Saturday, April 30, 2011

Armenian String Cheese

Armenian string cheese. Photo by Pam
Doug and I love string cheese. That is to say, Armenian string cheese (tel banir), the kind that’s studded with nigella seeds and twisted into a braid - not the Italian-American snacking sticks that tend to be tough and rubbery.

We enjoy its mild, slightly salty flavor anytime – for breakfast, mid-day snack, a night-time tid-bit, or as part of a mezze platter to share with guests.

If you’re not familiar with Armenian string cheese, here’s some background information from Wikipedia: “In Armenia, traditional string cheese is made with a white base. The type of milk used usually comes from an aged goat or sheep depending upon the production methods of the area of choice. It includes black cumin and a middle-eastern spice known as mahlab, and it comes in the form of a braided endless loop. The cheese forms strings because of the way it is pulled during processing.”

We’ve never tried making Armenian string cheese for the simple reason that it’s impossible to find the necessary fresh curd here in South Florida. Fortunately, others have made it at home with much success, and have posted it on their own blogs.

One such source for making Armenian string cheese is the blog ‘Cave Cibum: Beware the Food’ by Pam from Lexington, MA. She provides a recipe and photo sequence, making it easy to visualize the steps involved in preparing the string cheese. Thanks Pam!

Perhaps this will inspire you to make your own Armenian string cheese. I’m ready to try, as soon as I find fresh curd.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Snow Blind: A story retold for the digital age

This has been a wild year for me so far. It's a long story, but I've had to leave Robyn alone in the kitchen and at the keyboard, and she has done a magnificent job while showing more patience than I deserve. 

Now I'm happy to report that I'm more or less back in the swing -- and, in the meantime, I've accomplished a couple of things that I feel good about.

For one, my book Snow Blind is now available in a new, updated Kindle edition. 

Sorry if this disappoints, but Snow Blind isn't an Armenian book. It's the true story of an idealistic young attorney named Howard Finkelstein (seen in the cover photo) who lost his principles and his purpose when he got swept up in South Florida's violent drug wars of the 1980s and became addicted to cocaine.

While it is clearly about addiction and recovery, it's also very much about the human spirit and about the decisions we all make that determine what is truly important in our lives.

Don't have a Kindle? I don't either, but I downloaded a free app that lets me read Kindle books on my iPad -- and there are other options for the Web-connected tablet of your choice.

For those who prefer old-fashioned paper, the print edition of Snow Blind (RavensYard Publishing Ltd.)  is still available from any on-line book seller. (Hint: You can use our handy widget at the bottom of this blog if you like.) 

First published a decade ago, Snow Blind continues to elicit the kind of response from readers that tells me it remains timely and important.

As a writer, I love telling meaningful stories. I was lucky enough to find another such story not long ago.

Really, it found me: Denny Abbott, a nationally known child advocate, asked me to collaborate on a book about his successful fight to end the brutal treatment of black children in Alabama's segregated reform schools  in the 1960s.

The memoir (working title: To Save The Forgotten Children) was recently acquired by NewSouth Books, the folks who have gotten a ton of publicity lately for their new and controversial edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. You'll hear more about this book as it approaches publication. 

Somehow, I find the idea of me sharing a publisher with Mark Twain pretty wild -- but, it's been that kind of year!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A day of sadness and hope

Easter Lilies - Google image
As a kid, I always found Easter to be a confounding holiday. I couldn't reconcile the joy of chocolate bunnies with the image of Christ on the Holy Cross.

You'd think a boy whose middle name is Haroutyun -- Armenian for Resurrection --  would have grasped the promise of eternal hope a bit sooner. But it took a while, and a bit of maturity, for the message to sink in.

This year, the calendar presents a fresh challenge as well as an opportunity. Easter coincides with the day when we commemorate the Genocide that claimed the lives of more than a million Armenians across the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.

For us, this is certainly no occasion for pastel bonnets. But it is surely a time for reflection on the enduring legacy of the Armenian people and their culture, and on the meaning of sacrifice.

And it is just as surely a day to crack a few hard-cooked eggs and eat them with chorag and cheese for breakfast, as Armenians have always done.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What are you serving for Easter?

It’s Easter time again. Have you finalized your Easter menus? If you don’t know what to prepare, check our recipe list and select what suits your taste, but hurry, time is running out!

Here are some suggestions with links to the recipes.
Happy cooking - and - Happy Easter everyone! 

