Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lemony Artichokes, Potatoes and Dill

The Lenten season is upon us once again. Keeping this in mind, here is a filling, refreshing Lenten dish consisting of artichoke hearts, potatoes, mirepoix (a mixture of carrots, onions and celery), enhanced by the tang of fresh lemon and the earthiness of dill. Not only is this a terrific Lenten dish, but it’s great anytime as an entrée or side dish.

Lemony Artichokes, Potatoes and Dill
Lemony Artichokes, Potatoes and Dill
Serves: 4 to 5

Ingredients for this recipe
2 shallots, sliced lengthwise
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 lb. fingerling or small red potatoes scrubbed, unpeeled and cut in half – or - in quarters, if too large
3 medium carrots peeled and thinly sliced on a diagonal
3 celery stalks, thinly sliced on a diagonal
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in ½ cup cold water
¼ cup fresh lemon juice, or more according to your taste
1 cup vegetable broth (canned or homemade), or water
1 -10 oz. pkg. frozen artichoke hearts, thawed, cut in half (canned artichokes – not marinated - may be substitute)
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped (1 Tbsp. dried dill may be substituted)
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
 ¼ tsp. black pepper, or to taste

Garnish: crumbled feta cheese, optional

1. Place the cut potatoes in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover the potatoes with water. Place plastic wrap over the bowl, making a few slits in the plastic to allow excess steam to escape. Cook on HIGH for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until potatoes are almost tender. Drain; set potatoes aside.
2. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add the shallots and onions; saute until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the potatoes, carrots, and celery; continue to saute another 5 minutes.
3. Add the cornstarch mixture to the pot and mix well. Cook about a minute or two stirring constantly.
4.  Stir in the lemon juice, vegetable broth (or water), salt and pepper. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce heat and simmer covered for about 15 minutes or until the carrots, celery and potatoes are fork tender. Add additional water if needed.
5. Add the artichokes and dill; adjust seasonings taste. Cover and simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until the artichokes are tender.
6. Just before serving, garnish with crumbled feta cheese, if desired.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cars were supposed to be the stars, but food was the driving force

Anyone who's been near a television set in the past decade is aware that Americans now love food and cooking the way we once loved cars and driving.

So it's no surprise that General Motors has launched a cross-country promotional tour in concert with Food and Wine Magazine that cleverly showcases celebrity chefs and their creations.
Robyn with Chef Michael Psilakis

The invited audience in each city sees dazzling demonstrations, hears the chefs share a few culinary secrets, nibbles on delicious food while sipping fine wines . . . and, oh, gets to drive new Buicks.

Luckily, the wine doesn't get poured until after the test drives.

We know all this because our friends Mike and Ann Granzow were nice enough to ask us along when they got an invitation to the Fort Lauderdale stop on the tour.

Robyn expected this to be little more than a chance for Mike and me to play with cars but was delighted when the evening turned into an up-close encounter with some well-known culinary figures.

The menu was a bit jumbled, starting with dessert and a bit of wizardry. Chicago pastry chef Ben Roche nearly disappeared in a vapor cloud as he decanted a container of liquid nitrogen that allowed him to whip up a heaping bowl of coconut-and-habanero-pepper ice cream in less time than it usually takes me to scoop up a bowl of store-bought vanilla.

Next, we grazed on a surprisingly satisfying roasted-beet-and-carrot salad prepared by Southern-cooking aficionado Hugh Acheson, familiar as both contestant and judge to viewers of the several Top Chef variants. (He's less annoying in person, trust us.)

Then, at last, the wine was uncorked. It wasn't bubbly, but our host more than made up for that. Michael Green, writer and enthusiastic promoter of wine enjoyment, condensed a 32-week wine appreciation course into 20 rollicking yet edifying minutes.

The evening would have been a success if it had ended there, but happily for us it didn't. It's no slight to the others to admit that our final host was our favorite: Chef Michael Psilakis is a restaurateur, cookbook author, TV celebrity and one of the country's most respected proponents of Greek cuisine.

In the food business, Psilakis stands out as self-taught rather than formally trained—but his informal training in family kitchen has clearly shaped his life as well as his career.

As he prepared a simple meatball dish for us to sample, he shared his reflections on the bond between food and memories, illustrating his point with recollections of the meals he grew up with.

He offered a vivid portrait of his grandmother making keftedes, which he devoured by the platter full. He also spoke movingly about helping his father roast a whole lamb in the back yard each Easter, and then initiating his own son in the practice many years later.

The importance of food in so many family rituals resonated with our own childhood memories. After his demonstration, we stole a moment with the chef to snap his picture and tell him how much we appreciated hearing his stories.

