Sunday, May 31, 2009

Calling all Kharpertsis!!!

A reader from Massachusetts asked if I knew anything about “koolunja.” He said it is a type of chorag made by Armenians from Kharpert that’s drier, denser and more triangular than the usual braided chorag.

After doing a bit of research, my husband turned up the similar-sounding “kalonji,"which are black seeds. Since black seeds are often an ingredient in chorag recipes, we came to the
conclusion that “koolunja” simply refers to these seeds.

If any readers of The Armenian are familiar with “koolunja," please write a comment at the end of this blog, sharing any additional information, or e-mail, and I will relay your message to all.

Thanks for your help!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Boorma: Paklava’s deliciously delicate cousin (Be sure to check out the VIDEO!)

If you like paklava, you’ll LOVE boorma.

Boorma, also spelled 'bourma', is made from the same ingredients as paklava, but with a unique shape, lighter taste and more delicate texture.
Aunt Arpie's Boorma
My aunt Arpie Vartanesian has always been the boorma-maker in our family. I figured it was time to learn, so I asked her to show me the technique.

For some reason, I always thought there was some great mystery behind making boorma, but, as it turns out, it’s really a cinch - as long as you have the right tool.

What tool? A wooden dowel (about 3/8“ in diameter and 18“ long), the kind that you can purchase at a home improvement center, is the key to shaping boorma. Auntie Arpie’s dowel was handed down from her mother, so it has made many-a boorma.

The recipe is pretty simple. Auntie Arpie graciously prepared the recipe on camera for all to enjoy.

So click here to see the VIDEO on YouTube and come along as we watch Auntie Arpie make this classic Armenian dessert.


1- 1 lb. pkg. fillo dough, at room temperature
1 lb. chopped walnuts or pistachio nuts
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
3 sticks unsalted butter, melted

1. Lay out the fillo dough on a work surface. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the dough and then a slightly moistened towel on top of the plastic wrap. This will keep the dough from becoming brittle while you work.
2. Mix the chopped nuts, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl.
3. Take a single fillo sheet and fold it in half. Brush with melted butter, especially the edges.
4. Sprinkle a tablespoon of the nut mixture all over the dough.
5. Place the dowel on top of the dough at the end closest to you, and loosely roll the dowel away from you.
6. With one hand on either end of the dough, squeeze inward toward the middle, crinkling the dough.
7. Gently slide it off the dowel, and place on a greased baking sheet.
8. Continue to do this until all fillo sheets and filling are used.
9. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until boorma is golden brown.
10. Cool completely.
11. Once the boorma is cooled, drizzle each one with simple syrup just before serving. The boorma will be slightly sweet, and crispy.

Simple Syrup

2 cups sugar
1 cup water
A drop of lemon juice

Heat the sugar & water in a saucepan, until sugar is dissolved, then add
lemon juice. Cool until ready to use.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cardamom: A taste of ancient Armenia

To children, the lure of coffee has always been one of the great adult mysteries: How could it be that the strong, bitter taste never justified all the begging and pleading required to get a sip from Mom's cup.

To Armenian kids, an even greater mystery was the other coffee (the one that everyone we knew called Turkish coffee) served in those dainty little cups. Even more than the coffee itself, we were both fascinated by the little paper-like balls of cardamom floating in each cup, their exotic perfume rising with the coffee's steam.

Usually, they were discarded like used tea bags after imparting their flavor, but Doug remembers his father occasionally chewing cardamom even without coffee. Armenians, he said, believed it was good for digestion.

We aren't alone in attributing medicinal benefits to cardamom. It was thought throughout the ancient world to have almost mystical properties. The Roman poet Ovid wrote that the legendary Phoenix "does not live on seeds and herbs, but on drops of incense, and the sap of the cardamom plant."

And while praising differing varieties of cardamom from around the world, the Greek botanist and healer Dioscorides recommended cardamom from Armenia.

These days, we're happy enough to find cardamom in the supermarket. It is sold in its pod, as seeds, or in ground form.

Cardamom’s flavor keeps best in pods; however, the seeds - when freshly ground - are quite robust. If you purchase cardamom in ground form, buy it in small quantities, as it loses its flavor quickly.

Cardamom has a unique taste: sweet-spicy, floral and somewhat similar to ginger. It’s more expensive than more common spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, but a little goes a long way.

Cardamom works well in baked goods (cookies, cakes), in coffee (even American coffee), in curries, citrus salads, in fall and winter squash recipes, lentil recipes, and with poultry and meat (generally as a rub).

A very simple recipe

This dry rub mix comes from Chef Cat Cora, a Food Network chef of Greek descent:
Combine ground cardamom, coriander and fennel. Use this as a dry rub on lamb before roasting.

Another simple and refreshing recipe:

Cardamom-Orange-Berry Salad
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
6 navel oranges (or whatever combination of oranges you like)
1 cup strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced (You can use your favorite berry in this)
1 to 2 Tbsp. honey (amount used depends on the sweetness of the fruit)
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (lime juice can be used, also)
¼ tsp. ground cardamom

1. Working over a bowl, peel and section the oranges. Save any juice that collects in the bowl; it will be used to prepare a sauce for the fruit.
2. Place the orange segments and sliced strawberries in a serving bowl. Set aside.
3. In a saucepan, combine the juice from the oranges, honey, lemon
juice, and cardamom. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Cool.
4. Pour sauce over the orange-berry mixture. Gently toss to coat fruit with sauce.
5. Chill or serve immediately.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Armenian Independence Day

Today is the 91st anniversary of Armenia's independence, a day we mark with bitter-sweet memories and an asterisk.

The birth of the Democratic Republic of Armenia on May 28, 1918 almost defies belief, coming a mere three years after the devastating peak of the Armenian Genocide. Tiny, impoverished, awash in hunger and disease, Armenia had no logical claim to existence.

