Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How long do leftovers last? 5,900 years may be stretching things

Every day must seem like Christmas morning for archaeologists in Armenia.

Recent discoveries include the world's oldest shoe, the world's oldest human brain and the remains of the world's oldest wine-making operation. 

Now comes evidence that the researchers have apparently dug their way into  an ancient Armenian's closet: The world's oldest skirt, woven from reeds, has turned up not far from the shoe. 

We're betting on socks and underwear next. (We can't wait to see what the world's oldest vardiks look like.)
But even more interesting to us is that the same joint Armenian/American/Irish expedition has turned up a mummified goat believed to be at least 5,900 years old, more than 1,000 years older than any mummified animals in Egypt.

Few details emerged, as scientists have just begun to study the mummy. We're wondering why any Armenian would go the trouble of preserving a dead goat?

The Egyptians, of course, were big believers in the after-life. A pharaoh's entire household, including the servants and pets, all got tucked into the same tomb for expected re-animation in the next world.

Our completely unscientific guess is that the Armenian cave-dwellers had something less spiritual in mind for the goat. We figure they just hadn't gotten around to eating it.
Without knowing details of the Armenian mummification process, we're thinking: salt and fat. In other words, the world's oldest kavourma. 

Goat's not usually on the menu at our house -- but in case this latest discovery inspires you, here's a thought:

Goat Stew:
Serves 6 

Ingredients:3 pounds boneless goat, cubed
3 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, sliced
½ cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
salt, pepper, and ground coriander to taste
1-6 ounce can tomato paste
2 cups water
1 cup white wine

Garnish: chopped parsley or cilantro


1. Melt butter in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat; add meat in small batches, browning on all sides.
2. Stir in onion, carrots, celery, lentils, garlic, ground coriander, salt and pepper.
3. Dilute tomato paste in 2 cups water.
4. When vegetables begin to soften, add diluted tomato paste and wine; stir. Reduce heat and simmer - partially covered - for about 1-1/2 to 2 hours, or until goat is fork-tender.
5. Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Want to be healthy as well as calm? Eat like an Armenian!

It's not hard to imagine that Americans were a bit jittery in April 1918. 

The world was at war, and now the United States was too. The American Expeditionary Force was poised to join the fight in France, but material shortages were already being felt at home. 

American Cookery magazine offered plenty of advice. For those seeking nutrition in the absence of both wheat and meat, there was a recipe for nut-filled "Liberty Sandwiches" on oat bread. 

For those seeking relief from war-time tension, there was this: Eat like an Armenian.

In an article titled, "The Food Habits of a People Without Nerves," Henry C. Tracy notes that Armenians "endure more than an American cares even to think of a human being enduring," yet they enjoy "exception freedom" from nervous afflictions.

The merchants and tradesmen he encountered in various cities were also remarkably healthy and vigorous, despite their relatively sedentary lifestyle.

He concluded that the Armenian diet must be responsible, and that Americans would do well to emulate it.

More important than specific ingredients was the "physiological soundness of the Armenian's habitual diet" that provided just the right nutritional balance.

"There seems to have been acquired a national instinct for the right combination and proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrates, together with the rendering of them digestible and most assuredly appetizing."

The author notes that this natural balance is not found among Americans, who even then were prone to eating all the spare ribs and potatoes they could gobble down.

The Armenian diet provided a sharp contrast to "the habitual eating of twice as much of everything (from meat to sugar) as the body needs."

This sounds like a remarkably contemporary observation, doesn't it? 

Of course, the author identified yogurt (which he called by the Armenian name "matzoon") as essential to good health. But he also zeroed-in on the Armenian love of onions, "the pungent and soothing 'lily of the vegetable garden.' " 

The source of Tracy's expertise isn't noted in the magazine, but other citations indicate he was a naturalist who traveled through Asia Minor studying birds and other wildlife. 

He spent enough time eating with Armenians to understand that "a fundamental tenet of the Armenian kitchen is that a meal must be appetizing as well as simple."

