Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The truth about pine nuts

Pignoli, pignolia, piñon, Indian nut.

Whatever you call them, pine nuts are delicious!

Pine nuts are seeds from cones of certain pine trees. They’re hand-harvested, which explains their high cost. But they’re worth it!

Two Main Varieties:
The Mediterranean pine nut which comes from the stone pine, has a delicate flavor and is the more expensive of the two. The Chinese pine nut has a stronger flavor that tends to overpower some foods.

Pine nuts have a creamy color, slightly crunchy texture, and taste buttery. They’re a good source of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, which is a good thing. This helps lower cholesterol by removing triglycerides (a contributor to heart disease) from the body. Pine nuts are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins A,D, E, K , thiamin (a B-vitamin), and lutein - for healthy eyes.

It’s best to store pine nuts in the refrigerator (up to 3 months), or freezer (up to 9 months), as the high fat content can cause the nuts to turn rancid rather quickly.

Pine nuts are widely used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Asian, and Italian cuisine.

We’re big fans of pine nuts at The Armenian Kitchen. We use them in appetizers (muhamarra, midia dolma), entrees (kufteh), and desserts (farina halva).

The following recipe was one of my favorites made by “Chief”, the Greek chef at the Van Hotel.

Farina Halva
Yield: Approx. 8 servings

1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup milk
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup farina or Cream of Wheat - NOT the quick cooking variety
½ cup pine nuts
Cinnamon to taste

1. In a saucepan, combine sugar, water and milk. Bring to a boil. Stir to be sure sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
2. In a large saucepan, melt butter. Stir in farina and pine nuts. Reduce heat and stir until they are lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
3. Slowly pour the milk mixture into the farina mixture, stirring vigorously to prevent lumping.
4. When mixture is well blended, reduce heat and cook, covered, for 15 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.
5. Remove saucepan from heat. Lift lid, and place a towel across the pan. Replace lid; allow a “rest” time of 20-30 minutes.
6. After removing towel and lid, fluff the halva with a fork. The texture should be light and crumbly.

Serve warm with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

POM reading

Doug and I have been writing this blog for 6 months now - a great experience all around. We’ve gotten inquiries from numerous readers, and some surprising emails from educators, marketing agencies, and now a food-related company.

Janny, the blogger from POM Wonderful, the pomegranate people, offered to ship us some pomegranate juice to try.

She knows we’re fans, because we’ve written about pomegranate juice before - using it to make the FABULOUS pomegranate martini , as a marinade for shish kebab, an ingredient in Muhammara , and a news item about POM Wonderful.

Of course, we considered any potential conflict in accepting Janny's offer. Could we be objective, for the sake of our readers, if we allowed ourselves to be favored by this one company?

We thought about this for...oh, about a minute, and decided: No problem. Send us the juice!

In fact, we were already enamored of POM. It tastes right, which is what we care most about. Of course, POM's health claims are pretty interesting. We'll leave that to those more qualified to judge.

I did a little “digging” into the origin of pomegranates (Nur, in Armenian), and found that they have been cultivated in the Caucasus since ancient times - Armenia included.

Then I discovered that California has 14 varieties of pomegranates, one being the WONDERFUL. (I guess that’s where “POM Wonderful” got its name.)

Here’s a tidbit I found at www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/pomegranate:

“Wonderful Originated in Florida. First propagated in California in 1896. Large,
deep purple-red fruit. Rind medium thick, tough. Flesh deep crimson in color, juicy and of a delicious vinous flavor. Seeds not very hard. Better for juicing than for eating out of hand. Plant is vigorous and productive. Leading commercial variety in California.”

Interesting, yes?

No matter what variety you buy, pomegranates are, well, wonderful!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Once an Armenian...always an Armenian!

I don’t know about you, but whenever I travel, I seek out anything Armenian - churches, stores, restaurants, people.

I find myself flipping through hotel phone books, trying to find area residents whose names end in “ian” or “yan."
Marian Amiraian
It turns out I’m not the only one who does this. I received a phone message from a Armenian woman, Marian Amiraian, who recently moved into my community in Boynton Beach, Florida.