When we mentioned our blog, he responded, "Armenian? Wonderful. We're brothers."

We felt certain of it when we received the evening's final bonus, an autographed copy of Chef Psilakis' latest cook book.

The title: How To Roast A Lamb.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ghapama - Stuffed, baked Pumpkin

I started writing a ghapama blog item several months ago, but ended up putting the story on the back burner when I realized I wouldn’t have time to prepare it. 
Ghapama (photo credit:Pam Aghababian) 

Then, a few days ago, completely out of the blue, I received a request for a ghapama recipe by a very talented children’s book author and illustrator, Alik Arzoumanian. Alik is working on a project related to ghapama and was in need of a recipe as part of her research. I was happy to oblige, and in doing so, I figured, I’d post the story and recipe even though it’s somewhat out of ghapama season - at least in South Florida. In Armenian, the word ‘Ghapama’ literally means cooked in a covered pot. Recipe-wise, ghapama is a stuffed, baked pumpkin traditionally served between the New Year and Armenian Christmas which Armenians celebrate on January 6th.

NOTE: Sometimes ghapama is made with a winter squash such as the acorn squash variety rather than pumpkin. To make ghapama, a medium sized pumpkin (about 3 lbs. in weight) is cut open at the top, then the fibrous strands and seeds are scooped out. Generally, a stuffing made with partially cooked rice, dried fruit, raisins, chopped nuts, cinnamon, sugar or honey is placed in the cavity. The filled pumpkin is baked until tender and served table-side.

I was reminded by my friend Ara that there is a traditional song re-popularized by Harout Pamboukjian about this wonderful Armenian dish. “Hey Jan Ghapama, Hamov Hodov Ghapama”, meaning ‘Dear Ghapama, tasty, aromatic ghapama’. Ara went on to say the lyrics claim that over 100 guests will come if (ghapama) is ever made.
A more formal, yet fun, rendition of the ghapama song was performed by the KOHAR Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Gyumri, Armenia.

Ghapama Recipe 
1 pumpkin, about 3 lbs.
1 ½ cups rice
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter, melted
¼ cup each of dried plums, apricots, cherries, chopped
¼ cup raisins
½ - 3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Dash of salt, or to taste
1 – 2 Tbsp. honey (or sugar)
½ cup chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts, or pecans), optional
¼ cup hot water

1. Wash and dry exterior of pumpkin. Cut off the top in a circle shape as it will be used as a lid.
2. Scrape out the stringy fibers and seeds. Discard fibers, but rinse and save the seeds for roasting later on, if desired. Rinse the inside of the pumpkin; pat dry.
3. In a saucepan, bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add rice, stir, cover the pot and reduce heat to low. Cook rice for about 15 minutes. Rice should not be completely cooked. Drain any excess liquid.
4. In bowl, mix together the partially cooked rice, chopped, dried fruit, melted butter, salt, cinnamon, honey (or sugar), and nuts, if using.
5. Loosely stuff filling into pumpkin; pour the ¼ cup hot water over the top of the filling.
6. Place the pumpkin on a baking sheet for support. Put the top of the pumpkin back on and bake at 325°F for about 1-1/2 to 2 hours or until soft. Insert a toothpick into the pumpkin to determine tenderness.

Cut into wedges; serve.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Lucine Kasbarian's Swiss Chard Lentil Soup

My friend, Lucine Kasbarian (author, writer, and illustrator), sent me her recipe for Swiss chard lentil soup. She asked me to read through it to see if it could be tweaked. She and her family liked the recipe well-enough, but felt it could use some sprucing-up. I glanced through the ingredients which looked fine. After reading her directions, I decided I’d make the soup, adjust some of the ingredients and re-work a few of the steps.  

Lucine’s original recipe is listed first; my recipe variations follow along with the results.

Prep time: 20 mins.    Cooking time: 1 hour

1/3 cup brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
6-8 cups chicken broth (can mix with beef broth)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large white onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 medium carrots, diced
2 cans chickpeas, drained and washed
1 pound Swiss chard, washed, stemmed and chopped
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt to taste
Dash of red wine vinegar

