Sunday, August 29, 2010

Did you know Armenians taught the French to drink coffee?


I didn't know that until I came across a 1922 book called All About Coffee.

It's one of the many wonderful works saved from obscurity by Project Gutenberg, the ongoing effort to post just about everything ever in print on the Internet.

All About Coffee is not only out of print, it's out of copyright, which allowed it to be posted free for all to read. (Who can resist a free book?)

Author William Ukers traced the history of the original energy drink from North African Arabs to the Ottoman Turks to every corner of the globe. He notes that coffee "made in Turkish style" first arrived in Paris in 1669 with the Turkish ambassador to the court of Louis XIV.

Louis must have had a head cold, because he somehow turned up his nose at the aroma that soon enticed his kingdom.

Along with "a considerable quantity of coffee," the ambassador brought an Armenian named Pascal. (At least, that's the name someone wrote down. What do you figure: Bagrat maybe?)

The ambassador went back home the following year, but Pascal stayed behind in Paris and opened a coffee tent at the St.-Germain fair held in early spring near the Latin Quarter. According to Ukers, it was the first time coffee had been sold publicly in Paris.

Pascal employed a squad of "Turkish waiter boys" who carried trays of coffee through the crowd in small cups. Ukers wrote that the smell of the coffee wafting through the chilly air "brought many ready sales of the steaming beverage; and soon visitors to the fair learned ot look for the 'little black' cupful of cheer or petit noir, a name that still endures."

Coffee's popularity grew rapidly, at least among the rabble, although Louis' royal snub discouraged the nobility from indulging for many years.

Street vendors cropped up everywhere, and the city's first coffee house soon followed -- opened by another Armenian!

In fact, the French identified coffee so strongly with Armenians by the late 17th Century that coffeehouse waiters all dressed in "Armenian costumes," regardless of their ethnicity.

This apparently became something of a running gag. Ukers noted that a popular stage comedy of the day featured a character named Lorange, "a coffee merchant dressed as an Armenian."

Lorange tells another character has been "a naturalized Armenian for three weeks."

Trust us: It takes longer than that to learn how to make really good Armenian coffee.

But hey, we give the French credit for learning from the best!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why do we watch food when we could be eating?

We're fascinated by food shows on television. Not just by the shows themselves, but by their raging popularity.

Why do we love to watch other people eat?

The Food Network got so big it recently cloned itself to create the Cooking Channel. Luckily for us, this one's not in our cable lineup or we'd probably sprain a finger clicking the remote back and forth.

Like millions of Americans, we just can't get enough of TV chefs.

Well, in truth, we actually have had enough of some of them: We're guessing Emeril's relatively modest presence on the tube these days means we're not the only ones who got a little tired of hearing "Bam!" every few seconds.

But Emeril, at least, is a real chef -- and we're told his food really is good. Some other celebrity chefs...well, we wonder about the "chef" part.

And we really, really wonder about some of the bungling contestants on the various TV cooking competitions like Hell's Kitchen -- although, who wouldn't drop a plate or two with Gordon Ramsay screaming in your ear?

But the show that really bugs us is Top Chef, Bravo's highly rated and much-blogged-about elimination tournament that supposedly crowns the country's most talented new chef each season.

The contestants all seem to have advanced kitchen skills, but many of their dishes just seem wacky -- no doubt fashioned to entice the equally wacky judges.

The strangest episodes of all involve forays into something called molecular gastronomy, which delivers "food" in unnatural forms and colors that resemble chemistry experiments more than old-fashioned cooking.

I just don't get the point. I mean, if I want food sprayed on my plate, I'll buy a can of Easy Cheese.

On one recent episode, a judge berated a contestant for serving salad in a bowl. A salad is supposed to be served on a plate, the judge asserted, so the diner can continue tossing it.

I wondered: Is it possible this guy doesn't know that salads served on flat plates get tossed in bowls first? Maybe.

But really, why does the serving dish matter at all? I don't ever remember saying, "That was a great meal -- but those plates were the wrong shape!"

Of course, I am not a sophisticated diner. Thank goodness.

I'm so unsophisticated that I was appalled when Top Chef's top chef, Tom Colicchio, recently took a contestant to task for serving lamb well-done. I can't taste what's on TV, so maybe this cook really did vulcanize that particuarly slice.

But I've heard this general complaint before, from Colicchio and other celeb cooks who think lamb is properly -- and only -- served pink.

I have no quarrel with their taste: If you want pink lamb, eat pink lamb. You can eat pink chicken stuffed with pink flamingo feathers if it makes you happy.