As she was looking through the resident’s phone directory, she was excited to find 3 Armenian names - Kalajian, Dabbakian, and Baylarian. She figured out I was the Kalajian, but wanted to know who the other two were.

I told her Dabbakian is my mother who visits here for the winter season - a Snowbird as we Floridians say. Baylarian is really an Italian lady who was married to an Armenian man who had passed away.

I promised to pay a visit Marian as soon as I could. A lovely little lady, more my mother’s age, Marian lives a short distance from my house. She invited me to a casual, but tasty lunch. As we ate we chatted like old friends about our families, friends, and favorite Armenian recipes.

As a neighborly gesture, I brought a bowl of tabbouleh for us to share. This lead to a discussion about Armenian regional recipes which can vary greatly based on ingredients indigenous to a particular area.

We had a pleasant afternoon, and plan on seeing each other again. When my mother arrives for the season, I’m sure two of them will enjoy comparing and sharing their different Armenian backgrounds, too.

Thanks for calling, Marian!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today's lesson is...Lentils and 2 Lentil Soup recipes!

Lentils are legumes, meaning they come from a plant with double-seamed pods that contain a single row of seeds.

Other common legumes include peas, peanuts, beans, garbanzo beans (chick peas) and soybeans. Lentils come in a variety of colors. Brown and green varieties are readily available in most supermarkets, while red-orange (some say “pink”) lentils are more commonly found in Middle Eastern or specialty stores.

Whatever your preference, just know that lentils are a great source of fiber, complex carbohydrates, B1, folate, minerals - and IRON - a great nutrient for the vegetarian diet. (Folate - folic acid - produces healthy red blood cells, and helps prevent anemia.)

Lentils, along with other legumes, are used in many dishes, including salads, main dishes, side dishes, chili recipes, dips, spreads, stews and soups.

Red-orange Lentil Soup
Today’s  LENTIL SOUP recipes:  (aka: Vartabed Soup)

It doesn’t matter what the outside temperature is - hot, cold, or somewhere in between -- there’s nothing more comforting than a bowl of lentil soup. Either of these recipes is sure to please.

If you want to jazz them up, toss in some diced carrots or a bunch of fresh, thoroughly washed, spinach leaves cut into ribbons.

Yield: about 8 servings

2 cups small red-orange lentils, sorted & rinsed
2 quarts (8 cups) water
**2 to 3 beef bouillon cubes
One handful fine (#1) bulgur
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. butter or olive oil


1. Sort through lentils and discard any stones, etc.; rinse.

2. In an 8 qt. pot, combine the lentils, water, bouillon and bulgur. Cook until lentils and bulgur are tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Sauté onions in butter or oil, until softened and lightly golden.
4. Add onion to soup and cook another 10-15 minutes.

** Note: Chicken, beef or vegetable broth can be used in place of the water. In that case, OMIT the bouillon cubes, and add salt to taste.

Yield: 4 to 5 servings

1 cup brown or green lentils, sorted & rinsed
4 cups water
**1 or 2 beef bouillon cubes
¼ cup rice or #2 bulgur
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. butter or olive oil

1. In a 4 to 6 quart pot, combine the lentils, water, bouillon, and rice.
2. Cook until lentils and rice (or bulgur) are tender, about 20 min.
3. Sauté onions in a little butter or olive oil, until softened and lightly golden.
4. Add onion to soup and cook another 10-15 minutes.

** Note: Chicken, beef or vegetable broth can be used in place of the water. In that case, OMIT the bouillon cubes, and add salt to taste.

Monday, September 21, 2009

We'll pass on gas-enhanced fish

We're working hard at getting more fish into our diet in place of red meat. But sometimes the closer we look, the more we wonder if we're really making a healthier choice.

For example, our local supermarket was recently advertising a "buy one, get one" sale on frozen tilapia. We like tilapia -- it's mild, quickly cooked and lends itself nicely to seasoning.

We picked up two packages but quickly put them back when we read this on the label: "Product of China," and "treated with carbon monoxide."

Whoa! On both counts.