Chorag (choreg)

Breakfast Suggestions:
Chorag, simit, lavash, Armenian string cheese, Easter eggs, olives, juice, coffee

Lamb Roast
Dinner Suggestions:
Appetizers: cheese or spinach boregs, hummus, eggplant spread, yalanchi
Entrée: Lamb roast or shish kebab- (no other meat will do!), fish plaki
Accompanimentspilaf of your choice, Armenian potato salad
Vegetables/saladEaster spinach salad**, Armenian salad
Dessert: Paklava, boorma, "Love Cake"
Beverages: TahnRose Water Cooler, Armenian coffee

** Easter Spinach Salad recipe from Rose Baboian's 'Armenian-American Cook Book' 
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
10 to 12 oz. fresh spinach, washed and chopped
1/4 cup cold water
1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) plain madzooon (yogurt), drained
3/4 cup chopped parsley
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
 2 tsp. salt
1/2 to 3/4 tsp. sugar

  1. In a 2 quart pot place the washed, chopped spinach. Add the cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until spinach is soft. Drain, cool, and set aside until ready to use.
  2. Drain the madzoon following these directions: Spread layers of cheesecloth in a colander which has been placed over a saucepan or a bowl. Pour madzoon inside the cloth. Let stand for about 2 to 3 hours or until thick, mixing with a spoon once every half hour. Liquid will drain through the cloth into the saucepan or bowl. Discard liquid. Use the thickened madzoon as directed in the recipe.
  3. In a pot mix together the chopped parsley, cooked spinach, drained madzoon, garlic, salt and sugar.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pat and John Nashmy's Easter Chorag

Just in time for Easter, John and Pat Nashmy of northern NJ were kind enough to share their special chorag recipe which they have adapted from the original found in “The Assyrian Cookbook”. You might recall a previous post where the Nashmys shared their adapted gouvedge recipe and photos. Pat, a very talented cook, likes to “jazz-up” recipes to suit her family’s taste preferences. 

Thanks again, John and Pat - and- Happy Easter! 

Soft Sweet Chorag
Pat and John Nashmy’s recipe, adapted from “The Assyrian Cookbook”
Yield: around 150 -175 pieces, depending on how thinly the dough is rolled and the size you shape

Dough Ingredients:
5 lbs. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground mahlab
4 ½ tsp. Black Russian Caraway seeds
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
6 eggs, room temperature, slightly beaten
1 ½ lb. margarine, melted
2 cups warm milk
2 pkgs. Dry yeast
½ cup warm water

For Chorag Tops:

Egg wash
Sugar for sprinkling on top


1. Combine all dry ingredients and mix well.
2. Dissolve yeast in warm water; allow to activate in a warm place.
3. Add yeast mixture, eggs, warm milk, and melted margarine to dry ingredients. Mix well. Knead dough and shape into a ball.
4. Place dough in a clean bowl; cover bowl with waxed paper or plastic wrap, then a large towel. Put in a warm place to rise, about 3 hours, or until doubled in bulk.
5. Pinch off some dough, roll it into a rope shape about a 1/2" X 6" long and then braid, or make circles using a 4" length.
6. Spray regular baking sheets (not the non-stick type) with a vegetable spray – such as PAM. Place chorags on the sheet and let rise for 15 to 20 minutes. This makes for a softer chorag.
7. Brush chorag tops with egg wash, then sprinkle with a little bit of sugar.
8. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven until golden brown, about 25 minutes.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sri Lankan Love Cake

Sri Lankan Love Cake
I love paklava, boorma, and the usual Armenian desserts. In my previous post, I shared my traditional paklava recipe. But I wanted to see if there was another dessert recipe - something I hadn't made before - that was easy to make, still taste 'Armenian', and still complement our Easter menu.  

I came across a unique recipe, Sri Lankan Love Cake, on a website called ‘The Traveler’s Lunchbox”. The name of the recipe sounded so romantic, I was intrigued and kept on reading. The ingredient list had a very  Armenian ring to it with key ingredients of semolina, honey, rose water, cardamom and candied pumpkin.

I was anxious to get in the kitchen and start baking. (If the 'Love Cake' passes our 'taste test', it could end up on our Easter table this year.)
I happened to have the necessary ingredients on hand, including some rachal (candied pumpkin) from my autumn pumpkin experiment.

