Thursday, April 30, 2009

Chorag, Zeytoonian style

I bumped into an old friend, Joe Zeytoonian, teacher and musician, at the Armenian Genocide program last week in Boca Raton.

We began to reminisce about our dear, departed family members. Joe was saying how much he misses his mother - Rose, a gentle woman who was dedicated to her family and church - and her delicious chorag.

Joe said he and his wife tried to make a video of Rose preparing her chorag recipe in her later years, but there was some technical difficulty with the video camera, and it didn’t turn out. They were extremely disappointed.

Excitedly, I told Joe that Rose had given me her chorag recipe about 25 years ago, but that I’ve never made it. So, Joe, here’s your mother’s recipe! Give it a try - for Rose.

Rose Zeytoonian’s Chorag
3 pkg. dry yeast
7 cups flour
2 sticks butter
¾ cup sugar
1 cup milk
4 eggs

1. Dissolve yeast in warm water (about ¼ - ½ cup). Put one tsp. sugar in
the yeast.
2. Melt butter, milk and sugar. Bring to a boil, then cool. The milk mixture should be a little warm.
3. Beat eggs slightly.
4. Mix the flour with the dissolved yeast, milk mixture, and eggs until a dough is formed.
5. Cover, and let rise 3 hours.
6. Shape. Let rise again in tray - 1 hour.
7. Brush tops with egg. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
8. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven until golden brown.

For a reminder on how to give chorag that special twist, check out our How To Braid Chorag video!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My dinner at Omar Khayyam's

It was the summer of 1967; my 18th birthday was on the horizon.

Every year our family vacationed at the Van Hotel, an Armenian hotel in Asbury Park, at the Jersey shore. This summer would be different; instead, our family would be celebrating my parent’s 25th anniversary by visiting relatives in California.

Not only would we get to see CA for the first time, but we were about to meet many of my father’s relations who moved out West in the 1930’s and 40's, and meet their children who were native Californians. We traveled from San Francisco to Fresno, to LA. What a time it was!

While visiting Dad’s cousins, Alice and Hrant Atikian, in San Francisco, they arranged for us to meet their dear friend, George Mardikian, who just happened to own the then-famous Omar Khayyam restaurant.

Alice called ahead to make sure they had lamb shanks on the menu that night. It’s a good thing she did; there were only four portions left. She asked that they be reserved for our party of eight. I thought, that was odd - 4 portions for eight people?

Boy, those must be gigantic lamb shanks! It turned out the lamb shanks were for the adults; the kids were “stuck” eating succulent morsels of shish kebab with all of the trimmings! Quite delicious, as I recall.

To highlight the meal, the staff and Mr. Mardikian presented me with a birthday treat - a delectable piece of paklava with a birthday candle - while singing the traditional song. In

addition, I received an autographed copy of Mr. Mardikian’s autobiography, Song of America, while my sister received an autographed copy of his cookbook, Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s.

I mentioned this cookbook to my thoughtful husband in passing. He knows how much I love cookbooks,so he searched on-line, found a hard-covered version from 1944, and surprised me with it recently. The book is tattered, age-stained,and smells musty, but it’s a treasure to me - and yes, it’s autographed, too!Armenian Chicken Soup

If George Mardikian were alive today, I’m sure he would permit me to share this recipe from his cookbook, Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s. It’s a traditional Armenian chicken soup recipe, Havabour, which he referred to as “Wedding Soup."

Mr. Mardikian mentioned in this cookbook that Wedding Soup was served at ceremonial dinners, such as weddings, and that, as the wedding party arrived, the soup ingredients were mixed together and served at once.

Armenian Chicken Soup
Yield: about 8 cups

½ gallon (8 cups) chicken broth
1 cup fine vermicelli
3 eggs, raw
Juice of 2 lemons
Salt and pepper

1. Cook vermicelli in broth.
2. Beat eggs thoroughly, adding lemon juice while beating.
3. Gradually add some of the chicken broth to the egg-lemon mixture, pouring slowly so that the egg will not curdle. (This is called “tempering.”)
4. Combine this with the remaining soup.
5. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mujadarah, our favorite adopted lentil dish

In June of 2001, my husband and I went to Paris to visit his cousin Arsene Dirkelessian.

Before we arrived, Arsene warned us that he and his wife Odile were vegetarians, and wanted to be sure we'd be OK with that. We thought this would be a good chance to shed a few pounds while visiting a city so rich in pastries.

