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?
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
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
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!