Note: If you don't have candied pumpkin, leaving it out shouldn’t be a problem. But the next time it’s pumpkin season, try making our rachal recipe and save some for this ‘Love Cake’.

Sri Lankan Love Cake
from “The Traveler’s Lunchbox” website
Yield: 16 2-inch squares

3 large eggs
1 1/4 (250g) cups sugar
5 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon rose water
finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom
1 cup (125g) raw cashews, coarsely chopped
1 cup (125g) coarse semolina
2 oz. (60g) candied squash/pumpkin, winter melon or pineapple, coarsely chopped (optional)


Robyn’s Note #1: I decided to toast the cashews using the following directions: Place cashews on a baking sheet in a single layer. Toast in a preheated 400°F oven for about 5 minutes; allow to cool, coarsely chop, and set aside until ready to use.

1. Lightly spray an 8-inch (20cm) square baking pan with vegetable spray. Preheat oven to 300°F/150°C.
2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until thick and light. Add the melted butter, honey, rose water, lemon zest, nutmeg and cardamom. Beat well.
3. Stir in the cashews together with the semolina and candied fruit, if using. 
Robyn’s Note #2: I left out the candied pumpkin, but chose to serve it on the side.
4. Pour cake batter into the prepared pan; bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the top is golden and puffed. If the cake starts to brown too quickly, cover it loosely with foil. When done, a skewer inserted two inches (5cm) from the edge of the pan should come out clean, but the middle should still be moist. Let cool completely in the pan before removing.
5. Dust with powdered sugar if you like, and cut into small squares or diamonds to serve.

Our evaluation: pretty darn good! We loved the essence of rose water, the crunch of the cashews, the texture from the semolina, and the not-overly-sweet flavor. Serving the rachal on the side worked out well, too. FYI: I baked it for 45 minutes. Baking time could vary since all ovens are not created equal!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Paklava - Traditional Style

Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. After observing Lent for 40 days and 40 nights, we've earned the right to enjoy some of the pleasures we’ve resisted for what seems like a very long time. One way to do this is to serve Traditional Paklava at your Easter table.

Some years ago, Susan Ounjian, a lecturer and performer, hosted a cooking video, “The Art of Traditional Armenian Cooking”. In it she explained her version of the origin of the word “paklava.” She stated that the word came from an old Lenten tradition: “With ‘pak,’ meaning Lent, and ‘halva’, meaning sweet, the story says that paklava was made with 40 layers of dough to represent the 40 days of Lent. After Easter services, paklava was served in celebration.”

So, with this in mind, here is our recipe for traditional paklava to serve and enjoy with your family and friends this Easter Sunday.
Just-baked traditional Paklava

Yield: 30 to 40 pieces

Filling Ingredients:
2 cups walnuts, pecans or pistachio nuts, chopped
1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon

Main Ingredients:
11/2 cups clarified unsalted butter, melted*
1 lb. Phyllo dough, thawed

1. In a medium bowl, combine nuts and cinnamon. Set aside.
2. Lightly brush a 9" x 13" baking pan with melted butter.
3. Place half of the phyllo sheets (20 sheets) on the bottom of the pan, lightly brushing every (or every other) sheet with melted butter.
4. Spread with nut mixture.
5. Layer the rest of the phyllo sheets (20 more sheets) on top, lightly brushing each sheet, including the top layer, with melted butter.
6. Place tray of unbaked paklava in refrigerator for about45 minutes to one hour before attempting to cut.
7. To make diamond-shaped cuts: using a very sharp knife, cut diagonally, then make vertical cuts through phyllo dough.
8. Bake in preheated 350°F oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until golden brown.
9. As soon as the paklava comes out of the oven, spoon some of the cooled syrup over the top of each piece. Cool completely before serving.

*To clarify butter: Melt about 1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups butter or butter and margarine over low heat until foam appears. Skim foam and keep on low heat for about 15 minutes or until water has evaporated and salt and solids settle to bottom of pan. Cool about 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully pour clarified butter into container, leaving salt and solids at bottom of the pan. Discard solids.

Simple Syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups water
1 strip of lemon peel or a drop of lemon juice
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain and cool.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Okra (Bamya) Stew

Fresh okra
Here is a wonderful recipe to serve during Lent, or anytime.  Not into okra? You can substitute your favorite in-season vegetable. Zucchini, green beans or eggplant work well in this recipe, too. (Note: if you use zucchini, you won't have to cook it as long as the recipe states.)