We assured Arsene this would not be a problem - and it wasn't. Not only did Arsene and Odile go above and beyond their duty as hosts, Odile turned out to be a phenomenal cook!

She prepared one knock-out recipe after another. The one that stands out is mujadarah, a hearty mix of lentils and rice flavored by caramelized onions.

I was floored, not only by the taste but by the discovery. How is it I'd never heard of this fabulous dish before then?Mujadarah isn't Armenian, but all of the ingredients certainly are -- and it's popular with Armenians from Syria (like Arsene) and elsewhere in the Middle East.

So, we hereby declare it adopted!

Serves 4-5

1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed, small stones or debris removed
4 cups water, or stock (chicken, lamb or beef for non-vegetarians) - divided
5 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 cup rice, uncooked
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Directions for cooking Lentils:
1. In a saucepan, add the lentils, 2 cups of water or stock, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil; cook about 1 minute.
2. Reduce heat, cover the saucepan, and cook about 15 minutes, or until lentils are tender.
3. Remove from heat, drain, and set aside.

While lentils cook, begin the rice preparation:
1. In a second saucepan, heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Add the rice and saute about 2 minutes.
2. Add the remaining water or stock, bringing it to a boil.
3. Reduce the heat, cover the saucepan, and cook about 20 minutes, or until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.
4. Set aside.

While the rice is cooking, begin the onion preparation:
1. In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil using a medium heat setting.
2. Saute the onions for about 8-10 minutes, or until the onions have softened and turned a golden brown.

To Assemble:
1. In a mixing bowl, gently combine the lentils and rice. Arrange on a serving platter.
2. Spread the onions on top, and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

OK, I know some of you are saying - TOO MUCH WORK. Well here's a short-cut version.

Short-cut mujadarah
Serves 4-5

1-15 oz can lentils, rinsed & drained
2 cups leftover, plain cooked rice - or instant rice
1 to 2 onions ( depends on how much onion you like), sliced and sauteed in olive oil until golden brown.
Salt and pepper, to taste
Parsley, chopped

Directions: 1. Combine the lentils and cooked rice,thoroughly heating them. Place on serving platter.
2. Top with sauteed onions.
3. Sprinkle with parsley.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Lentils, they're not just for Lent

Lentils are classified as a legume because they come from a plant that has a seed-pod that splits when ripe.
Red Lentils
The same goes for peanuts, beans, peas, and soybeans. Lentils pack a powerful dietary punch because they are a rich source of fiber, protein, and B-vitamins, and are low in fat, help lower cholesterol, and are heart-healthy.

It doesn't get any better than this -- or does it?

Lentils are inexpensive, have a long shelf-life, are easy to cook - and taste good! One of the first cultivated foods, lentil seeds were found at archaeological sites in the Middle East dating back some 8,000 years.

It's no wonder lentils are a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean favorite. They come in a variety of colors, brown, green, black, yellow, and red-orange. When cooked with seasonings and other ingredients, the lentils absorb those flavors which intensify the recipe's overall taste.

Here's another reason to love lentils - they don't have to be soaked overnight. They're ready to use, anytime! Well, that is after you rinse the dried lentils, spread them out on a platter or work surface of a contrasting color ,and check for any small stones or other debris.

Once you've checked, you're ready to cook. Lentils are sold dried, and come whole or split in half. They are pre-packaged or sold in bulk-bins. When buying in bulk, be sure to check for signs of insects or moisture. If you see either, don't buy it. 

More good news: Lentils come in cans, too. They're cooked & ready to use; just drain and rinse.

The nutritional value of canned lentils is retained, unlike canned vegetables. Lentils can be stored for up to a year in a tightly covered container, in a cool, dark storage area.

Cooked lentils keep for about 3 days in the refrigerator. Always, cover, label and date foods in your frig.; it eliminates the mystery of what's in those left-over containers.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dolma, the Armenian meal in a vegetable

If there's anything Armenians love to stuff more than their tummies it's vegetables.
Dolma (Photo from ianyan magazine)
Sure, we'll stuff just about any part of a lamb, from stomach to head. We even stuff meat with meat (kuftah!)

But veggies are so easy to make into a colorful and tasty meal. You can even skip the meat if you like and just add a bit of onion and perhaps garlic to spice up the filling.