Chinese seafood has been the repeated target of warnings and even import restrictions because of safety concerns, particularly pollution. Tilapia was never banned and American importers say the Chinese have raised standards in recent years, but we're skeptics -- and we're never in the mood to experiment with dinner.

Why should we? American farm-raised tilapia is abundant, safe and considered ecologically sustainable.

And no matter its origin, we don't want our fish -- or anything on our plates -- treated with carbon monoxide.

We first heard about gassed food products a few years ago, when packagers discovered that a blast of CO gas sealed inside the plastic wrapping kept meat looking red and fresh long after it would have normally turned brown and disgusting.

News reports touched off a consumer revolt that eventually prodded many major grocery chains to abandon the practice, even though the Food and Drug Administration refused to step in.

But even some chains that claim not to sell gas-treated meat are apparently still selling seafood treated the same way. Tuna is reportedly the most commonly gas-blasted fish because the resulting deep-pink tinge is just what consumers expect from "fresh" tuna.

Let me admit here that I'm probably biased by my experience as a newspaper reporter. My pals at the county morgue told me years ago that the bodies of carbon monoxide victims turn pink. It's not exactly an appetite-enhancing image.

Regardless, the problem with artificially enhanced food color is obvious: It's one less way of knowing whether what we're buying is really fresh.

The FDA says it hasn't stopped the practice because carbon monoxide doesn't harm the food. When used in this manner, CO falls into the category of substances the agency calls GRAS, meaning "generally regarded as safe."

Here at TheArmenianKitchen.com, we have our own category for carbon monoxide-treated food: GRAD.

That is, "generally regarded as disgusting."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Basterma! The best thing about company

Basterma (Basturma)
Pardon me, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

What’s fenugreek?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Family Heirloom Is Passed Along

My aunt, Arpie Vartanesian, has decided to sell her condo and move into an independent living apartment at a senior’s complex nearby.

Robyn (L) and Arpie (R) preparing Boorma
She’d been thinking about this for several years, gathering alluring brochures from a number of places.

To help her decide, she invited Doug and me along with another niece, Arlene Pinajian, to join her on a tour of the place she liked best. Before long, we could see that Aunt Arpie had already mentally moved in.

To clinch the deal, she was allowed to spend 4 days & 3 nights there - free of charge - to check it all out, from the living, dining, and entertainment aspects. A done deal.

To help prepare for the move, Aunt Arpie had the ladies come and help sort through years of paperwork and personal belongings. Doug and I had our own special day with her. While she and I cleaned out closets, Doug was in charge of going through some of Uncle Walt’s things that Aunt Arpie couldn't part with. Uncle Walt, my mother’s brother, passed away in 2002.

As we moved into the kitchen, Aunt Arpie said she had two things in particular that she wanted me to have. One was a round, metal pan that was my grandmother’s; the one she used for making "sarma gurgood"- a cracked wheat salad, similar to eetch, or tabbouleh.

The other was the DOWEL.

If you haven’t seen the video of my Aunt Arpie demonstrating how to make boorma, click this link. Wait, before you do, you should know the significance of the dowel: When making boorma, the dowel is used to shape it.

Aunt Arpie’s dowel was handed down to her from her mother - and now to me.

A treasured heirloom, indeed!

Thank you, Aunt Arpie, and best wishes in your new home!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Heart-healthy Kufteh (with VIDEO!)

Heart-healthy Kufteh
Doug and I have been experimenting with some of our favorite Armenian recipes to reduce fat and cholesterol.

We've taken the traditional recipe for kufteh -- Armenian stuffed meatballs -- and replaced the ground lamb and butter with ground turkey and olive oil. We think the results are pretty darn good!

Try it. If you still prefer the old style, just substitute ground lamb or beef for turkey -- but be sure the meat used for the outer shell is very lean and ground three times.

Heart-Healthy Kufteh

Yield: About 10, depending on the size of your hands!