Yet, it did exist -- like a dream to the tattered refugees who found shelter there.

And like a dream, it ended suddenly. The Republic fell in December 1920, crushed between Turkish and Soviet armies.

The asterisk is required because Armenia has two Independence Days. The current Republic of Armenia came into being on Sept. 21, 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Armenians around the world still pause to remember the tragically short yet inspiring story of the First Republic, a reminder that miracles can be made to happen.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pork: The other Armenian meat

We went to a local barbecue joint last week with our favorite dining-out partners. They're both Jewish but they don't keep a kosher kitchen.

However, they explained early in our friendship that they do honor tradition by abstaining from pork.

So we were taken aback when they each ordered a half-slab of baby back ribs. I wondered: What do they think they're eating?

The husband must have sensed my curiosity as he eagerly chewed his way to the bone.

"Some things are just so good, you have to make an exception," he said.


As Christians, Armenians have no religious prohibition against pork, but it was off the menu for 600-or-so years under Muslim Turkish rule. So the first Armenian immigrants to America brought no pork recipes -- really, no familiarity at all with such All-American fare as ham or bacon, much less deep-fried pork rinds.

Armenians, however, are fast learners.

My mother recalled that her father, the Kharpertsi chef, always made pork chops for dinner on Fridays. I wondered if he was thumbing his nose at the Turks, or maybe just having a bit of fun with his Catholic neighbors, who were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays.

Or maybe he just liked pork chops.

Mom did, too -- and her favorite side dish with pork chops was leftover spaghetti. I can't explain it, but it's a combo that just works. Years later, I was astounded to discover that Robyn's father had a yen for the same pairing. It must be an Armenian thing, somehow.

My own taste for pork chops has waned a bit through the years as pork has changed with the times.

The new breeds are much leaner, which means they don't taste quite as irresistibly fatty and they don't cook up quite as tender (except for the tenderloin) unless you take the time to marinate and cook them slowly.

Which makes them perfect for...kebab!

Of course, the Armenians in Armenia discovered this a while back. Pork muzzled into the Armenian diet during the Soviet era, and now it's a staple. We've been told that pork is the default meat for khorovatz (Armenian for shish kebab, or roasted meat) sold by street vendors in Yerevan.

I couldn't wait to try it. No really, I couldn't wait until we finally get to Armenia, so I made it myself.

And it was great, if I do say so.

I wouldn't compare it to lamb -- nothing compares to lamb -- but it's a completely different taste and texture that stands up very well on its own. Pork also lends itself very nicely to seasoning of all sorts.

One other note about today's pork: It has nearly shed its reputation as a "dirty" meat. Farmers long ago stopped feeding pigs scraps and trash and now use proper grain feed. As a result, trichinosis has declined dramatically.

This is encouraging some fancy-pants chefs to serve their pork pink. We say: No thanks! For safety, cooked pork should be white and the juices should run clear. The USDA recommends an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

Here's our recipe for pork shish kebab. What's yours?

Pork Kebab

1 boneless pork roast (or pork tenderloin) about 3 pounds
1 cup white wine
1 medium yellow or white onion, rough cut
1/4 cup chopped cilantro and/or parsley
1 Tbsp. ground coriander
1 Tsp. black pepper
olive oil

Cube the pork as you would any meat to be skewered, trimming away the fat
Place in a large bowl
Add the wine, the onions, cilantro and pepper
Mix thoroughly
Add 1 Tbsp. ground coriander seed
Mix again, cover and refrigerate

Allow to marinate overnight, mixing at least twice
Skewer the meat just before cooking. Brush with olive oil to keep the meat moist while grilling. Add salt to taste just before cooking.

Serve with roasted red or green peppers, onions and tomatoes. And, of course, pilaf!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fassoulia, Lupia: They both mean bean

My mother used to hum a little ditty when we were kids, a catchy tune. The words went something like this:

Yer-goo-shap-tee, Fa-ssoul-ia (repeat)

Then the chorus:
Fa-ssoul-ia- ia,- ia

Translation: Monday, beans.

I recall my brother & I laughing and dancing to the chorus!

When my mother was young, she & the other Armenian children in the Paterson, N.J. area had Armenian classes 3 afternoons a week. Their teacher, Nevart (Bakalian) Hajian, traveled from distant Newark to Paterson to teach them the language, songs and dances of Armenia.

The song mentioned above taught the days of the week. Each day was associated with a food, so this song cleverly served two purposes.

One of my all-time-favorite fassoulia recipes is green beans with ground lamb. To lighten the recipe, we sometimes use ground turkey, which turns out to be a suitable substitute.

Vegetarians will be happy to know this recipe translates well without any meat.

Fassoulia - Green Beans with Ground Meat
Yield: 6 servings

1 lb. ground, lamb, beef or turkey
2 Tbsp. oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 1/2 tsp. salt
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp. allspice
1 tsp. crushed dried basil
1 tsp. crushed dried oregano
1 clove garlic, minced
2lb. Fresh or frozen green beans or Italian pole beans (If using fresh green beans, trim the ends, and cut into 1 inch pieces)
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
3 oz. tomato paste, diluted in 1 cup water or stock

1. In a non-stick skillet, brown meat for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Drain any excess fat. Place meat in a bowl & set aside.
2. Using the same skillet, saute the onions in olive oil until soft and slightly brown.
3. Return the meat to the skillet with the onions. Add salt, pepper, allspice, basil, oregano, and garlic. Cover & cook 10 more minutes.
3. In a large pot, add the green beans. Pour the canned tomatoes, and the diluted tomato paste over the green beans; stir.
4. Add the meat mixture to the green beans. Mix together.
5. Bring to a gentle boil, then cover and simmer for 1 hour, or until beans are tender. Add a little more water or stock, as needed.
6. Serve with rice or bulgur pilaf.