But why do they quarrel with my taste?

Why should the supposedly sophisticated culinary clique that dominates TV and a handful of very expensive restaurants in New York and Los Angeles get to decide what's "right?"

Luckily, they really don't, just as they don't have to worry about what I think.

They'd starve waiting for me to walk into their dining rooms. When I'm in a strange city, I'm much more likely to look for the nearest diner than a so-called fine dining restaurant.

And when the diner is Greek, as it so often is, I never hesitate to order the lamb because I know it will be well-done.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The passing of an Armenian lamb apostle, George Stanley Kooyumjian

It's not often that reading an obituary makes you hungry, but the Fresno Bee newspaper's story on the passing of Stanley George Kooyumjian was a remarkable tribute in many ways.

The headline read, "Armenian restaurateur was an authority on lamb."

Stanley went to work in his father's Fresno market as a young man at a time when the surrounding valley was peppered with Armenian-owned farms. The farmers all bought their meat and other groceries from the Kooyumjians, who let them run up a tab until after the raisin harvest.

After Stanley took over the business in the 1950s, he decided to expand by opening a restaurant, which became a popular downtown lunch spot.

Armenians, however, knew Stanley's Home Market as THE place to buy their lamb.

The Bee's blog item on Stanley's passing at age 77 drew comments from many old customers and employees who testified to the memorable taste of his dishes, the quality of his meat and his exceptional character as a friend and community business leader.

Among them were a number of odars who say Stanley introduced them to the wonders of Armenian food, especially lamb.

Stanley sold the business in 1983 but didn't give up on food. He became the West Coast marketing director for the American Sheep Producers Association.

The story did include one sad note in addition to Stanley's passing.

He always intended to write a cookbook, according to his wife Doris, but he never found the time.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Red Lentil-Potato Kufteh

Since no one, to date, has offered a recipe suggestion in our search for Sosie Catchatoorian’s request for a lentil-potato kufteh, Doug and I had to become creative.

We found a recipe for bulgur - potato kufteh, and changed it around to fit Sosie’s description. This is what I sent; her response follows.

Red Lentil and Potato Kufteh

Shell Ingredients:
1 cup dry red lentils, sorted, and rinsed

6 medium potatoes, cooked and mashed

1 cup flour

pepper, to taste

Filling (Meechoog) Ingredients:
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp allspice
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup currrants
1 small potato diced and cooked
vegetable oil for frying
Shell Directions:
1. Cook red lentils in two cups of water until soft. Drain excess liquid.
2. In a bowl, combine the cooked lentils, mashed potatoes, flour and pepper. Set aside.

Filling Directions:
1. In a skillet, sauté onions in olive oil until soft, but not brown.
2. Add the seasonings, pine nuts, currants, cooked diced potato to the onion, mixing well.

To shape:
1. Take one tablespoon of the lentil mixture and shape into a ball the size of a large walnut.
2. Flatten the ball and place a teaspoonful of filling in the center. Reshape into ball.
3. Continue this process until all ingredients are used.

To cook:
1. Heat the oil in a deep pot. When it has reached 365ºF, slowly add a few balls in at a time. Fry until golden on both sides. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
2. Continue the frying process until all are cooked. 

Upon receiving this, Sosie wrote:
“Robyn –

With the exception of the currants, it sounds like it could be it! I will try to make it and give you a report back.

Thank you so much!”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ever hear of Armenian Lamb Mango Stew? (We think we just invented it!)

Lamb and Mango Stew
The best part of mango season here in Florida is the end, when the ripe fruit tumbles from the trees and spreads across lawns and backyards.

Friends beg you to take home a bag or two. Some people actually leave piles of them by the curb, inviting passers-by to scoop them up.

We came home with a surprise armload of free mangoes the other day and decided to try something a little different instead of the usual mango desserts.  We had lamb on the brain, as usual, so we settled on a lamb-mango stew.

Mango isn't part of the Armenian kitchen tradition, but apricots and other fruits are. We wondered,  could our local bounty be a tasty substitute?

The short answer is: Yes!

A New Fusion Cuisine is Born : Flormenian Cuisine  (Florida-Armenian).
We knew mango and lamb would work because it's done in India, although the recipes we found were variations on curry. We wanted a more traditional Armenian taste, and we also wanted to keep it simple.

We have a habit of freezing lamb tidbits -- the pieces that don't quite work as kebab -- so we started by defrosting a container full. We also cooked up some fresh neck bones and picked the meat off them. (You know the drill: You just boil and boil, and then boil some more.)