Meechoog (Filling) Ingredients:

(Make this ahead of time and chill)

2 large onions, finely chopped

3 to 4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch parsley, washed, stems removed, finely chopped
Ground coriander, allspice, black pepper, salt, paprika - season to taste
¾ lb. ground turkey breast (97% lean)

Meechoog Directions:

1. Sauté onions in olive oil until soft.
2. Stir in the chopped parsley, and seasonings.
3. In a separate skillet, spray vegetable spray (PAM). Brown the ground turkey breast until it is no longer pink.
4. Combine the cooked turkey with the onion mixture. Adjust seasonings, if necessary.
5. Place in bowl, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Shell Ingredients:

1 ½ to 2 lbs. ground turkey (93% lean)
1 ½ cups #1 (fine) bulgur
1 egg
Two Tbsp. olive oil
Ground coriander, to taste
Salt, to taste
Water (for mixing)
Bowl of ice water (to keep hands cold)

Shell Directions:

1. Combine ground turkey, bulgur, egg, oil and seasonings. Mix thoroughly with your hands.
2. To make the shell, take enough of the mixture to resemble the size of a large egg.
3. Make an indentation with your thumb, pressing until the shell is as thin as you can make it without it falling apart.
4. Place about one heaping tablespoon of the filling in the indentation.
5. Dip hands in water.
6. Continue to shape shell carefully, making sure shell holds together and the filling doesn’t come through.
7. Continue the shaping process until all of the filling and shell mixtures are used up.

8. Cover and chill shaped kuftehs until ready to cook.

*If you have leftover filling (meechoog), it can be incorporated into an omelet.  Leftover shell ingredients can be rolled into balls and cooked along with the rest of the kufteh.) 

*For an extra special treat, you can make Armenian-style Meat 'Burritos' using phyllo (fillo) dough and the meechoog portion of the kufteh recipe!

To Cook:
1. Fill a large pot 2/3 full of water. Bring to a rolling boil. Add 1 Tbsp. salt.
2. Carefully lower a few kufteh at a time into the water, and reduce heat to medium. Do not crowd the pot. When kufteh rises to the top, allow them to cook a few minutes longer to make sure the shell is thoroughly cooked.
3. Remove with a slotted spoon to drain excess liquid.
4. Keep warm until all are cooked.

To Serve:

Serve with plain yogurt, a chopped salad, and pita bread.

Leftover, cooked kufteh suggestion:

Slice cooked, chilled kufteh in half - horizontally. Dip in egg. Cook in a lightly greased skillet (PAM) until egg is set and kufteh is heated through. Delicious!

See how it's done by clicking here for our video.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An Armenian in the rear-view mirror

If you looked carefully at our recent post on the late Ashod Pinajian's drawing of an old-time Armenian outing, you certainly spotted the figure of Nalband the Packard salesman.

That was my mother's maternal uncle Aram Nalbandian. I remember him as a strikingly handsome older man -- bald and always dapper -- who smoked big cigars. He was one of six Nalbandian siblings including my grandmother who made their way two-by-two from Dikranagerd to America before the First World War.

The Nalbandians settled in Chelsea, Mass., where they joined many other Armenian immigrants who found work in shoe factories. Uncle Aram (we usually called him Uncle Ray, his Americanized name) was just a kid then, but he reached working age by the time the family moved on to Union City, New Jersey, in the 1920s.

There, eldest brother Hagop opened a grocery store that became a community landmark. Uncle Ray somehow got a job selling Packards.

I say somehow because it seems so unlikely.

Packards were the premier American automobiles of their day, sometimes called The American Rolls-Royce. They were long, powerful, beautiful cars that cost a fortune -- and not a small fortune either.

No one could possibly think the Armenians of that era were likely purchasers, and Uncle Ray could hardly have been mistaken for the son of an Englishman. But he did have a great, outgoing personality and a sense of humor as powerful as the Packard's famous Twin Six motor.

One of the perks of the job was a demonstration car. My mother used to laugh when she recalled the astounding sight of a smiling Uncle Ray driving through the tenement streets in a car fit for a king. It must have seemed unreal to these Armenians who could barely afford streetcar fare.