SPECIAL NOTE: The fassoulia tastes even better the next day, after the flavors have a chance to intensify. Oh yes, a loaf of crusty bread goes great with this, too!

NOTE: If making this without meat, this dish can be served cold or at room temperature.

BONUS! Click How to make Fassoulia to see the video on YouTube!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Most people view Memorial Day as the beginning of the summer season, a 3-day weekend for fun, relaxation, and family barbecues.

In a sense, that’s true. But Memorial Day is meant to be a time to remember those who served in our armed forces to protect our country -- a day to thank those who gave their lives so future generations can enjoy the freedoms we hold dear.

And while the sacrifice of every American life is precious, we proudly note the contribution of Armenian-Americans in this nation's wars up to the present day. wishes you all a wonderful, safe Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Remembering The Great Armenian Race!

Today, as I guess no one has to be reminded, is the Indianapolis 500. All ready with the munchies?

Pistachios (check). Twisted cheese (check). Hummus (check).

What's that? You don't care about America's most famous automobile race?

Well, I don't really care either.

But did you know that there was a time -- 1952, to be exact -- when two Armenians dominated the Indy 500?

Fred Agabashian, a California racer, stunned the crowd by winning the pole. Not only was Agabashian an outsider at Indy, he was driving the Cummins Diesel Special. Nobody figured a diesel-powered car could top the speed charts, not even with one of those new-fangled turbochargers.

Agabashian's pole speed of just over 138 miles an hour sounds slow compared to this year's 223-plus, but it was scary fast in the age of skinny tires and skimpy helmets.

Unfortunately for Fred, that speed-pumping turbocharger got all gummed up during the race and he didn't finish. The winner was Troy Ruttman.

But what about that second Armenian? Ruttman's car owner was legendary race promoter/pig farmer J.C. Agajanian! It was the first of two Indy victories for the cars known as Agajanian Specials.

Unfortunately, there's no Agajanian Special in today's race. J.C.'s son entered a car but it failed to qualify. So Armenian race fans will just have to wait a while for a reason to cheer.

Actually, about three weeks.

One of the favorites to win France's 24 Hours of LeMans next month is Nicolas Minassian. And that's not just my humble opinion. Nick and his Peugeot teammates won the major lead-up race, the 1000 km of Spa, earlier this month.

So get the munchies ready!

Basturma! (Check)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gardening and Grilling- a young Armenian man’s touch

I met Taniel Koushakjian when he was about 5 years old. I’ve known his mother, Arlys since she was 14 and I was 15. I guess you can say we go way back.

Like our daughter Mandy, Taniel is an only child, so the two of them grew up together in our small Armenian community in Boca Raton, FL. Taniel graduated from the high school where I was teaching Culinary classes, although he never signed on as one of my students. I supposed he would have felt awkward since we knew each other so well.

Taniel has grown into a fine young man, working in Washington,
D.C. as the Director of Grassroots, Armenian Assembly of America.

Arlys, being a proud mother, recently forwarded me photos of Taniel’s D.C. garden - Armenian cucumbers, watermelon, mint, to name a few -- and food for the grill. (Taniel says he's loves to cook now, particularly marinating and grilling, but that he wasn't ready to learn while in high school. Now I understand!)

The photo above shows Taniel holding shish kebab he prepared with his Armenian roommates, Nick Bazarian and Joe Piatt
for their annual Easter BBQ.

Taniel said that he 's been holding the Easter BBQ for Armenians who are in D.C. without family. About 20-30 people come by throughout the day, the ladies doing the pilaf, hummus, boregs, string cheese, etc., while all lend a helping hand with everything.

No matter how hectic it is working in the Nation’s Capitol, there's always time for gardening and grilling.

I’m proud of you Taniel! You’re a man after my own heart.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Watermelon is a big Armenian tradition

If I say "Armenian fruit," you say... Apricot? Pomegranate? Quince?

All good answers. But why not watermelon?

Melons of various types are traditional Armenian favorites, and watermelon is near the top of most everyone's list.

My father-in-law had vivid memories of the enormous watermelons that grew in his native Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir, Turkey). Twenty-pounders are a common sight there along the fertile banks of the Tigris River.

Armenians make a sweet candy out of the rind, but doesn't everybody enjoy the sweet meat of the melon all by itself?'s kind of funny, but plenty of Armenians don't.

Like all fruits in Armenia -- and unlike much of what we find in American supermarkets -- watermelons are notably sweet. Many Armenians have a tradition of balancing sweetness with salt. So fruit is often eaten with salted cheese. Some even sprinkle salt right on the melon.

Watching your sodium? Here's another Armenian way to add a counterpoint to watermelon's sweetness: Mint.

Chop up a few springs of fresh mint and sprinkle over melon slices. It's a perfect marriage of flavors.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

When Armenians loved picnics

Unlike most Americans, I've never associated picnics with hot dogs and burgers. To me, a picnic just isn't a picnic unless there's some form of kebab involved.

The reason is simple: When I was a kid, I never went on a picnic with anyone who wasn't Armenian.

The tradition of Armenian picnics in America goes back to the first major wave of immigration in the years just before and after World War One. Fleeing persecution in their homeland, many of these Armenians crowded into boarding houses and tenements in factory towns of the Midwest and Northeast where there was no place to roast a lamb -- even if they could afford a lamb to roast.

Like other immigrants, they also gladly worked seven days a week (if they could find work). So a simple picnic involved a collusion of circumstances as rare as a solar eclipse: a day off, a nearby park and a bounty of food. What an occasion to celebrate!