Just remember that when it comes to stuffability, fatter is better. Walk past those long, skinny cukes that make salads crunchy and lavish your attention on the plump, seedy ones. They're much easier to scoop out, and they hold lots more dolma goodness. 

The Vegetables:

Select an assortment of your favorite fresh vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, cabbage leaves - anything that can be stuffed. Wash them, scoop out their centers, and rinse the insides with lightly salted water. Set aside until ready to stuff.

The Filling:

1 1/2 to 2 lbs ground lamb (American lamb, if you can find it, is the best. Ground beef or even ground turkey can be used.)
3/4 cup to 1 cup rice, uncooked
1/2 of a 6-oz can tomato paste, diluted in 1/2 cup water
salt, pepper, paprika to taste
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
3/4 cup chopped parsley
Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl, mixing with 
your hands.

The Sauce:
1/3 cup dried sumac berries
dash of salt and sugar
1/2 of a 6-oz can tomato paste
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
3 cups water

1. Place the sumac berries in a tea strainer - or - wrap in cheesecloth and tie closed with twine.
2. Combine the sauce ingredients in a saucepan, and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat.
3. Simmer for 20-30 minutes. Discard sumac berries.

To Assemble and Cook:
1. Fill the cavity of each prepped vegetable about 1/2-way with the meat-rice stuffing. Don't fill completely; leave room for rice to expand.
2. Place stuffed vegetables side-by-side in a large pot.
3. Pour sauce over the veggies. Place a small dish on top of the vegetables, then put small pot of water on top of the dish to hold the vegetables down during cooking.
4. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook for about 45 minutes, until rice and vegetables are tender.
5. Allow Dolma to rest for 1/2 hour before serving.

To serve:
Dolma is best served with thick, cold plain yogurt, and soft Armenian lavash bread or pita bread.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sumac: Poison or Spice?

Sumac berries
Poison or spice? It depends.

I knew to stay away from poison sumac (poison oak) because I learned that from my parents - especially when we had picnics on Garrett Mountain.

It wasn't until I was learning the fine art of making dolma that I was introduced to the other sumac.

Sumac, the SPICE...
Should not be confused with the poisonous plant even though they are closely related.

Non-poisonous sumac is a berry that grows on a bush that grows wild in Mediterranean regions, and is a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine.

You probably won't find sumac in your everyday supermarket, but it's a
regular feature on the shelves of Middle Eastern stores.

Its tart taste lends itself nicely as a substitute for lemon or vinegar.

Sumac is most often used in soups, stews, marinades, rice recipes, dolma (stuffed vegetables), dips, salads, salad dressings, or as a rub for meats.

If you happen to dine in a Persian or Middle Eastern restaurant, you're likely to find a shaker on the table filled with ground sumac, much like the shakers of Parmesan cheese you see in Italian eateries.

Friday, April 24, 2009

In memory

Today we join Armenians around the world in marking the 94th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which claimed the lives of up to 1.5 million people.

We remember not only our own loss, but all the innocent victims of all the genocides that have occurred since.

We pray that the world will have the courage to stand firm and banish forever this most inhuman of all human crimes.
-- Robyn and Doug

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fire up your dishes with red pepper paste

Now that you know how to make red pepper paste, I'll share some ideas on how to use it in everyday fare.

Yeranuhe Nanny (my mom's mom) used red pepper paste in her Armenian specialty recipes of Musa Dagh - kufta (stuffed meatballs), banerov hatz (cheese-onion bread), samsag (a pototo-cheese filled turnover, of sorts).

I'll share those with you another time. For now, here's one of her simpler recipes, and a few other suggestions on how you might use red pepper paste to jazz-up more common recipes.

Nanny's Armenian Potato Salad
Yield: Serves 4

1 to 1 1/2 lbs. potatoes, boiled, peeled and sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tsp. red pepper paste, diluted with a little water
cumin, allspice, salt and pepper, to taste
about 2 Tbsp. olive oil
lemon juice, optional

1. In a small bowl, mix the red pepper paste with a little water to thin it out. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, onion, parsley, diluted red pepper paste, and seasonings. Add olive oil; gently toss. Adjust seasonings, if needed. Add a little lemon juice, if desired.
3. Serve at room temperature, or chilled.

