find a Greek here and a Syrian there but not an Armenian store in sight.

We scraped by with emergency shipments from our parents. Even a small package in the mail signaled a feast to come: mahlab meant choreg, coriander meant kebab, and bulgur...well, bulgur meant we were home.

As for picnics and kef, life sometimes demands compromise: We had to settle for eating in the backyard while listening to Onnik sing over the hiss of cassette tapes.

Today, we marvel at the change in South Florida. The Armenian community here is vibrant and still growing. America has changed too, not only demographically but culturally. The interest in Near and Middle Eastern cuisine is so widespread that once exotic ingredients such as grape leaves, tahine and even bulgur require little detour from our regular shopping path.

It gives me hope that one day Americans will even come to love lamb. I don't blame them for being hesitant because I won't eat the stuff they sell at our local grocery store. Lamb should come to the table fresh from the abattoir, not after a leisurely cruise from New Zealand.

So we still go on occasional weekend hunts for meat, while listening to Onnik on my iPod.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Grape leaves

Stuffed Grape Leaves
People eat grape leaves???
If someone asked you when - or what- your first cooking experience was, would you be able to tell them without thinking?

I have no specific childhood recollections of getting my hands covered with gooey dough, or licking chocolate cake batter off the beaters. This is largely due to the fact that my maternal grandmother did the bulk of the baking, and her kitchen was upstairs from ours. I do, however, have fond memories of watching “Yeranuhe Nanny” turn simple ingredients into amazing recipes.

We were fortunate to have lived on the first floor of my grandparent’s 2-family house in Clifton, NJ. They chose to live upstairs (guess it reminded them of their mountainous homeland as they climbed the steps to the 2nd floor). My aunt & uncle lived next door, and a number of my grandparents Armenian friends from the ”old country” lived on the same block.

No Armenian back yard was complete without a grape arbor so, of course, one was planted. It took years before it was large enough to provide adequate shade for our picnic table, but more importantly, to produce enough grape leaves to provide the tender wrapping of the most delectable Sarma (Yalanchi).

I can recall Nanny being very specific as to the harvesting of her grape leaves, usually May, when the leaves were large enough to use, but very tender for eating. “Middle-June is too late!“, she’d say.

Preparing the leaves for use was another story. They were hand-picked at just the right time, gently cooked, drained, stacked, tightly wrapped for freezing so they could be used all year long. Fortunately, today we can purchase jars of leaves in our local supermarkets and specialty stores. No muss, no fuss.

Stuffed Grape Leaves
(Served cold)
Yield: approximately 50 pieces

Grape leaves, fresh or 1 (16-oz.) jar

Filling Ingredients:
1 ½ c. chopped onions
3 to 4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 ½ c. uncooked rice (Uncle Ben’s works well; do not use instant rice!)
¼ c. tomato sauce
Dash salt
¼ c. pine nuts
Dash each of allspice, cumin, paprika
½ c. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. lemon juice

Directions for Grape Leaves:

1. If using fresh grape leaves, place them in boiling water for about 5 minutes or until soft. Remove stems. If using bottled grape leaves, soak them in cool water for a few minutes, and remove stems. (Soaking bottled leaves helps to reduce some of the salt from the brine it is packed in.)

2. Pat the excess water off each leaf. Set leaves aside.

Directions for Filling:

1. Sauté the onions in the oil until slightly tender. Stir in the rice & cook 10 min.
2. Combine all of the other filling ingredients with the onions & rice. Cook another minute or two. Remove from heat. Let cool.
3. Lay one grape leaf on a flat work surface, shiny side down.
4. Place enough filling at the stem-end of the leaf, and spread it about three-quarters across the width of the leaf. The amount of filling should be about the size of your pinky, depending on the size of the leaf. Start rolling the leaf from the stem end upward (away from you), then fold each side of the leaf over the filling, and continue to roll upward. Fold firmly so the leaf won’t unravel during cooking. (NOTE: Don’t roll too tightly, however, because the rice will expand and the leaf could burst during cooking.)
5. Line the bottom of the pot with some lettuce leaves. (This is a trick my grandmother shared with me. It prevents the stuffed grape leaves from sticking to the bottom of the pot.)
6.Place rolled leaves in a large pot on top of the lettuce leaves. Sprinkle with a little oil & salt.
7. Add enough hot water to cover the rolled leaves. Place a dish on top of the grape leaves to keep them in place. You might want to add another weight, such as a small pot filled with water to place on top of the dish. This keeps the grape leaves submerged for even cooking.
8. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for 30-40 minutes until the rice is tender.
9. Remove from pot; chill; serve with lemon wedges.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I am a cheat, and there is no point denying it.

Canned beans had no place in Mom's kitchen, but they're right at home in mine. I can blame years of long hours at work with too little time left for cooking.

Or I can be honest and just call myself lazy.

The fact is, dry beans that are soaked and boiled until they're just right are a joy -- and they're great for you. Plenty of fiber and protein, with only as much sodium as your stingy fingers care to pinch.

The trick to getting satisfactory results with canned beans is to experiment with brands as well as types. Let's face it: Some of this stuff is just mush, like little pellets of oatmeal.