We wound up with about two cups of well-trimmed lamb meat, and about three cups of broth. Basically, we added about two cups of sliced mangoes, seasoned the mix and kept on cooking.

The main seasonings: sumac, coriander, onions and garlic. If you're not familiar with sumac, you should cozy up as soon as you have the chance. It's a tart berry, almost lemony but with a unique flavor.

We infused the broth by placing two tablespoons of the whole, dried sumac berries in a tea strainer and letting it simmer for about 10 minutes.

The sumac balanced the sweetness of the mango perfectly. We also added a little heat with some fresh, diced ginger and a heaping tablespoon of Aleppo red pepper.

The result tasted something like an Armenian chutney: sweet, but not too sweet.

Overall, we were really happy (and a little surprised) at how nicely it all came together. One thing we'd change: I put all the mango in the broth with the lamb and let it all cook together for almost an hour. As a result, the mango pretty much melted. I should have reserved half the mango for the last 10 or 15 minutes for more fruity chunks.

Armenian Lamb Mango Stew (serves 4)

2 cups cooked, trimmed lamb meat
3 cups lamb broth (or chicken broth)
2 cups sliced, fresh mango
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon finely diced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons whole sumac, or 1 teaspoon ground sumac
salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup fresh yogurt
a few springs of fresh mint


1. Start with broth in a stew pot, reserving the lamb. Bring to a simmer.
2. Place the sumac in a tea strainer and lower into the broth. Leave it there about 10 minutes, until the broth is flavored. If you don't have a strainer, or whole sumac, you can just add ground sumac when you add the other seasonings. If you don't have either, use a tablespoon of lemon juice.
3. Sauté the onion, garlic and ginger in olive oil until just soft but not brown, then add to the broth.
4. Add 1 cup of the sliced mango, reserving the other.
5. Add the lamb.
6. Add the red pepper and coriander, plus salt and black pepper to taste.
7. Cook it all for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mango is blended and the lamb is tender.
8. Add the rest of the mango and cook another 10-15 minutes.

Serve over white rice, or pilaf if you like. Garnish each serving with a dollop of cold yogurt and a spring of fresh mint. And don't forget to eat the mint!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Art appreciation comes late for this Armenian

We ran an item last summer about the late Ashod Pinajian, an artist I knew before then only as a name on a couple of prints that belonged to my parents.

The cartoon-like sketches depict social gatherings of the Armenians of Union City, N.J. back in the 1930s. Many of the names and a few of the faces are familiar either because they were still around in my day, or because I heard my parents mention them.

We're still discovering hidden treasures among the characters. For example, the snippet shown here includes a chef figure named "Chebolian." It didn't ring a bell back then, but I now realize that's Varbed Chebolian, not only the cook but owner of an old-time Armenian hotel in the Catskill Mountains called the Washington Irving Inn.

Our original post noted that Pinajian, who died in 1999, worked for a while as a comic book illustrator but retired to obscurity. He apparently spent many years painting, but never showed his work.

More than 3,000 of his paintings along with Pinajian's daily journals were discovered by the investors who bought his late sister's Long Island house a few years ago.

Instead of carting it all to the curb, buyers Thomas Schultz and Lawrence Joseph committed themselves to preserving, sharing and drawing attention to Pinajian's impressive body of work.

You  can see some of it at the Web site, and you may soon get a chance to see the rest in person, including the drawings we wrote about.

As a result of our item, we were contacted recently and asked to lend our prints to a traveling exhibit that will make its way from coast to coast. The first stop is in Woodstock, N.Y., then on to the Armenian Library and Museum of American in Watertown, Mass and finally to Los Angeles.

Most of the works on exhibit will be paintings -- from still lifes to nudes -- done much later in Pinajian's life.

"We have nothing else that early, and really nothing like that," Mr. Schultz said of our drawings. "We think they're important because they show life in that community, which he wrote about in his journals."

Of course, we agreed!

We're looking forward to meeting Mr. Schultz this summer when we visit New York. We were already planning a stop in the Catskills. Now we'll definitely be stopping in Woodstock on the way.   

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The judges didn't quite flip over our Armenian lamb burgers

Frankly, we're feeling a little sheepish these days.

Our video didn't win the American Lamb Board's annual grilling contest. But we did finish second.

Runner up in a national video/cooking competition is certainly nothing to feel bad about.

Except...well, it was a lamb-cooking contest. The judges did say, however, that our video was "a cut above" most others.
Congratulations to the winner, John Mitzewich of San Francisco, who gets two tickets to the Food Network's burger extravaganva in New York.