Ways to Use Red Pepper Paste:
1. Stir it into small-curd cottage cheese, add a little dried oregano and olive oil. Blend well. Use as a spread.
2. Add to a basic Hummus recipe.
3. Add to green beans.
4. Put some into a meatloaf mixture, or hamburger patties.
5. Combine with some olive oil, then add to cooked pasta or pasta salad.
6. Add to tomato sauce or tomato soup.
7. Add to vegetable soup or other soups.

Use your imagination! You'll find that making the paste is worth the effort.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Armenian secret ingredient! Ssshhh...

Red pepper paste is one of those secret ingredients that a cook might neglect to mention when sharing the recipe with someone else.

My maternal grandmother, Yeranuhe Nanny, used red pepper paste in many of her homeland recipes - from Sarma Gurgood(Tabbouleh), to Banerov Hatz (Cheese Bread), to potato salad - or whatever recipe she fancied.
My Grandmother's recipe for Sarma Gurgood

She wasn’t sneaky ; she mentioned the use of red pepper paste whenever someone wanted her recipe. What she didn’t tell them was that you had to MAKE it yourself!

Sure, today you can buy the paste in some Middle Eastern stores, but not many of them carry it, so you might still have to make it if you want to capture the true essence of Nanny’s recipes .

As a child I’d watch Nanny toil over the preparation. She’d go to the farmer’s market and buy several bushels of red peppers at the peak of their season, when prices were low.

She’d cut them, remove the seeds, wash them, then hand-grind the peppers. Then she cooked the ground peppers in a large pot until the liquid was evaporated. The next step was to spread the pepper mash onto baking sheets and sun-dry them for 1 to 3 days depending on the heat and humidity.

Nanny sat outside, guarding her trays against flies and other insects, or change in weather. If there was a threat of rain, she’d quickly snatch the trays and haul them upstairs to her kitchen.

The paste was ready when it turned a brownish-red color, and the consistency was more like tomato paste. Nanny would place the paste in small sterilized jars, put a little olive oil on top, tightly cover the jars, and refrigerate the amount that would be used soon.

The rest went into the freezer for year-round use.

Here’s a modern spin on the original red pepper paste recipe.

Red Pepper Paste

6 large red bell peppers
½ tsp. cayenne pepper (add more if you want more heat, but be careful!)
1 tsp. salt
Olive oil

1. Wash the peppers, and remove the seeds, and white membrane.
2. Chop into small pieces.
3. Grind in a food processor, using the metal S-blade. Squeeze out any excess liquid from the peppers.
4. Spread the ground peppers in a large skillet, stir in the salt and cayenne pepper, and bring to a boil.
5. Reduce heat to a simmer, cook, stirring periodically for about 45 minutes, or until the pepper mixture begins to resemble a thick paste.
6. Spoon the red pepper paste into small, sterilized jars. Pour a little olive oil over the top of the paste. Cover tightly, and refrigerate.

At this point you can freeze the red pepper paste. The trick is to use plastic ice cube trays. Place about a tablespoonful of paste in each ice cube compartment.

Cover with heavy freezer wrap, and place trays in freezer. When ready to use, remove the number of red pepper paste cubes you need and defrost in the refrigerator. Keep the other “cubes” frozen until needed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Borag, bereg, boreg...they all spell delicious!

Nothing Armenian is ever simple.

No matter the dish, the pronunciation as well as the recipe will vary depending on the chef's regional roots. In the case of cheese borags (or boregsberegs, or boeregs...), there's also a question of where they belong on the menu.

For most Armenians, cheese borags are a savory appetizer. But for some, they're sprinkled with sugar and served for dessert.

The good news is that this is a delicious dilemma with no wrong choice.

These days, variations in the recipe also hinge on what cheeses are available. We use cheeses that were unheard of in the Old Country for two reasons: 1) We're not usually up at dawn making Armenian cheese, as our grandmothers were. 2) We like them.

Once you learn the technique, you can fold-in almost anything you want. We've included a spinach-and-cheese filling recipe below. Or you can skip the cheese and try meat with onions, another popular choice.

The following recipe was handed down from my brother-in-law’s mother, Nartouhe Hourdajian.

Traditional Cheese Borags
Yield: approx. 30 appetizers

8 - oz. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (Muenster cheese can also be used)
1 - 15 oz. container ricotta cheese
4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
1 egg, slightly beaten

1- 1 lb. pkg. Fillo dough, thawed

Melted butter, about 1/2 stick

Filling Directions:

1. In a bowl, combine the Monterey Jack, ricotta, and feta cheeses with the beaten egg, blending well.
2. Set aside.

Fillo dough Preparation:

Take the dough out of the refrigerator about 15 minutes before using.
Once fillo dough is exposed to air, it dries out very quickly, becomes brittle, and is impossible to use. Be sure to have plastic wrap and a damp towel ready to cover the dough to keep it pliable while you fold the borags.