"The word 'hamov' means literally having taste; but our word 'tasty' could never translate it."

Nearly a century later, we certainly agree. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In our house, Thanksgiving was an Armenian holiday -- and so were all the rest

Kalajian dinner party, 1960s
Like any other American family's table, ours overflowed on Thanksgiving -- and a golden-brown turkey was always the centerpiece. 

But my mother never made anything without adding an Armenian twist: Our turkey was stuffed not with bread and chestnuts but with lamb and rice.

It was typical of our holiday meals -- and plenty of every-day ones -- that both the old world and new shared the table.

In fact, Mom almost always served two complete holiday menus, one Armenian and one American. Anyone who didn't want the Armenian stuffing could have his turkey with mashed potatoes and a side of broccoli. 

I didn't see the point of bothering with such things as long as Mom was also serving her steaming-hot kufteh with home-made madzoon as cold and rich as anything Ben or Jerry ever dreamed up.

Naturally, dessert included paklava,  Armenian walnut cakeapricot pie and piles of Mom's flaky, buttery Dikranagertsi lavash. 

Leftovers -- everybody's favorite part of Thanksgiving! -- also got the Armenian treatment. There was turkey soup, but with egg and lemon. And turkey keshkeg, which I didn't much appreciate then because it reminded me of oatmeal except with the taste of cumin instead of sugar.

What wonderful memories! 

Our holiday menu this year is still a work in progress as I write this, but it certainly won't be as ambitious as Mom's. The meal will be still be special, however, because of the company who will share it.

We wish all of you a wonderful day. Even if you don't share the tradition of this most American holiday, we can all be thankful for any opportunity to break bread with the ones we love.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Holiday Season 2010- Pomegranate-Prosecco Cocktail

Pomegranate-Prosecco Cocktail
The countdown has begun. Christmas decorations have been popping up in stores since October – a little ridiculous, if you ask me! Black Friday, traditionally the Friday after Thanksgiving – and the busiest shopping day of the year- began weeks ahead of schedule. Enough already!

It’s time to take a deep breath, and focus on the true meaning of the holidays – the “reason for the season”, family, friends, food, and good cheer to all.

To begin the festivities, I’ve selected a cocktail recipe to help get you in the mood. This comes from one of my favorite magazines, Southern Living’s December 2010 issue. Because it contains pomegranate juice, the cocktail is billed as “healthy”. We all know that the pomegranate, one of our favorite Armenian fruits, helps to keep our cholesterol in check, is a good source of fiber, protects our skin, and helps prevent arthritis. But did you know it also keeps your teeth clean by helping to rid your mouth of plaque, a cause of gingivitis?

Now that you know, sit back, relax, and enjoy the holiday season! But, please, drink responsibly!

Healthy Holiday Cocktail

Serves one

Pour 2 Tbsp. refrigerated 100% pomegranate juice and ½ cup chilled Prosecco or other sparkling wine into a champagne flute (or as in our photo, martini glass).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Portable Armenian Kitchen: A 19th Century Spoon Solution

I love digging into the world of digital archives. It's like archaeology for those of us who don't want to leave our seats.

Today's discovery turned up in the endlessly fascinating collections of Hathitrust (www.babel.hatitrust.org), a digital collaboration of various research libraries.

Tucked deep in the virtual stacks was an 1874 issue of Frank Leslie's ladies magazine, a nicely illustrated periodical of fashion and fiction that also carried a variety of non-fiction reports from around the world. There, among the bustles and whale-bone corsets, was the photo at top over the caption, "Portable Armenian Kitchen."

The companion item explained: "In nearly every Armenian house will be found, hanging against the wall of the principal room, one of these contrivances for holding the kitchen utensils. It is nothing more than an ornamental rack, carved out of wood, in which the spoons used at meals are placed. A great deal of taste is shown in the matter of curious devices for these portable kitchens, which show at a glance, perhaps as much as anything else, the social status of the family."