1) Place lentils in a large saucepan (12" diameter x 6" high). Add broth, bring to boil, and cook over medium heat for 15 mins.
2) Heat oil in skillet, saute onion and garlic until onion is transparent. Add lentils with carrots and chickpeas. Stir to combine, cover and cook over medium-low heat 15 mins or until tender. Add Swiss chard, coriander, allspice, salt and red wine vinegar. (You may want to add the chard gradually so that it wilts first and gives you room to add more.) Cook 5-7 mins. Adjust seasoning by tasting and serve hot with lemon juice or wedges squeezed over soup.
Serves 4-6
Swiss chard lentil soup made in The Armenian Kitchen
Here are my ingredient adjustments for Lucine’s Swiss chard lentil soup:
I used…
  • ½ cup lentils instead of 1/3 cup
  • Olive oil instead of veg. oil
  • 1 can chickpeas instead of 2
  • ½ tsp. salt instead of 1 tsp.
  • ¼ + cup lemon juice instead of dash of red wine vinegar
  • a blend of 3 cups lamb broth (which I had in the freezer) plus 1 (32-oz) box low- sodium chicken broth
My cooking variations are as follows:
Sautéeing the veggies and spices
1. I sautéed the onions, garlic and carrots in the oil until they began to soften, then added the spices to the skillet and let them cook with the vegetables for a few minutes. This intensified the flavors of the coriander and allspice. (The house smelled great!)

Adding the lentils to the broth
2. Using an 8-qt. pot, I brought the 2 broths to a boil, then added the lentils and let it cook on medium heat for about 15 minutes (as Lucine did). 
Then I added the onion mixture, chick peas, lemon juice and the chard – one handful at a time, adding more as the chard wilted. I let it cook for about 20-30 minutes on medium - low heat with the pot partially covered. Added water as broth evaporated.
Adding the chard a little at a time
Final Outcome: The broth had a delicious, deep, rich, earthy flavor with a hint of brightness from the lemon.  

This soup is certainly a healthy, hearty, one-pot meal. Thanks, Lucine!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Planet Ozone: Another world that we'd be happy to visit any time!

Like many of you, we're always on the look-out for new restaurants and grocery stores that feature the sort of foods we enjoy—not just Armenian, but the whole range of Near and Middle Eastern cuisine. 

There still aren't many such venues here in South Florida, where the region's much-touted ethnic diversity mostly means you'd better speak Spanish if you plan to spend much time in Miami.

But I made a startling discovery the other day via Google that launched us on a Sunday road trip about 50 miles up the coast to the city of Stuart. 
Planet Ozone & Tabuleh Cafe, Stuart, FL

It's a community known to us - until then - as a pleasant but not very colorful spot where folks retire to get away from crowds and traffic. 

Until I saw it myself, I'd have bet a whole tray of paklava that nothing like Planet Ozone could possibly exist there on a sleepy stretch of U.S. 1 mostly lined with strip malls and self-storage barns.

If the name seems even odder than the location, it gets stranger: this very Middle Eastern grocery and restaurant seems to have accidentally beamed down inside a Sunoco gas station!
Shelves are well-stocked!

Gas-station convenience stores are common everywhere, but the convenience here isn't just Snickers and a traveling pack of Kleenex. The aisles are packed with a truly astounding variety of specialty food items ranging from dried lentils and bulgur to meat and dairy products.
And I mean astounding: I've opened a million convenience-store freezer cases to retrieve a Good Humor bar or a bag of party ice. But never lamb brains.

No kidding! There they were, along with pretty much every other part of our favorite farm animal.

The real surprise was that not only were there plenty of items useful for Armenian cooking, there were actual Armenian items: basturma, soujouk, lamajoun and even Karoun madzoon.

Just poking through the shelves made us hungry. Luckily, the Tabuleh Cafe is right inside Planet Ozone

Lamb kebab platter

We sampled the lamb shish kebab, the lamb shank and the appetizer platter that included stuffed grape leaves, baba ghannouj, hummus and falafel.

Nice stuff! My only complaint is that the kebab was dry but it was definitely cooked to my liking: well done.
Mezza platter

Lamb shank platter

Planet Ozone's brochures and Web site stress the healthy aspects of Middle Eastern cuisine, and the offerings go even further. Signs point out gluten-free and organic choices, and the menu offers options such as brown rice with lentils in place of regular rice pilaf.

We brought along our friend Aram Aslanian, who was visiting from Maine but grew up near me in New Jersey. Aram often complains about the dearth of familiar foods anywhere far from our old haunts in the Northeast.

Planet Ozone, however, had him shouting—quite literally—with glee. "They have Assadourian's lahmajoun!" he announced to the entire store as he opened the refrigerated case.

I suggested Aram bring a cooler and make Planet Ozone his first stop on the return drive to Maine. "Forget that," he said. "I'm coming back tomorrow morning." 

I didn't see breakfast on the cafe menu, but they had basturma and cheese in the fridge. Seems like an ideal landing spot any time of day. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Even in France, the best food is Armenian

Our daughter Mandy just got back from a short but hectic business trip to Europe that included high-pressure meetings in Paris and Barcelona.