Coming across the old drawing got Robyn and me talking about Uncle Ray, which brought to mind a little day trip we'd been putting off far too long. So we hopped in the car and drove an hour south to visit the Fort Lauderdale Antique Car Museum, which is devoted exclusively to Packards.

Even if you don't give a toot about old cars, it's a wonderful place to visit if you're ever in South Florida. It's an enjoyable bit of time travel back to a day when American engineering and craftsmanship were truly the standard of the world.

Oh, sorry. Standard of the World was Cadillac's motto -- but really, when's the last time a Cadillac turned your head?

The 38 Packards on display in this dolled-up warehouse really do dazzle you with color, style and history..

It's impossible to look at these cars and not think of the movie stars, industrial barons and statesmen who drove them -- or whose chauffeurs did. Among the Packards on display: the car that carried Calvin Coolidge to his inauguration as President.

For us, it was impossible to look at these cars and not think of Uncle Ray, which made me smile.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dry Measures vs. Liquid Measures - What’s the Difference?

While my sister Dawn was visiting several of her Armenian friends at the Jersey Shore this summer, their beach-side discussion turned to food and recipes. (Two of my favorite topics!)

Someone wanted to know the difference between dry and liquid measures, and why it was necessary to use different measuring tools for each. Eva, the biology teacher in the group, offered a scientific response, which apparently didn't satisfy some of them.

Eva said, "If you don't believe me, ask Robyn. She should know!”

Folks, here’s the culinary explanation:

Ingredients are measured by weight and volume. Weight refers to how heavy something is, whereas, volume refers to how much space an ingredient takes up -- for example, 1 cup of cooked rice, or 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon.

In the Customary unit of measure, most commonly used in the U.S., food measured by weight is measured in ounces (oz.) and pounds (lb.)

Ingredients measured by volume are measured by:
teaspoon (tsp.)
tablespoon (Tbsp.)
cup (c.)
fluid ounce (fl.oz.),
pint (pt.)
quart (qt.)
gallon (gal.)

If using Metric units of measure, food measured by weight is measured in milligrams (mg), grams (g.), and kilograms (kg.), while Metric measures for volume are milliliters (ml) and liters (l).

In any recipe, accurate measuring is a MUST for quantity and quality control.

Dry ingredients are best measured using properly marked, measuring cups -- either metal or plastic. These vary in size from 1/8 cup, ¼ cup, 1/3 cup, ½ cup, and 1 cup. To measure, the dry ingredient is filled to the rim, then leveled off with a straight edge spatula or the back of a knife .

Liquid ingredients are best measured in a see-through cup with graduated markings on the side. The cup should have a handle, and a spout to make pouring easy. To measure liquid, place the liquid measuring cup on a flat work surface, carefully pour in the liquid, then bend down to read
the marking at eye-level for accuracy.

Never pack flour into a measuring cup, or you’ll end up with more flour than the recipe requires, resulting in a heavy final product. Brown sugar, on the other hand, should be packed into the measuring cup. (FYI, the “brown” in brown sugar is molasses.)

For more information on kitchen tools and their uses, click on the yellow “Pantry” sign.

I hope this helped.

If you have any other questions, please send an email to robyn@thearmeniankitchen.com.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Armenia is a hot market for "cold" melons

Who doesn't love a cold slice of watermelon on a hot summer day?

We sure do -- and we'd love some day to taste the storied watermelons of Armenia, said to be among the sweetest and fattest in the world.

Apparently, Armenia is enjoying a bumper crop this summer, and entrepreneurs are cashing in. The Armenian news Web site a1plus.am reports "piles of watermelons at every step of the way in different districts of Yerevan" being hawked by vendors.

The displays aren't elaborate: The watermelons "are either on the ground or the asphalt right under the scorching sun," the report states.

Most sellers claim their melons are brought in fresh daily, although the report casts doubt that many can afford to rent trucks so often.

Why would so many vendors sell the same thing? Because watermelons appear to be the runaway favorite of shoppers, most of whom like the convenience of street-side sales.

But not everyone does. "Who would buy watermelons from people who are dressed in dirty clothes with dirty hands?" asks one woman. (In defense of the vendors, it's only fair to note that watermelons do actually grow in dirt.)