There's nothing more, but it looks pretty neat to us (even though we'd call it a spoon rack rather than a kitchen.) And it's clearly Armenian, judging by the cross.

Sadly, nothing like it made the journey to America with either of our families.

Have any of you ever seen anything like it?

Monday, November 15, 2010


It’s November and the weather has finally started to cool down in South Florida. It plunged down to 70 degrees F for a high today; tonight's temperature will be in the mid 50's. Go ahead laugh; for us it’s pretty darn chilly!
Tourists and seasonal residents have finally started to return, which means the holidays are right around the corner, and the arrival of out-of-town guests is inevitable.

For me it means it’s time to start baking again. So I’ll start off with a simple recipe for Simit - a cross between a cookie and a chorag. Whatever you call it, simit is a favorite  when folks drop in unexpectedly for a visit.  Since Simit freezes well, they can be made in advance and can be ready to serve in a jiffy.

Serve with coffee or tea, fresh seasonal fruit or an assortment of dried fruit and cheeses.

Yield: approximately 3 dozen, depending on size


1 Tbsp. sugar
1 cup milk
4 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
dash of salt
2 sticks butter
Variation: To give simit a unique taste, add 2 tsp. finely ground mahlab**, fennel seed, and anise seed and ½ tsp. ground ginger in step #2 when you combine the flour, baking powder and salt.

(** Mahlab is the dried “heart” of the cherry pit. It can be purchased in most Middle Eastern stores. If you can’t find it, you can omit it; the taste will be slightly different, but still delicious.)

1 beaten egg
toasted sesame seeds

1. In a saucepan, gently heat the milk and sugar until milk is warm and sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. In a mixing bowl stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. If using the spices listed in the variation, add here. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or a fork, until the mixture looks crumbly. Stir in the heated milk - sugar mixture; mix to form a dough.
3. Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface until knead until it becomes smooth.
4. Divide the dough into several balls, then roll each ball into a long rope about ½ inch thick.
5. Cut each rope into about 6-inch pieces. Create an “S” shape, or leave straight.
6. Place pieces on ungreased baking sheets. Brush each piece with beaten egg, then sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
7. Bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are lightly golden brown.
8. Cool on wire racks; store in an airtight container.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Science is still peppering us with salt questions

Armenians love salt, maybe a little too much.

Or maybe not.

We inherited the Old World tradition of heavily salting our food to preserve it. Also, like everyone else, we know a little salt makes everything taste better.

But these days, just thinking about the sodium content spread across the typical Armenian table -- from pistachios to twisted cheese to basturma -- sends our blood pressure soaring.

That's why we've both been working very hard to reduce the salt content of our recipes while scrutinizing labels on prepared ingredients. The problem is that it's awfully hard to know just how much salt is too much.

The federal government recommends no more than 2,000 mg. of sodium a day for the healthy adult, but that's easily exceeded by anyone who eats a bowl of commercially prepared soup along with a fast-food burger or slice of pizza.

Many experts have noted that the increasing prevalence of high-sodium foods parallels the increased incidence of high blood pressure over the past several decades.

This has resulted in increasing calls for sodium limits on prepared foods, or perhaps even restaurant meals. (It's not much of a secret that restaurant chefs lean heavily on the salt shaker.)

But now comes startling news in the November issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Analysts who reviewed a series of studies of thousands of patients over the last half century found no increase in sodium consumption over that time: Americans average 3,700 milligrams a day today, just as they did in 1957.

The researchers know the figures are accurate because they didn't survey people about salt intake; they measured sodium excreted in urine, which is a reliable indicator of salt consumption.

As with so many health studies, what this means depends on who's doing the explaining. The research is already being hailed by some in the food industry as proof that no limits are necessary.

Some experts have concluded that when it comes to salt intake, humans may be self regulating. Others suggest that high levels of salt may not be harmful after all for the average person, and that the increase in hypertension may be due to other factors such as obesity.