My father was never much for nostalgia, but he once shared a poignant memory of his first picnic in America. This was shortly after arriving here in the spring of 1928, after six years in an orphanage for Armenian refugees in Greece.

He remembered that the park in New Jersey had a crude merry-go-round of the sort that children propelled with their feet. Dad was 16, but he eagerly climbed on and whirled away the time with kids half his age.

"I didn't want to get off," he said. "It was the first time in my life that I ever played like a kid."

Even when a breeze of post-Depression prosperity lifted them from the tenements, many Armenians still lacked yards big enough to hold the entire family much less all the neighbors. So picnics in the park remained an important social occasion.

At left is my favorite Armenian picnic photo, a gathering of the vast Nalbandian clan (my Mom's family on her mother's side) in New Jersey sometime in the 1940s. This is a little before my time, but not that much so I knew almost everyone in (and out of) the frame. They're a wonderful family -- warm, fun, loving. But boy, do they look miserable?

Get a load of Uncle Hagop! I'm guessing he'd had a long week working in his grocery store and plenty to do to prepare for the long week ahead. He probably just wanted to go home and take a nap -- and who could blame him?

In one of those too-strange-to-be-fiction moments, Robyn and I discovered the night we met that the Nalbandians are also her relatives (although we were happy to discover that we're not related). It was one of the many connections and parallels in our lives.

We grew up about 12 miles apart and had remarkably similar immersions in Armenian religious and social traditions. And we both fondly remember Armenian picnics. In fact, we were undoubtedly at the same Armenian picnics at times, although we don't remember meeting until we were adults.

I know we were both at picnics in Schuetzen Park in North Bergen, although Robyn logged more kebab time at Paterson's Garret Mountain.

My favorite picnics as a kid were at Camp Haiastan (literally Camp Armenia) in Franklin, Mass. After a week of eating institutional food in the mess hall, campers and counselors both sprinted up the hill to the picnic grounds at the first whiff of burning charcoal every Sunday.

The food was only part of the fun. Armenian bands played, and dance lines wove their way among the tables and trees.

But my most vivid Armenian picnic memory is pre-camp, back when I was six or seven. My father drove us to Hudson County Park in his 1957 Plymouth station wagon, which had one of the world's first in-car tape players.

Of course, it was in-car only because my father carried it downstairs and hoisted it into the back of the wagon. It was a giagantic reel-to-reel machine, the sort of thing you see now only in old movies. He'd gotten a buddy to set it up to run off the car battery.

Dad fired up the grill, then turned on the music. The sound of scratchy old Shamlian records hissed through the big machine's speaker's. The men were drinking Scotch, the kebabs were sizzling and everyone was clapping.

And then -- boom! A thunderstorm erupted.

All around us, people were extinguishing fires and crying over half-cooked burgers. Dad and his pals picked up the grill, eased it into the back of the wagon and shut the tailgate.

We drove home with the tailgate window open, the kebabs still sizzling and Shamlian singing in the rain.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Homemade Madzoon (Yogurt to non-Armenians)

I don’t know of any Armenian family that hasn’t made homemade madzoon at one time or another.

I know how easy it is to BUY madzoon, but have you ever tasted the homemade variety? Well then, you’re in for a treat because I’m going to share my mother-in-law’s recipe with you. But be warned, it is NOT low-fat or low-cal.

You can fiddle with the recipe to lower the fat/calorie content, if you like, but you’ll be missing that WOW factor if you do. Give it a try - at least once, then decide which you’d rather have.

One thing you need to know before you start: You need to have yogurt to make yogurt.

If you’re doing this for the first time, buy a small container of plain yogurt that contains live and active culture. Once you make your first batch of yogurt, save about ½ cup to make your next batch.


3 Tbsp. yogurt culture
2 cups milk
2 cups half and half


1. Heat 1 ½ cups of the milk and 1 ½ cups of the half and half in a
large pot until it begins to foam. Be ready to move the pot off the
burner if it foams too much!
2. Pour the heated mixture into a large bowl. Stirring constantly, add
the unheated milk and half and half.
3. In a small bowl, blend the yogurt culture with a little of the milk mixture.
4. Combine the blended yogurt culture to the rest of the milk.
5. Cover the bowl with a plate, then wrap it in a large towel.
6. Place the bowl in a warm place for at least 4 hours or until thickened.
7. Place several layers of paper towels on the surface of the yogurt to
absorb excess liquid. Change the towels periodically.
8. Place bowl in the refrigerator. Chill.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Yogurt: An Ancient Food

People have been eating yogurt for something like 4,500 years. For 4,420 of those years, they had to make it themselves.

Then in 1929, commercially produced yogurt was introduced to Americans by Armenian immigrants Sarkis and Rose Colombosian, who started the Colombo and Sons Creamery in Andover, Massachusetts.

Yogurt became increasingly popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, when it was touted as a health food -- rich in protein, calcium, and B- vitamins.

Yogurt may help prevent osteoporosis, reduce the risk of high blood pressure, help relieve certain gastrointestinal problems, help discourage a particular female infection (I won‘t go into detail here!), and helps you feel full.

When purchasing commercially prepared yogurt, be sure the label mentions “live, active cultures,” which indicates a more natural, health-beneficial product.

Yogurt is a great substitute for sour cream, mayonnaise, or cream cheese. You can even add yogurt to biscuit or pancake recipes because the yogurt’s acid acts as a leavening agent, just be sure to reduce the amount of baking powder.

Ever hear of YOGURT CHEESE? Here’s how to make it:
1. Line a large strainer with cheesecloth or coffee filters. Set the strainer on top of a bowl or large liquid measuring cup.
2. Place 2 cups (more or less) of plain yogurt into the lined strainer.
3. Cover the top of the strainer with plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator - bowl and all- for up to 24 hours. The whey (liquid portion of the yogurt) will drip into the bowl. What will be left in the strainer is the curd, “yogurt cheese”.
4. The yield will be at least half the original amount of yogurt you started with.