But I've found consistently firm and flavorful beans in the least expected places. The store brand at our local supermarket, Publix, for example. Their Great Northern Beans suit me just fine for this recipe, a simple but delicious (and filling) appetizer or snack. Just be sure to rinse thoroughly to reduce the salt.

You think this is heresy? Mom would take your side.
I'll just take a heaping bowl of plaki, nicely chilled, with a wedge of lemon.

2 carrots, diced
2 to 3 stalks celery, diced
2 medium potatoes, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (6-oz) can tomato paste
dash of salt
2 (15-oz) cans white beans, drained and rinsed
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, sliced

1. Blend the tomato paste with about 2 cups of water and add the carrots, celery, potatoes and garlic. Cook until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
2. Add the beans and cook about 15-20 minutes more. Remove from stove.
3. In a skillet, saute the onion until golden brown. Gently add to cooked plaki.
4. Serve chilled with lemon juice or lemon wedges.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Paklava, anyone?

Armenian recipe preparations tend to be time consuming. Never wanting to spend any more time in the kitchen than necessary, short-cuts had to be created for some of our family favorites. (My day job was as a High School Culinary teacher. I was in kitchens all day long!)

Without a doubt, the most popular Armenian dessert is Paklava (Baklava to non-Armenians). Flaky, buttery layers of Phyllo dough, with a center layer of chopped nuts & cinnamon, then drizzled with a simple syrup, Mmmmmmmmm!

Love it, but this takes too long, so here’s what I do…

Instead of using Phyllo dough sheets, I purchase bite-sized, pre-made Phyllo cups (15 count per box) in the freezer section of my local grocery store. What a time-saver! This works in other recipes, too.

My mini-paklavas

Yield: 30

2 - 15 count pkgs. Pre-made Phyllo cups

Filling Ingredients:
2 cups finely chopped nuts (walnuts or pistachios)
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
Mix them together and set aside.

Simple Syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 Tbsp. of lemon juice
Heat the sugar & water in a saucepan, until sugar is dissolved, stirring from time to time. Stir in lemon juice. Cool until ready to use.


1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Place each phyllo cup place on a baking sheet.
3. Put about one heaping teaspoon of nut filling in each cup.
4. Bake for 10-15 minutes.
5. Remove from oven. While still hot, drizzle some of the cooled simple syrup over each cup.
6. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Note: for a neater presentation, place each phyllo cup in a mini cupcake paper liner.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Our Dining Room Set

Nartouhe Hourdajian in her dining room in the 1950s or 60s.
Our Dining Room Set
My husband and I purchased our French Provincial dining room set from my brother-in-law, Ara Hourdajian’s, mother’s estate in 1977. The style wasn’t exactly what we would have chosen, but we were just married and needed furniture. Ara’s mother was a talented Armenian cook, and I couldn’t think of a better way to keep the memory of her tasty meals alive. Even though she wasn’t the one cooking anymore, serving our meals at her table made them seem very special.
Almost thirty-two years later, they still are.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Two meals, no waiting

Nishan and Sylvia Kalajian entertaining family 
My mother, Sylvia Kalajian, loved having company for Sunday dinner even though she worked six days a week.

She loved her company so much she didn't cook just one dinner. She cooked two: One Armenian, one American. "Some people may not like Armenian food," she'd say.

That always puzzled me, because I don't remember anybody saying no to anything Mom cooked. But I never argued because it meant that I got to eat two fabulous dinners instead of one.

A typical company dinner meant kooftah (you spell it your way, I'll spell it mine) with home-made madzoon -- and roast beef with mashed potatoes, gravy and all the trimmings.

Actually, there was one person who consistently turned up her nose at nearly every dish: My mother. She rarely ate more than a tiny portion of meat, barely enough for a chihuahua.

"I'm saving room for dessert," she'd say.

She always put as much effort into the sweets as the main course, often more. There was pakhlava, of course. Made-from-scratch yellow cake with walnuts. And if the company was very lucky, a tangy-sweet apricot pie.

Everyone left with at least a small portion of everything, wrapped in aluminum foil.

And nobody ever left hungry.

Friday, March 20, 2009

That's what hands are for!

Yeranuhe Nanny
Measuring tools? What are they?

It occurred to me one day that none of Yeranuhe Nanny’s family-favorite recipes were written down. Unlike me, Nanny didn’t need a recipe for any of her dishes; she could make everything blind-folded, with one hand tied behind her back.

One day I visited her with my bagful of measuring cups & spoons, and a large note pad to jot things down. As Nanny scooped flour into her hand I’d stop her, guide her hand to an appropriately-sized measuring cup, take an accurate measure, then write down the amount.

This was the procedure for every ingredient for as many recipes as she was willing to share.
Nanny thought the idea of measuring utensils was pretty silly since these items were never a part of her kitchen. "That’s what hands are for."

I tried to explain that not everybody had the same-sized hands. She dismissed that notion with the flip of her hand.

Warning: Hard Hat Zone

We're under construction, but The Armenian Kitchen will be fired up very soon.