Folding the Borags:

1. Cut the fillo dough in half, lengthwise. Use one half sheet for each borag. Cover the other sheets first with plastic wrap, then the damp towel, while folding each borag.
2. Fold each half sheet in half lengthwise. Brush surface with melted butter.
3. For each borag, place a spoonful of filling at the end of the folded dough that’s closest to you. Begin folding, as though you were folding a flag - on the diagonal from corner to corner, creating a triangular shape. If there is extra dough at the top, just trim it off or tuck it under.
4. Continue to do this until you run out of filling - or dough.
5. Keep the folded borags covered with plastic wrap.

NOTE: At this point, you can prepare the borags for freezing by placing them in a plastic container large enough to hold the amount you are preparing, making sure you use plastic wrap or waxed paper between each stacked layer to prevent the borags from sticking together. Cover
tightly with the lid, label, date, & freeze.

Baking the Borags:
1. Melt about ½ stick of butter.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
3. Brush the top of each borag with melted butter.
4. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.

What do you do with leftover fillo dough? Return it to it’s original wrapper, seal it tightly, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Leftover cheese filling can be spread on bread then heated under the broiler. There’s raw egg in the mixture, so cook before eating!

Cheese Borag Bites

1.Use the same cheese filling as above.

NOTE: Instead of using regular fillo dough sheets, use prepared mini-fillo cups (sold in packages of 15). They can be found in the freezer section of most grocery stores.

2. Fill each cup almost to the top with the filling. The amount of cheese filling given in this recipe will fill about 3 boxes of the mini-fillo cups - about 45.
3. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 10 - 12 minutes.

Variation: Spinach Borags

  • 1- 10 oz. pkgs. Frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and drained
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • ½ lb. cottage cheese, drained
  • ¼ lb. feta cheese, crumbled
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • 3 Tbsp. fresh dill, chopped
Combine all of the ingredients thoroughly.
Follow the steps above for filling and baking the borags.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Phyllo or Fillo? Either way, it's jolly good!

It doesn’t matter which way you spell it, but please: Pronounce it "fee-low."

"Phyllo" means leaf in Greek. In culinary terms, fillo is a paper-thin pastry dough that’s used in an array of recipes ranging from appetizers, entrees, and desserts.

The good news is that fillo dough is a healthy substitute for pie crust or puff pastry because it is low in fat, sodium and calories, and has no trans fat or cholesterol.

Working with fillo dough:

The manufacturers of commercial fillo dough recommend the following techniques for working with the sheets of dough:
1. Allow the frozen dough to thaw at room temperature in the wrapper for about 2 hours before using.
Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and remove it from the refrigerator when you begin to prepare the filling ingredients.
2. Remove the rolled dough carefully from the box; unroll it, and lay it on a clean, flat surface.
3. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, THEN, a damp towel.
(NOTE: If you don’t place the plastic wrap on the dough first, it will become one soggy mess!)
4. Keep dough covered until ready to use, as the sheets will become brittle very quickly, and will be impossible to use.

What can you make with fillo dough?

The Greeks use fillo dough to make baklava, spanakopita (spinach pie), and tiropita (cheese-filled triangles) - those are known as cheese boregs in Armenian circles.

Other classic Armenian recipes which use fillo dough include paklava (somewhat lighter than the Greek recipe) and boorma, same ingredients as paklava, but it’s lighter and has a unique shape.
Phyllo stuffed with Kufteh filling
Apple-phyllo boregs
Don’t limit yourself to the few recipes I just mentioned . Use your imagination! You can make strudels, napoleons, tarts, pot pies, and even pizzas using fillo!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Nobody can out-mussel Armenians

My first encounter with midia dolma was in autumn 1968 at an upscale Armenian wedding reception on Long Island.
Midia Dolma
It wasn't a large affair, but it was lavish. The reception was catered by an Armenian restaurant in New York City that had a fabulous reputation; the food was impeccable. 

I had just turned 19. My younger brother, Drew, and I were lingering around the buffet table filled with luscious appetizers, eyeballing a platter of something we'd never seen before - mussel shells stuffed with mussels, rice, something that looked like little raisins, and pine nuts.