Still, all the experts say people who already have high blood pressure or who have been placed on a low-sodium diet for any medical reason should stick to the limits suggested by their doctors.

We'll watch closely to see how this shakes out.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kufteh ... Deconstructed

Every so often, Doug and I get a craving for kufteh. When time doesn’t allow for the full preparation, we just make the meechoog (filling) and serve it over bulgur pilaf with a side of plain madzoon.
Kufteh Meechoog (filling)

You can make your favorite meechoog recipe, or use the one below. If you closed your eyes and took one taste of this simple version, you’d swear you were eating the real thing!

Kufteh Meechoog

2 large onions, finely chopped
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
3/4 lb ground lamb, beef, or turkey
salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, washed and finely chopped
ground coriander, allspice, black pepper, paprika to taste
1/4 cup to 1/3 cup pine nuts

1. In a skillet, melt the butter, then add olive oil to heat. Add chopped onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft - about 10 to 15 minutes.
2. In a separate skillet, cook the ground meat until it is no longer pink. Drain any excess fat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Add meat to the skillet with the onions. Stir in the remaining seasonings, parsley, and pine nuts. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes.

To serve: Place bulgur pilaf in the center of the plate (or bowl), top with meechoog, and a dollop of madzoon, if desired. A tomato-cucumber salad makes a perfect accompaniment.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Our Culinary Heritage

Faithful reader Ara responded in his usual, thoughtful manner to our recent item on Armenia's effort to identify and preserve the nation's original cuisine. 

He noted that time is running out for those of us in The West to survey our elders -- but, on an encouraging note, he pointed to a series of books published by Hamazkayin (The Armenian Educational and Cultural Society) some years back that captured many recipes unique to various regions and cities. 

We've heard about these books before, but there's no use for us in tracking them down because we don't read Armenian.

This highlights another challenge. Many of us and our children don't have the Armenian language skills to do such research, or even properly sort through the names of dishes and ingredients for clues to their origin.

It would be a valuable and generous undertaking for anyone who does have such skills to translate the resources that do exist so the rest of us can make use of them.

As for surveying our elders, we know many of you have already done that. Maybe not in a formal way, but perhaps you've at least scratched out a recipe or two that your mother or grandmother (or grandfather) passed down.

Even if it sounds so much like other recipes on books or on this Web site, it may differ in some small but significant way that tells us something about the food of their village.

Why not send it to us? 

Better yet, did you make a video?  We know some of you have done just that. Our daughter's gunkahayr, Dr. Aram Aslanian, the distinguished psychologist, captured hours of video of his maternal grandmother in the kitchen. He keeps promising to share it, but...he's busy.

We're all busy, but let's make an effort before any of this is lost. We're more than happy to act as a repository or as go-betweens or whatever anyone needs. We'll post videos for the world the see and study, or tell you how to post them yourselves. 

We can't offer much except our limited knowledge and good intentions. If you can offer the same, maybe we can all accomplish something important together.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Flavors of Autumn

Pomegranate and Pear Salad

Besides pumpkins, autumn has an abundance of other fantastic flavors. Two that come to mind are pomegranates and pears.

Here’s a quick and delicious fruit salad with very few ingredients - just make sure you use the freshest ingredients possible. The color and flavor combination are sure to please.

Pomegranate and Pear Salad
Yield: 4 to 5 servings

1 pomegranate, seeded and membrane discarded
2 lbs. Barlett or other green-skinned pear
(about 6 pears -depending on size), cored and cut into bite-sized pieces (leave skin on)
2 to 3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
2 Tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped
3 Tbsp toasted and chopped pecans or walnuts, optional

• Place the pomegranate seeds in a bowl. Set aside.
• In a large separate bowl, combine the cut-up pears and lime juice. Toss to coat.
• Add the pomegranate seeds and chopped mint, tossing gently.
• Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour for flavors to blend.

Before serving, top each portion with chopped nuts, if desired.