Here are a few ways to use yogurt cheese:

* As a spread (add your favorite seasonings)
* As a dip with olive oil
* Shape into small balls and coat with sesame seeds (makes a nice appetizer)
* Mix with pasta to create a cream-like sauce
* Blend with sun-dried tomatoes or red roasted peppers in food processor, then spread on crackers, pita bread
* When making tuna or chicken salad, use instead of mayo.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Nutrition: It used to come naturally

If you take a walk through any American supermarket, you’ll find a small section of healthy foods.

High-fiber foods, such as dried beans and whole grain products take up very little space considering the square footage of the store.

The mainstay of the American diet is highly processed foods which are loaded with sodium and fat, including trans fat -- the really bad kind -- but are low in fiber and vital nutrients.

(Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them solid. For example, solid vegetable shortening which is used in commercially prepared desserts. Read the labels! If you see the phrase, “partially hydrogenated oil” listed, drop the package and run!)

The phrase “empty calories” comes to mind. These are found in foods which contain a lot of calories with little or no nutrition - donuts, for instance.

Walk into a Middle Eastern grocery store and here’s what you’ll find: shelf-after-shelf piled high with legumes, grains, whole wheat or whole grain products. Many specialty items are homemade, without a zillion preservatives and additives you can’t pronounce.

Face it, our grandparents ate a much healthier diet. Fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables - or produce that’s home-preserved for year-round use; a lot of whole grains and legumes, fish, poultry, meat on occasion.

Even their desserts were healthier. Many contained nuts, dried fruit,
and were sweetened with only a little honey or a touch of sugar.

Don’ forget exercise. Nanny and Baboog never joined a gym; they walked
everywhere and climbed those steep steps several times a day -- every day-- to their second floor home, carrying heavy melons and other healthy foods.

Guess it’s time for me to follow my grandparents' example. Eat right and exercise!

(Yikes, did I say that???)

Sunday, May 17, 2009


While visiting France, Doug's cousin Arsene took us to his daughter’s school end-of-the-year program -- a hantess, to Armenians. Arsene’s daughter, Marie-Luz, attended an Armenian day school outside Paris.

We’d been to many a hantess before, but never one like this. It started around 11 a.m. and didn’t wind down until about 10 p.m.
In June, each teacher and their students performed skits, recitations, dance routines, songs - you name it.

Generations of families set up camp for the day, bringing board games, such as
tavloo, extra tables and chairs, and a recipe to serve hundreds. Arsene was in charge of making the Hummus.

Doug and I figured he got off easy with this recipe, even though he’d have to make a huge amount -- just open a bunch of cans of chickpeas, and throw the rest of the ingredients into a blender, small batches at a time. Voila!

We were quite surprised when Arsene cleared the car out of his garage, set up a kettle as large as a tympani, and hooked up heating elements, the likes of which we’d never seen before.

When I asked why he was going to all this trouble, Arsene looked at me strangely and replied that it
would take three days to make hummus, and he needed the space to make as much as was needed. Don’t you make you hummus this way? He shuddered at the thought of making hummus using canned chickpeas. I’m sure he figured we were just being “lazy Americans.”

Doug & I looked at each other, thinking silently yet simultaneously, 3 DAYS??? Is he serious? Arsene was quite serious. He had to pick through the chickpeas for any stones or unsuitable beans, soak, strain, rinse, and cook them before he could even make the recipe.

Then he had to make tons of hummus, and refrigerate it for the flavors to blend, so it would be perfect come Hantess-time.
And it definitely was perfect, a clear hit with the large and hungry crowd.

Chickpeas are low in fat, and high in both fiber and protein. They make a nutritious and satisfying addition to soups and salads. Armenians use chickpeas in many ways, but none of our favorites require anything like three days or even three hours to prepare.
In fact, we're both particularly fond of roasted chickpeas -- and lazy enough to buy them already roasted. (You can find them in Italian groceries as well as Middle Eastern stores.) They're a healthy and filling snack that you can enjoy without guilt.

Chickpeas are also great on their own. Here's an easy way to prepare them:

Armenian Chickpea Salad

1 16-oz. can of chickpeas (also known as garbanzos)
three green onions, choppedjuice of 1/2 medium lemon
1/2 bunch chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. olive oil

and pepper to taste 1/4 tsp. paprika


Rinse and drain the chickpeas

Add parsley and onions

Add paprika

Season with salt and pepper to taste

Squeeze in the lemon juice
Add the oil

Toss and serve chilled.
Add fresh chopped garlic for a bit more bite!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bread: Our Staff of Life - and a recipe for Banerov Hatz (Cheese-Onion Bread)

Remembering Hatz Baboog got me thinking about the different breads that make meal-time or holidays so special.

There is one bread that my grandmother, Yeranuhe Nanny, made that was truly outstanding -- Banerov Hatz (Cheese-Onion Bread) -- another one of her labor-of-love recipes.

You knew a special event was just around the corner when Nanny started to chop so many onions. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

If you've never heard of Banerov Hatz, picture this: rectangular pizza dough rolled as thin or thick as you like, then smothered with some of the cheese-onion topping, baked until the dough is slightly crisp on the edges and golden on the bottom, the onions are tender, and the cheese is soft and slightly melted. The aroma is heavenly - and the taste, even better!
(FYI: My personal preference: thin crust.)
Nanny's Banerov Hatz (Onion-cheese Bread)

Banerov Hatz (Cheese-Onion Bread)
Yield: about 7 loaves

Dough Ingredients:
1 pkg. dry yeast
5 lb. bag pre-sifted flour
½ c. oil
1 ½ tsp salt
Water (about 5 cups)

Directions for dough preparation:
1. Dissolve yeast in ¼ cup lukewarm water.
2. In large bowl combine flour, oil, salt, dissolved yeast, and enough water to make a smooth dough. (The amount of water you use isn’t exact. There may be some trial-and error involved here.)
3. Knead dough for 5 minutes. Place in a large bowl.
4. Lightly oil the top of the dough. Cover, and let rise for 30 minutes to an hour.
5. Divide dough into 7 balls, keeping them covered until ready to use. (Short on time? Buy prepared pizza dough in your local grocery store!)