Of course, she made sure her busy agenda included some family time, which in our family means Armenian meal time.

Cousin Arsene Dirkelessian greeted her at his home just east of Paris with a veritable banquet of home-made dolma, kebab and just about everything else you could name from a lifetime of Armenian eating.

Each course was delivered with love and a lecture about the typical American's poor eating habits. He warned especially about our over-consumption of meat and alcohol.

Mandy pointed out that every dish on the table included generous portions of meat, and that the meal began with wine and ended with Armenian brandy.

Arsene's reply: "This is all healthy because it's Armenian."
Can you argue with that? We can't.
Mandy spent the next day with Arsene's sister, Haygouhie Tfenkidjian. Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, Haygo treated her to a sumptuous, hours-long lunch at a very grand and very French  restaurant in Paris.

Mandy reports the meal would have satisfied the most demanding diner and eliminated the need for most people to eat again for at least a day. 

Of course, it turned out to be just a warm-up for the real treat: Dinner at Chez Bedros in Moulineaux, just west of the capital. 

Chez Bedros - Is that a great name for a restaurant? So perfectly French and Armenian.

Cousin Haygouhie and lahmajoun

The menu was Armenian with a Lebanese twist. Mandy sampled a good deal of it and reports it was all excellent—but the clear centerpiece is the lahmajoun, hand-made with a perfect crust and served with fresh tomatoes, parsley and onion.

Haygo thinks so highly of it that she buys several dozen at a time to share with her family. We wish they shipped overseas!

Mandy's report made us hungry not only for such wonderful food but for such loving company. We're thankful to Haygouhie and Arsene for their hospitality.

Most of all, we're thankful to have them as cousins.

The lesson, as always, is that it's good to have an Armenian family—especially at meal time. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gatnabour - Armenian Rice Pudding

After dealing with some heavy-duty dental work this past week, I was only able to eat very soft foods for a few days. This presented me with the perfect opportunity to make Gatnabour. What an excuse, right? Its soft, creamy texture and delicately sweet taste was just what I needed after suffering in the dental chair for so many uncomfortable hours. It’s simple to make, but be ready to stand by the stove for about an hour to stir - and - keep a watchful eye on the pot. The end result will be worth every minute of your time!
Gatnabour is ready to serve!

Rice pudding (GATNABOUR)                                           Yield: 8 servings
Gatnabour Ingredients (Rice in photo is already cooked to 'al dente' stage)

1 cup water              
¾ cup uncooked rice
4 cups warm milk
pinch of salt
½ cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. rose water, optional
ground cinnamon, optional

1. Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a 4-quart pot. Stir in rice; reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until water is absorbed – about 15 minutes. Make sure rice doesn’t burn or stick to bottom of pot. Rice will be a bit ‘al dente’. Remove rice from pot and set aside. Wash and dry the pot before going on step #2.
Gatnabour is bubbling and thickening

2. Add milk to the same 4-quart pot used in step #1. Heat milk until it is warm, but not boiling. Add the al dente rice to the warm milk and cook on low to medium heat for about 45 minutes, stirring frequently. The mixture should be thickening at this point, as the milk begins to evaporate. Stir in the salt and sugar; cook for 15 minutes more and continue to stir. The mixture should begin to resemble thickened rice pudding. Remove from heat and stir in the rose water, if using.
3. Pour pudding into individual dessert dishes; allow cool at room temperature. Serve immediately. The pudding can also be served chilled. Sprinkle top with cinnamon just before serving, if desired.
  Robyn's Notes:
  • I used skim milk and it came out great! The rose water and cinnamon added  very subtle, satisfying flavors to the pudding.
  • For a more festive touch, sprinkle the top with ground pistachio nuts, or add lemon or orange zest to the mixture as it cooks.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Khashlama, a newly discovered, very old Armenian recipe

This time of year is filled with fund-raising events at St. David Armenian Church, Boca Raton, FL.- especially the month of February. To kick-off the fun-filled month, the Women’s Guild is sponsoring “Cupid Capers” Fun Night on February 11, serving Armenian delicacies and desserts, while Onnik Dinkjian, Harry Minassian, Leon Janikian, Ara Dinkjian, and Mike Gregian provide the best-ever musical entertainment.  (Sorry, tickets will not be sold at the door.)

The following Saturday, February 18, the Mr. and Mrs. Club is hosting ‘Yerevan Night’ serving khashlama with potatoes as the main course with an assortment of other delicious items- plus games and  activities for the entire family.

To round out the month, the annual Food Festival takes place on February 25 and 26, featuring traditional Armenian delights such as lamb, chicken and losh kebab, kheyma, yalanchi, Armenian pastries and so much more.