We get some grill tools, which is OK.

Chef John won the big prize with his recipe for eggplant-filled moussaka burgers.

Check out both videos and let us know what you think.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sweet summer relief! Rose-water and Tamarind coolers.

Sweet drinks satisfy a summer thirst better than anything.

It's true the world over.

In the American South,  sweet tea is the favorite antidote for the summer blahs. Farther south, it's sweet coffee -- even hot coffee.

In the Near and Middle East, sugary syrups mixed with cold water are a universal thirst quencher.

My father introduced me to his two favorites when I was kid: rose-water syrup and tamarind syrup. Both tasted completely different from anything that ever plopped out of a soda machine.

Both had faded from our summer menus as we've become more sugar conscious, but sometimes you just have to indulge in a little nostalgia.

Plus, it sure has been hot!

So we decided to sip a little of each. The tamarind proved a little more challenging because it's just not available everywhere, even in Middle Eastern grocery stores.

We found some on our third try, and guess what? It contained rose water, too. I didn't remember that combination, but it tasted great.

Rose water is always in our pantry, so that was no problem. The recipe is a snap: We used about 1/4 cup of rose water to one cup of simple sugar syrup and a teaspoon of red food coloring.

Mix either syrup with water to your taste and pour over ice. A sprig of fresh mint is a nice touch if you have it.

And...ah! Suddenly, the world is cooler and life is much more pleasant.

If only everything were that simple!

(P.S., both syrups  taste great over fresh, cold yogurt!)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

An apricot shortage leaves Armenia with the pits

A friend who grew up in California mentioned the other day that his folks had an apricot tree in the back yard. He went on and on about how wonderful the apricots were, and how much he loved them.

I flew into a jealous rage!

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration -- but I really was jealous. We had apricots in the house all the time when I was growing up -- do you know any Armenians who didn't? -- but mostly the dried sort.

Fresh apricots, whether from the store or the fruit stand, were nothing to write epic poems about. They were sort of sweet, sort of soft.

Just sort of OK.

All my life, I've heard about the almost mythical sweetness and abundance of  real Armenian apricots, one of the nation's greatest natural blessings.

Now comes sad news that the original prunus armeniaca has dealt the mother country a cruel blow.

The Web site reports that freezing temperatures in March and heavy rains have done severe damage to the orchards of the Ararat Valley, the heart of Armenia's apricot-growing region.

The agriculture ministry predicts a loss of more than 30 percent of this year's harvest compared to last year's 85,000 tons.

The resulting shortage is so severe that bananas are actually cheaper than apricots in Yerevan.

The devastating news here is not the Armenians will have to make do with last year's apricot preserves but that farmers are struggling to pay their bills and the country's economy is taking a huge hit from the loss of a key export.

There are also real questions about the quality of the fruit that has been salvaged. The report quotes one orchard owner who worried that it was too late to do much with his "speckled" crop.

"We must survive until next year, then we'll see what we can do," the owner said. "Still, a question remains whether we'll manage or not."

Monday, August 2, 2010

One bread, two names. Is it Bokon or Matnakash?

Bokon - or - Matnakash?
Two months ago I started an all-out search for reader Devyn Egigian who was looking for a recipe for a bread called “bokon”. After several unsuccessful attempts, it was decided she might have meant “matnakash”. Does any of this ring a bell?

Long story short: I found a recipe, made it, then posted the recipe and photos. Devyn made the bread and really, really like it. In fact she like it SO much, she wrote the following comments, which I wanted to share.

Devyn wrote:

“Hi again, Robyn!

This was DELICIOUS!! I have to say, I think we may have hit the nail on the head. It is more like perhaps a homemade version (as opposed with something more commercial) of bokon. Honestly, it's hard to tell because it was just that good!

In my own research on the matter, I contacted my grandmother who says that everyone she knew referred to the bread I was after as bokon, (she'd never heard of matnakash)and that often times it was used as a base for pizza.

Either way, I'm happy with this bread. Thank you so much for your efforts!

One more thing! I just received a call from my grandmother, who received a call from another friend of hers, and she put me in touch with a bakery in the area. I gave them a call and they were well familiar with bokon and said that bokon and matnakash are the same thing. So the mystery is solved and it left me with a FAR better recipe for it than I could have picked up in the store. Thank you, thank you!!”
With the success of this recipe, Devyn’s next bread experiment will be one of the  katah (gata) recipes we posted a while back. She promises to let us know how that works out, too.

Thanks, Devyn, for your enthusiastic kitchen experiments! We're glad this all worked out.