Cheese-Onion Topping Ingredients:
2 lbs cottage cheese
4 to 5 lbs finely chopped onions (Frozen, chopped onions that are defrosted can be used, but that’s cheating!)
4 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
½ cup parmesan cheese
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. allspice
½ tsp. paprika
3 Tbsp. dried oregano
3 Tbsp. red pepper paste (Note: Red pepper paste can be purchased in some Middle Eastern stores. If it is unavailable, you can use tomato paste, but something will be lost in the substitution.)
1 cup olive oil

Topping Directions:
1.Combine cottage cheese and some of the red pepper paste to achieve a reddish color.
2. In a separate bowl add onions, blue cheese, parmesan cheese, and seasonings, mixing well.
3. Add the cottage cheese and stir well.

Assembling Directions:
1. Lightly grease a large baking sheet.
2. Roll out one ball of dough into a rectangular shape large enough to fit into the baking sheet.
3. Spread cheese filling all over the dough.
4. Bake in a preheated 375°F oven until dough is golden brown on the bottom and around the edges (approx. 20 minutes).
5. Continue this procedure until all 7 loaves are done.
6. Cool each loaf completely.
7. To serve: cut into large squares (roughly 3“x3“).
8. To store: completely cool, cut each loaf into squares. Wrap and freeze. When ready to serve, defrost in the refrigerator, then heat in a 350°F oven until warm.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Remembering Bread Grandfather (Hatz Baboog)

As I was chatting with my sister, Dawn, we were recalling our early childhood living on the first floor of our grandparents’ home in New Jersey, The Garden State.

The street we lived on in our early years in Clifton, NJ
We were fortunate to have had our mother’s parents living above, and her brother and his wife living next door. We were a close-knit family; we did everything together.

( The home of my aunt and uncle was the tan one with the porch. The house we shared with our grandparents was next door, uphill. 
It's remarkably unchanged.)

Dawn and I were remembering the vendors who drove through the neighborhood primarily in the spring and summer, selling their wares.
There was the fruit-vegetable man, who would ring a bell from his truck, singing, “Raaaaspberries! Straaaawberries!” or whatever the specials of the day were.

People would run out of their homes to inspect the “picks” of the day, and buy the freshest, tastiest produce right off his truck.

Then there was the man who rode up & down the streets in a horse-drawn wagon offering to sharpen knives and scissors. My sister laughed nervously, thinking what would happen if this service were available today!

The vendor we both recalled -- and loved -- was Hatz Baboog, Bread Grandfather .

He would climb the narrow staircase to our grandparent’s home with a basket filled with all sorts of Armenian breads that looked and smelled sensational! You couldn’t choose just one.

My favorite was the round, slightly flattened loaf with the hole in the middle. Hatz Baboog even went so far as to make miniature versions of our favorite breads - just for us kids.

Now that was SERVICE!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yogurt and mint: A natural combo - and- a recipe for chilled Yogurt-Mint Soup

Chilled Yogurt-Mint Soup
Armenians love the rich, tangy taste of creamy yogurt. Add some mint, and it’s out of this world!

Chilled Yogurt-Mint Soup (Madzoon Abour)
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup barley**
1 ½ cups plain yogurt
1 tsp. kosher salt
3 cups very cold water
1 Tbsp. crushed mint

1. Cook barley according to package directions. Cool and set aside. **NOTE: Quick-cooking barley works well in this recipe.
2. In a mixing bowl, stir yogurt and salt until smooth.
3. Mix in the barley.
4. Add the cold water and mint; stir to combine.
5. Place in the refrigerator for an hour or two before serving.
6. To serve: stir the yogurt soup, ladle into bowls, add an ice cube, garnish with a fresh sprig of mint.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mint: Another essential Armenian flavor

Next to basil, and dark chocolate, mint is one of my favorite flavors.

It tastes great, smells fabulous and has many uses.

Spearmint and peppermint are used as digestive aids. In addition, the oils of some varieties are used to flavor drinks, chewing gum, sweets, toothpaste, soaps, and mouthwash.

Armenians use mint to flavor meats, soups and salads. It's also a traditional ingredient in Armenian folk medicines. Many grow mint just for the pleasure of picking a handful of leaves to chew -- a delightful way to cool the tongue on a hot summer evening!

Growing mint is pretty easy in most places. It spreads quickly, so be ready to pick. Don’t worry if you end up with more fresh mint than you can use; mint is easy to dry (see microwave method below) and store.

Another great quality of mint is that when dried, it retains its flavor, unlike some other herbs such as dried parsley and dried cilantro.

Washing mint leaves
Don’t wash fresh mint leaves until you are ready to use them. When you’re ready, here’s what to do: Wash the mint under cold running water while the leaves are still on the stem. Drain thoroughly on paper towels.

To store fresh mint:
Place stems in a glass of water in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter. Change the water every day or so.

Drying mint
The traditional method is to tie a small bunch of mint stems together
very tightly, then hang the bunch upside down in a dark, warm (70-80°F), well-ventilated, area that’s free of dust. When the leaves are dry and crumbly, they’re ready. This process takes about one to two weeks.