It looked intriguing, but we hesitated. One of the older guests assured us it was worth tasting, so we figured "what the heck." One bite was all it took! The flavors were unique, and addictive.

Drew and I couldn't get enough. A platter would arrive; we'd polish it off. This went on for a platter or two more. We finally had our fill, and feeling a little guilty, decided we'd better let others have some, too.

I mentioned to my Aunt Arpie that I'd love to make this recipe, but it looked like so much work. Lucky for me she had a short-cut recipe that she shared.

I've been using it for years. Now I'll share it, too.

Midia Dolma - the easy way!


1 large onion, finely chopped

¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup rice
1 cup combined of water & mussel juice
(Note: I use canned mussels for this recipe; it’s so easy! Drain as much liquid from the canned mussels as you can, then add enough water to make 1 cup)
1 large or 2 small cans of mussels in brine, NOT marinated mussels
Salt to taste
Dash ground black pepper
½ tsp. allspice
½ tsp. cinnamon or to taste (Warning! Too much cinnamon can make the recipe bitter.)
½ cup dried currants or raisins
(Note: If using raisins instead of currants, chop them)
1/2 cup pine nuts
Juice of one lemon


1. In a medium saucepan, sauté onion in oil until softened, but not brown.

2. Add rice and water-mussel juice combination to the onion.
3. Add seasonings. Mix. Cover and cook until rice is tender (about 15-20 minutes).
4. While rice is cooking, rinse and de-beard the mussels. Set aside.
5. Add currants and pine nuts to cooked rice. Gently fold in the mussels.
6. Adjust seasonings, if necessary.
7. Add lemon juice to the mixture.
8. Cover and chill until ready to serve. For best flavor, make a day in advance.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Tiny, sweet and chewy. Mmmm...

You’ve probably eaten dried currants and didn’t even realize it. They look like plain-old raisins but are smaller with an intense flavor. In fact, they are a unique kind of raisin -- the dried fruit of the Zante grape originally from Corinth, Greece.

Dried currants are not the same as the fresh currant berry, which is related to the gooseberry. Dried currants are most commonly used as a snack food, in cereal, in stuffing, and in baked goods, such as scones, cookies, muffins, and rolls.

Dried currants are also used are often used in Middle Eastern and some Italian recipes, as well.

Dried currants are bountiful in grocery stores and specialty shops during the Thanksgiving to New Year holiday season. Other times you might find them in Middle Eastern and Italian shops. If all else fails, there’s always the Internet.

Need dried currants in a hurry, but can’t find them? Don’t despair; chopped raisins will do in a pinch.

Once a box of dried currants has been opened, they will keep in the refrigerator for up to six months, if properly re-sealed.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Years ago, the Big Apple tasted Armenian

Armenian food was everyday food when I was growing up, but it could also be something mysterious and special if it involved a trip to a restaurant.

There were no Armenian restaurants in New Jersey, at least that I remember, but there were plenty in the far-off and forbidding land known as New York City.

Technically, Midtown Manhattan was only two or three miles from our front door, but the Hudson River might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean as far as my parents were concerned.

To my mother, who lived and worked in New Jersey all her adult life, New York was a crazy place full of crazy people who were best avoided. To my father, a world traveler who had lived and toiled in far crazier places, New York was simply a pain. The roar and bustle that inspired others to write symphonies just gave him a headache.

I first heard about the Armenian restaurants of New York from Uncle Arpag, my father's best friend and adopted brother. He'd sometimes make the rounds on Saturday night, then recount the evening over coffee at our house on Sunday morning.

It all sounded exotic, especially the talk of nightclubs with bellydancers. (I thought they only existed on the cover of certain record albums that were kept out of reach.)

I knew the food was real because he always brought me some. I was probably 8 or 9 when Uncle Arpag surprised my father with a tinfoil tray of midia dolma, black mussels stuffed with rice and currants. I'd never seen or tasted anything like it.

To everyone's surprise, I fell in love at first bite. From then on, Uncle Arpag made a point of bringing them for me.

My father's aversion to New York travel eased just enough by the time I was in my teens to allow for a rare family trip to a museum or special event. The occasion was always marked by a visit to an Armenian restaurant.

I particularly remember the Dardanelles, a small and very New York down-the-steps place near The Village. The Ararat, somewhat larger and farther uptown. But most especially, I remember The Golden Horn, a lavish and impressive place in Midtown that seemed by far the most upscale of Armenian eateries.