As for all those melons left out in the "scorching sun" day after day, the Web site notes that this doesn't deter any of the vendors from hanging up signs boasting: "Cold Watermelon."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Say it Again! is food for thought

Full disclosure from Doug: This post has nothing to do with food, Armenian or otherwise, although it is about something I cooked up.

My friend Leila Alson and I are celebrating the publication of a joint project that we've been planning for several years, a small book with big advice for people who want to sound as smart as they really are.

Say It Again! is a compact guide to correcting the most common pronunciation errors in American English. Leila is a masterful speech coach who created a very clever method of using common words and sounds to show anyone how to quickly and easily pronounce more challenging words.

It's all very simple, but it's not for dummies. It's for successful people -- and those who want to be successful -- who make the sort of mistakes we all do because we can't really hear ourselves speak as others do.

Say It Again! is short and easy to carry for quick reference. It's also (we hope) fun and at least mildly amusing.

By the way, we're also the publishers. Leila and I formed a new company along with my longtime friend and former Miami Herald colleague David Blasco, our editor and designer.

You can order Say it Again! from any book seller. If you like Amazon.com, you can use the handy form below on this blog. Or, click here to go to www.SayItAgain.org.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How far will YOU go for Armenian food?

Reader Rosanne Almasian from Upstate New York asked me where she could buy Armenian food, such as lahmajoun and Armenian string cheese for 200 guests.
It was in celebration of her daughter’s high school graduation, and she had only 2 weeks to prepare.

Sasha (the graduate), Sasha's boyfriend, and Rosanne (the mom)

I offered several suggestions that would have required her to place an order on-line or over the phone. When I didn’t hear back weeks later, I emailed to ask what she ended up doing.

This was her response: “My daughter, Sasha, the graduate, and I ended up going to Montreal to a large Middle Eastern grocery store to purchase our food. We were very pleased with the sarma, the olive bar, the fresh cheese in brine (not vacuum - packed), the various breads and some lovely fresh phyllo dough with which I made cheese boureg and some bourma.

"I wasn’t crazy about the basturma so my husband picked up some fresh at Samir’s in Syracuse, a tiny place, on his way home from a trip in Pennsylvania. I also wasn’t crazy about the pastry (it was all pistachio paklava and we are used to walnut) so I ordered it from a company near Chicago, on a friend’s recommendation.

"The biggest challenge was keeping my family out of the goodies before the party. It was lovely and we all had a wonderful time.”

Montreal? Syracuse? Chicago? That’s what I call shopping with determination!
What I didn’t know was that the party had a Luau theme: grass skirts, leys, a pig roast. 

Are any Hawaiians reading this? Armenian food will make ANY type of gathering a sensation!
Congratulations to Sasha; best wishes at Syracuse University!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Julie, Julia and The Art of Armenian Cooking

Julia Child
Robyn and I went to see the film Julie & Julia the other night. You probably know the gist: It's the more or less true story of a young woman who cooked every one of the 500-some recipes in Julia Child's first cookbook and blogged about it.

The movie has no real plot. It's just a series of mostly entertaining scenes in which Meryl Streep whoops her way through a dead-on impression of the familiar chef and Amy Adams bawls about how boring her life was until she learned to cook.

The lesson, if there is one, is simple: Never crowd the pan when you sauté mushrooms or they won't turn brown.

Despite her kooky voice, the late Julia Child was obviously one smart cookie. She mastered the art of French cooking (clearly a prodigious accomplishment) and went on to co-author the aptly named book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

And, of course, she became America's first and best-loved TV celebrity chef.

The movie, however, memorializes her as the person who somehow elevated American cooking -- and American tastes -- by showing average folks that it was possible to do more than pop a frozen tray of turkey and mashed potatoes in the oven.

I think this is awfully silly.

I'm a big fan of French cooking, particularly if eating it involves a trip to France. But I'm also a big fan of American cooking -- really, any kind of cooking that ends with a good meal in my stomach.