Okra Stew
Yield: 4 servings

1 onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup of olive oil
1 lb. bag of frozen okra (whole or cut), or fresh okra, tips trimmed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ cups tomato sauce, or 14.5 oz. can, diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon of freshly ground coriander seed
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 cup loosely-packed cilantro leaves

1. Heat the oil in a deep skillet; saute the chopped onion, stirring occasionally, until golden. 
2. Add the frozen (or fresh) okra to the onions and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic, tomato sauce (or diced tomatoes), lemon juice, ground coriander, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Remove cover for the last five to ten minutes of cooking to allow some of the liquid to evaporate.
4. Serve hot or at room temperature. Goes well with pita bread or your preferred dipping bread.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to Make Perfect Pilaf? Keep a lid on it! (AND SEE THE VIDEO!)

Confession: I'm a pot peeker. At least, I used to be.

For many years, my pilaf-making was hampered by my natural curiosity as well as my determination never to leave well enough alone.  I couldn't resist lifting the pot lid and stirring things up.

The result was rarely good. My pilaf was either soggy or crunchy -- or both.

I don't have to guess that a professional cook would have been appalled, because I know she was: Robyn advised me early and often  to keep my hands in my pockets while the pilaf was simmering. In pilaf as in many things, I learned slowly.

But I did learn -- and we're both glad I did! It's a simple thing, really, but it works. My pilaf is now consistent, not to mention highly digestible.

Here's my simple method for making bulgur pilaf. The same technique and proportions apply to rice, except you have to cook it longer.(Follow directions that come with your rice of choice.) The result is never sticky, greasy or wet.

Of course, if you like your pilaf sticky, greasy or wet, adjust accordingly!

Better yet, view the video by clicking here.

PERFECT PILAF (serves five as a side dish)
1 cup medium (#2) bulgur
2 cups broth or water
2 tablespoons olive oil (or two pats of butter)
1 handful of pilaf noodles (or vermicelli, orzo or your noodle of choice)
salt and pepper (ex: Aleppo red pepper) to taste

Pour oil into saucepan and turn up the heat to medium-high.
Add the noodles and stir. Stay close and keep stirring until the noodles start to turn brown.

Add the bulgur and stir thoroughly. This is what makes it pilaf: coating the grains.

Toast the mixture like this for a minute or two, then slowly pour in the broth. Be careful to stand back, or take the pot off the heat to avoid a steam bath.

Add salt and pepper, stir once and bring to a boil.

Lower the heat to medium, put the lid tightly on the pot. Let it all simmer for five minutes.

Then turn off the heat but leave the lid in place. Let the pilaf sit 10 minutes longer.

NOW you can take the lid off. You should find perfectly cooked bulgur pilaf that's moist but shows no excess water.
Fluff it with a fork and serve hot!

Serving note: Who says pilaf has to be a side dish? There's no more satisfying dinner than bulgur pilaf with a nice Armenian salad, fresh bread and cold madzoon. Make it with water or vegetable broth and you have a meatless feast suitable for any time of year.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Zucchini with Rice

Zucchini with Rice, Pine Nuts & Currants
When I made cod with spinach the other day, I ended up with some leftover currants and toasted pine nuts. Not wanting to be wasteful, I decided to add them to another Lent-friendly recipe, Zucchini with Rice, just to jazz it up a bit. They're optional ingredients in this, so if you don't have them or want to use them, that's OK. This dish will still be wonderful.

Zucchini with Rice
Serves 4
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 medium zucchini, washed and scrubbed, unpeeled, cut into quarters length-wise, and cut into ½ inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
½ tsp. Aleppo red pepper, or a dash of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups water
1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
2 Tbsp. currants, optional
2 Tbsp. toasted pine nuts, optional

1. In a 4 quart saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add onions and garlic; sautė for about 2 minutes. Stir in zucchini, and sautė 5 minutes, or until tender. Stir in oregano, Aleppo pepper, salt, and pepper. Continue cooking for about 2 more minutes, making sure seasonings coat the vegetables.
2. Add the water to the vegetable mixture; stir in rice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes, until the rice is tender.
3. Remove pot from heat. Remove pot cover and place a clean towel over the rice - zucchini mixture. Place cover back on pot. Allow rice to rest for 5 minutes. This will help absorb any additional moisture. Gently toss rice-zucchini with a fork. Sprinkle in currants and pine nuts, if using.