Everything at these restaurants tasted special because it was different from the Armenian food my mother made. The seasonings, the textures, even the names on the menu were all just a little off kilter but not in a bad way. And like midia dolma, some things were not familiar at all.

My favorite discovery was the Golden Horn's ekmek kadayif, a dessert that featured the sweetest honey drizzled over an impossibly rich layer of cream nearly as thick as butter. The technique was said to involve standing on a ladder and dripping cream slowly into a pan.

"My madzoon is just as thick, and I don't have to stand on a ladder," my mother insisted. She was right on both counts, but I could have her home-made yogurt any day. From my first taste, I made sure ekmek kadayif was added to Uncle Arpag's take-out menu.

By the time I met and married Robyn, I was working in Manhattan but the Armenian restaurants were all off my usual path. We drove into The City just once to have dinner at The Dardanelles. (I'd practiced ordering in Armenian but the waiter just looked at me, puzzled. I figured my Armenian was even worse than I imagined until I noticed his name tag read "Julio.")

Soon after that, we moved to Florida. On a trip back North in the mid 1980s, I was determined to take Robyn and our daughter Mandy to some of the restaurants I remembered. But they were all gone, and not much has come to take their place.

It puzzles me. I understand changing demographics and shifting tastes, but how can a city that boasts of being so cosmopolitan be so lacking in Armenian cuisine?

For me, a trip to Manhattan will never be quite as special without dinner at an Armenian restaurant. My wife makes wonderful midia dolma, but she draws the line at standing on a ladder.

So I'll have to go on missing ekmek kadayif, which is a shame for my taste buds but probably a plus for my arteries.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tools of the Trade

Too many kitchens are cluttered with stuff that isn’t needed, or tools & equipment that are either broken or down-right cheaply made.

Be honest, how many of you have a “mystery” drawer that you’re afraid to open?

With so many gizmos & gadgets on today‘s market, setting up the kitchen with necessary tools can be daunting. What exactly does one need to prepare food efficiently?

There are two major factors to consider when setting up your kitchen: quality items and organization.

Buy good quality items the first time around (or, better yet, select them for your bridal registry to receive as gifts!). It’ll be cheaper in the long-run because you won’t end up throwing away inferior tools. Also, know how much space you can spare to store an item before buying. Remember, if you can’t store it, don’t buy it!

If you break the kitchen into sections, organizing is pretty easy no matter what size space you have.

Think of each section as “stations,” and we‘ll determine what you actually need in each:

Preparation station: (2) cutting boards, good-quality knives: paring knife (2-4 in blade), utility knife (5-7 in blade) Chef’s or French knife (8-14 in blade), boning knife (5-7 in blade), slicing knife; a good knife sharpener (electric or non-electric), a food processor &/or blender. (An immersion blender is fun to have, but it isn’t an absolute necessity.)

Baking station: 1 set each, measuring spoons, dry measuring cups, liquid measuring cups, mixing bowls; rolling pin; bench scraper; (at least) 2 baking (cookie) sheets; 2 cooling racks, 2 - 8” cake pans, pie pan, 8”x8” square pan, 9”x13” pan, muffin pan, electric mixer - hand or stand model.

Cooking station : a good quality set of cookware - 7” or 8", 10", 12” skillets- with lids, 1 qt, 2 qt and 3 qt. saucepans, 4 qt, 6 qt, 8 qt pots (with lids), large roasting pan with a rack.

Hand Tools:

Rubber spatulas

Hand can opener

Wire whisk

Spatulas (bent edge and straight edge spatulas in various sizes)


Slotted spoon


Long handled fork (Chef's fork)

Pastry brush

Wooden spoon set

Box grater

Zester (or microplane)

Colander and/or strainer

Miscellaneous Tools:

Dowel (for making boorma pastries) This can be purchased at a home improvement center.

Vegetable scoop/corer (for making dolma) Note: This tool is about 10 inches long, a 4 inch wooden handle with a 6 inch, thin, curved, serrated cutting edge attached to it. It’s used to scoop out long, thin vegetables, such as zucchini, and can be purchased in well-stocked Middle Eastern stores.

Click on Armenian Kitchen Essentials for a breakdown of tools and their uses.

Click on Tools for the Armenian Kitchen to see and learn more about what every good cook needs!