Some say American cuisine is less sophisticated than French cuisine. You might just as honestly say it's less fussy and pretentious. But really, American food is like the American language -- rich, varied and strongly influenced by all the groups that made this their new home.

What's true is that by the 1950s, many Americans were falling into the habit of eating dinner out of cans or bringing it home in a box or bag. Julia didn't change that. Today's supermarkets offer more ready-to-eat choices than ever.

What's false is the notion that all Americans were lazy or at least uninspired cooks pre-Julia.

Consider my mother, for example.

Mom worked very hard, six days a week. But each night, she prepared a feast -- nearly always, an Armenian feast. She had little use for cans, wouldn't so much as look at a frozen TV dinner and dismissed all suggestions of using Minute rice or instant potatoes.

Typical dinners: Fassoulia, lule kebab, tass kebab, along with a heaping platter of bulgur pilaf and a bowl of freshly chopped Armenian salad.
Nishan and Sylvia Kalajian

Winter meant heartier stews like gouvedge, and a variety of dishes made from salted lamb cooked and preserved in its own fat (khavoorma).

And every meal was accompanied by her fresh, home-made madzoon (yogurt).

All this required a lot of advance planning as well as advance cooking. She was often at the stove long after my father and I had left the table, getting started on the next-day's dinner.

Of course, I think my mother was the greatest cook who ever lived. I hope you feel the same way about yours. But the important point is that her devotion to cooking well and in abundance was hardly unique among the Armenians we knew right here in America.

I applaud Julia and Julie both for learning how to bake a soufflé -- but really, does that compare to the skill and patience required to make the thin, stuffed shells of meat we call keufteh?

Maybe, but I'm certain of this: I know which one I'd rather eat.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Heart-Healthy Fish Recipe: Fish Plaki

Fish Plaki
Now that we’re getting older, Doug and I have come to the realization that we can’t eat the way we used to. (Darn!)

We’ve decided it’s time to add more fish to our diet, and reduce our red meat consumption - except for lamb, of course.

We love fish, which is a good thing, but neither of us ate a lot of it growing up (unless you count ordering it in a restaurant), because fish is not a big ticket item in the Armenian diet. Modern-day Armenia is land-locked, so any fish that’s served there comes from a lake or a river.

When my mother was a child in New Jersey in the 1930s, her father would buy fish on Saturday morning when the fish price was reduced to 25 cents for 3 pounds. Can you believe that? Geez, we just bought 1 ¾ pounds of halibut for $25!

The only fish my grandmother would make was whiting, a fairly small, mild fish. Her technique was simple. She would dilute some of her homemade red pepper paste, dip the cleaned fish in it, dredge the fish in flour seasoned with a little salt and pepper, then pan fry. We’d squeeze a little lemon on it - superb! The only drawback to the whiting was those pesky little bones.

Since frying isn’t a heart-healthy way to cook, Doug and I have been experimenting with more suitable techniques - poaching, pan-searing, baking, broiling and grilling.

If you want to try an Armenian fish recipe that’s truly delicious - and nutritious -- try this:

Fish Plaki
Yield: 4 to 5 servings

2 carrots, sliced in thin circles
1 medium potato, cut into small cubes
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 clove crush garlic
2 Tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
1/4 cup water

Sauté the carrots, potato, celery, onion and garlic in oil for 3 to 4 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper. Add 1/4 cup water, cover and simmer 5 to 7 minutes, or until vegetables are just tender. Set aside.

More Ingredients:
1 1/2 lbs. firm white fish (halibut, cod, mahi mahi or haddock), cut into 1 inch chunks
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp tomato paste
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped parsley
Fresh lemon wedges

More Directions:
Rinse fish & pat dry. Be sure to remove any bones.
Toss the fish chunks with a little olive oil; add salt and pepper to taste.
Place the fish in a casserole dish lightly coated with vegetable spray.
Combine the tomato paste with the diced tomatoes, and pour over the fish.
Gently mix in the cooked vegetables.

Bake, uncovered, in a preheated 350°F. oven for about 15 minutes.

Serve hot or cold with chopped parsley and lemon wedges.