Oven drying
Place the leaves on a baking sheet that has 1 inch sides all around. Preheat the oven to 175°F. With the oven door ajar, bake the leaves for 2 to 4 hours. Be sure to check periodically.

Microwave drying: (Short-cut version)
Wash and thoroughly dry the mint leaves. Place the leaves on a microwave-safe dish that’s lined with paper towels. Don’t crowd the dish with too many leaves; dry in small batches. Microwave for one to three minutes, mixing every 30 seconds. Leaves should be dry and crumbly - not

To store dried mint
Before storing, you must be sure the mint is completely dried or it will become moldy. Store in airtight containers in a cool, dry place.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Zucchini and Egg

Some glorious tastes of childhood can never be recaptured.

Mostly, that's a good thing.

For example: It's undoubtedly for the best that I've overcome my addiction to Twinkies.

Luckily, we also acquire adult tastes that sometimes grow even fonder. For me, zucchini and egg fits that bill perfectly.

My mother called this dish churtumah, and it's deliciously simple. I've encountered it in just a handful of Armenian homes -- a puzzle, to me, because anyone can make it.

The only ingredients other than the zucchini and egg are salt, pepper and butter.

Here goes:

Zucchini and Egg

Three or four medium-size zucchini
One egg

Peel and quarter the zucchini, then cut into quarter-inch slices
Place in saucepan with enough water to cover about a third of the zucchini
Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is tender (about five minutes)
Drain excess liquid
Turn heat to low
Add two pats of butter (optional) and salt/pepper to taste
Crack and beat one egg
Fold the beaten egg slowly into the cooked zucchini
Allow the egg to cook while mixing occasionally
Taste and season again if necessary

That's all it takes for an unusual and tasty side dish that can also be eaten alone with bread as a meal. (Hint: Double the recipe and heat the leftovers for breakfast.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pistachio safety update

The FDA last week finally concluded its investigation into reports of Salmonella-tainted pistachio nuts from a California supplier -- and it's still urging consumers to be wary.

The agency's probe, which began in March, focused on pistachios from Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. The company recalled all suspected batches, but the FDA raised continuing concerns because Setton supplies so many manufacturers and retailers.

The FDA says consumers should avoid any product containing pistachio nuts, including baked goods and snacks, unless they're sure it doesn't contain pistachios from Setton.

Sound like a pain? It's not nearly as painful as Salmonella, which 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.

For constantly updated information on which products are affected, check the FDA's pistachio data page.

California pistachio growers also have their own Web site listing companies that don't use Setton as a supplier.

Of course, you can just avoid pistachios altogether -- but how likely is that for Armenians?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In honor of all mothers

Mother’s Day isn’t an Armenian celebration. It’s one of those American “Hallmark” events - buy a pretty card, an expensive bouquet of flowers, and treat Mom to an over-priced buffet.

To Armenians, Mother's Day is every day - especially because families were separated due to the Genocide or illness.

Children without mothers were raised by other relatives - if
they were lucky. Others, like my mother’s cousin Mary, and my father-in-law were sent to orphanages. They, like many other children, were left to their own defenses; a mother's love was only a dream.

Please, take time - not just on this Hallmark day - but throughout the year to tell your mother how much she is loved. If your mother is gone, please take a moment to remember her. wishes all mothers a very Happy Mother’s Day!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Why not bake Mom a cake for Mother's Day?

Wondering how to surprise your mother with a special treat this Mother’s Day?

Try this super-easy recipe. Chances are you already have the ingredients on hand, and no frosting is required!

Simply dust each square with powdered sugar before serving, OR, better yet, serve with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt. Plain isn’t so bad, either!

It's a great way to say, “Mom, I love you!”

Armenian Walnut Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
¼ lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted & slightly cooled
3 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 cup chopped walnuts (the Armenian ingredient)

NOTE: Chopped pecans can be used instead of walnuts.

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the melted butter, milk, beaten eggs and vanilla.
3. Blend the liquid ingredients into the flour mixture using an electric hand mixer or wooden spoon just until combined.
4. Fold in the chopped nuts.
5. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
6. Grease the bottom and sides of a 8”x12” rectangular baking pan.
7. Pour the cake batter into the pan, spreading the batter evenly.
8. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
9. Cool completely.
10. To serve, cut into squares -- large or small. The size is up to you.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Armenian Chopped Salad

I'm not much of a salad eater, although I should be. We all should be eating salad every day to take advantage of all those vitamins and all that fiber.

Plus, salad helps fill you up so you don't overload on carbs and fats and thick steaks and ice cream and everything else that tastes so much better than stupid lettuce...

Just kidding! Well, no I'm not.

Not about lettuce, anyway. Lettuce bores me. Even the stuff that costs too much to call lettuce. This is because I'm Armenian. Robyn, of course, is also Armenian and she likes lettuce just fine. She thinks I'm just odd.

Well, maybe. But while I've never been to Armenia, I have it on good authority that there's no lettuce in a real Armenian salad.

When you think about it, there wasn't much point cultivating lettuce when the hills were covered in a fresh, wild greens free for the picking. Unfortunately, there are no wild salad greens in the hills near our house. In fact, there are no hills.

But the rest of the traditional Armenian salad ingredients are easy to come by: cucumbers, peppers, onions, parsley and tomatoes.
What makes them Armenian?

Technique, for one thing. Everything should be chopped and about the same size. This isn't just for looks. Dicing the veggies releases more of the juices into a natural dressing. You could be very satisfied adding nothing but perhaps a dash of salt.

Herbs are also very Armenian, lending an echo of those wild greens. Basil, dill, fresh mint -- what's growing in your yard?

Now add a squeeze of lemon -- or sumac for a real Old Country touch. And a splash of olive oil.

That's it. No trick at all.

This is a salad even I'll eat. It's so good, I don't even mind adding in some lettuce, just to make my wife happy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hamburger or lamb burger? No contest!

Lule Kebab and Vegetables on the grill
Sometimes, the most satisfying meals just sort of happen.

I was in the supermarket the other day, heading for the two-for-one chicken breasts, when I spotted something truly unexpected: ground American lamb. Columbus couldn't have been half as excited when he finally spotted land.

I snatched up the only two packages left and sped down the aisle to catch up to Robyn. When she saw the lamb, she said exactly what I was thinking: "Lule kebab!"

Like many Armenian favorites, this recipe has many variations and numerous cousins in other Near and Middle Eastern cuisines. The common ingredient is lamb and the common shape is more or less sausage-like, without the casing.

Of course, you can make lule kebab with beef, but I actually prefer lean ground turkey if lamb isn't available. Turkey seasons nicely and you can overcome the dryness with a little olive oil. To me, ground beef just tastes too much like hamburger no matter how well it's seasoned -- and who'd settle for a hamburger if your mouth is all ready for a lamb burger?

What's so great about ground lamb? It's wonderfully tender, even when well done, and it holds its shape beautifully. Plus, it tastes right. Yes, it's usually fattier than ground beef, but only because leaner cuts aren't often ground up. That's easy to overcome in the cooking -- always in a grill with drainage.

As for those variations, some add finely chopped onions and red or green peppers to the meat, but I prefer mine grilled on the side. Others add bulgur or even bread crumbs, although I don't see the point. In fact, the list of seasonings and other mixings is endless.

My choice is to keep the lule kebab simple and let the lamb taste like lamb, with a distinctly Armenian accent of course. Want more flavor? Serve with chopped onions and parsley. Best of all, make a kebab sandwich out of rolled lavash or pita bread and tuck the parsley and onions inside. Fantastic!

And while some insist the kebabs should be formed around a skewer, it's not necessary. Just remember to keep turning them evenly.

Lule Kebab

This makes five or six kebabs, enough for two people.

1 pound ground lamb
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. allspice
1 Tablespoon tomato paste

Directions: Just mix it all up with salt and pepper to your preference and shape the kebabs like sausages -- you don't have to get fancy or worry about making them perfect, but try to keep the thickness about the same so they cook evenly.

To check the seasonings, make a mini-kebab and cook it in a frying pan.

Cook until done -- which, to us, means well done.

Tip: Toss some tomatoes, peppers and onions on the grill for even more flavor. Serve with a salad and the pilaf of your choice.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What lavash means to me (Tell no one!)

We never heard the word lavash outside Armenian circles until just a few years ago.
Now, it pops up everywhere from supermarket aisles to fast-food menus -- and it can have very different meanings.

Traditional Armenian cracker bread, crisp to the bite and mottled with brown bubbles, is a true staple that could sustain a traveler on a long journey or a family through an even longer winter. It seems to keep forever, and can be savored as is or softened with a drizzle of water or oil.

Yet somehow in America, it has shrunken and morphed into a mere appetizer, often with the texture of vinyl floor tiles.
Equally odd is what's happened to the delicate, flaky soft version that Armenians not only eat with their meals but eat their meals with -- the perfect edible utensil that can be used to pick up meats or sop up stews.
But if most Americans recognize the word lavash at all, they picture a sandwich wrap that seems more closely related to a wheat tortilla, and most likely is just that.

Luckily, we know and love yet another version of lavash that is uncorrupted by commercial success. In fact, even most Armenians aren't aware of it.

This lavash combines the best of both traditional styles: Crisp and bubbled on top, soft and flaky in the middle. Be warned: It's rich, buttery -- and addictive.

It's also something of a family treasure, handed down by Doug's mother who learned it from her clan's master chef, Aunt Baidzar Doramajian.
We'd hate to see it turned into some sort of snack cracker, or worse. So please, let's keep this between us!

Kalajian family Lavash

Mom's Lavash

8 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon salt
1 heaping Tablespoon baking powder**
2 Tablespoons sugar
½ LB. ( 2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
3 cups warm water

1 egg mixed with a little water for egg wash

** Test the baking powder before using to make sure it is active. To do this, sprinkle a little baking powder in a half cup of water. The powder should begin to bubble and foam. If it doesn't, the baking powder should be discarded.

1. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl. Sift the salt, baking powder,
and sugar into the flour. Stir well.
2. Add the melted butter and MOST of the water.
  Step 4 -Lavash Dough
3. Mix well until a dough forms. If the dough seems too dry, add some of the remaining water and continue to mix.

4. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth.

5. Divide the dough into 5 or 6 balls.
Step 5 - Divide the dough

6. Roll one ball of dough at a time into a rectangle shape that will fit on a 16"x12" baking sheet.

Step 6 - Roll dough into a thin rectangle

7. Fold the rectangle-shaped dough into thirds, then in thirds again, creating a little bundle.

Step 7A- Begin folding dough into thirds
Step 7B

Step 7C

Step 7D - Lavash bundles
8. Re-roll each bundle into a large rectangle again. Place rolled dough on an ungreased 16"x12" baking sheet.
Step 8 - Re-roll each bundle (This will create flaky layers.)

 9. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
10. Brush the surface with egg wash.
Step 10- Egg wash

11. Bake on the lower oven rack for about 15 minutes, or until bottom starts to brown.

12. Move the tray to the upper oven rack for about another 5 to 10, or until the top becomes a golden brown.
13. Remove from oven. Cool completely. Cut into 12 or 16 pieces.
14. Continue this process until all balls of dough have been shaped and baked. NOTE: The lavash will be chewy-crispy, rather than soft.
15. Store in an airtight container.
16. Serve lavash with cheese and fresh fruit.