That’s a lot of food and fun, my friends!

Flyers were mailed announcing each event, but what really caught my eye was the mention of khashlama, the featured dish for the ‘Yerevan Night” event. I didn’t recall ever seeing this on a church-event menu before, nor was I sure what ingredients the cooks were using for their recipe - except for the potatoes that were mentioned in the flyer.

I researched what constitutes khashlama, and here’s what I discovered:
Khashlama (Hashlama), simply put, is a boiled meat dish, generally beef or lamb (or mutton, where available) seasoned with herbs and some salt – a stew, of sorts, in its most basic form.

Irina Petrosian, author of ‘Armenian Food – Fact, Fiction and Folklore’ describes khashlama as “a favorite for Armenian food lovers who enjoy natural, plain flavors.”
Petrosian also makes reference to khashlama from the cookbook, “The Oriental Cookbook – Wholesome, Dainty and Economical Dishes of the Orient, Especially Adapted to American Tastes and Methods of Preparation”, by Ardashes Keoleian, formerly of Constantinople, printed in 1913. Keoleian indicated that khashlama is an economical, popular dish where you make separate use of meat and broth.

His cookbook offers numerous khashlama recipes, including boiled brain, tongue, beef, part-or-all of a lamb, chicken, and more. Some khashlama recipes include vegetables, other versions are plain, but all of them have the basic components of meat and broth.
Here is the most basic recipe for Khashlama (Hashlama) from Mr. Keoleian’s cookbook:

[Ebmeni Et Hashlama Teetibi.]

Ingredients :
Meat 3 to 4 pounds, leg, haunch or shoulder of beef, mutton or lamb (or in desired quantity).
Parsley 1 bunch.
Dry Onions 2, medium.
Tomatoes 2, ripe (or 3 to 4 tablespoonfuls of canned tomatoes).
Salt and pepper, to taste.

Take the meat, wash and put in a vessel with sufficient amount of cold water. Bring it to a boil and take the scum off. Boil until the meat is tender.

After boiling the meat as directed, put the meat into a separate deep pan, pierce it on all sides with a pointed sharp knife, and chop over it the onions and the tomatoes. (Some would insert peeled bulbs of garlic in the pierced places on the meat.)
Pour over a cupful of the broth. Season the whole to taste and place in a moderately hot oven until the vegetable ingredients are fully cooked.
Serve hot and sliced, use own gravy as sauce.
I found another version of Khashlama in the AGBU cookbook, ‘Flavors with History – Armenian Cuisine’, which is typically served in the region of Etchmiadzin. It sounded more to our liking so, I adjusted it to suit our palates, prepared it, and now share my version with you .

Khashlama - ready to serve

Khashlama- Boynton Beach style
Serves 4
2 lbs. lean lamb, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, diced
½ large yellow pepper, coarsely chopped
½ large red pepper, coarsely chopped
½ cup flat leaf parsley (stems removed; leaves left whole)
½ cup crushed tomato
¼ cup tomato paste
2 cups lamb broth (water, beef or chicken broth may be substituted)
1 tsp. marjoram, or to taste
Salt, black pepper and paprika, as needed

(Onions and garlic may be added to the recipe.)
Cooking lamb cubes on the stovetop
1. Place lamb cubes in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium. Remove scum as it rises to the surface. Cook, uncovered, until meat starts to become tender, about 1 hour.

2. Remove meat from pot with a slotted spoon; place in a casserole dish. Season meat with marjoram, salt, pepper, and paprika. Toss to coat.
3. Strain lamb broth and pour into a liquid measuring cup. Add water, if necessary, to make 2 cups.

Vegetables, broth and lamb ready to bake
4. Add the tomatoes, peppers and parsley to the meat in the casserole dish. Gently toss.
5. Mix together the tomato puree, tomato paste and lamb broth. Pour liquid over the meat and vegetables, gently mixing together.

6. Bake, covered with aluminum foil, in a moderate, preheated (350°F) oven for 1 hour.  Remove the foil and continue baking for additional 30 minutes, or until meat is very tender.
Serve in a bowl with bread (for dipping) or over bulgur pilaf.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Midia Dolma - A big hit at St. Nersess Seminary Christmas Party

Early last December I received an email from reader Karen who had an urgent request for a Midia Dolma recipe.
Midia Dolma prepared at St. Nersess Seminary
Karen wrote:
I have friends who want to make midia dolma tomorrow. I see on the site you have the "soode" (mock) version listed.  Do you have any experience making the kind in the shells or know where they can find a good recipe for this?  They have some questions about the method of stuffing and cooking and can't find a good recipe that spells it out. Thanks!

With that I had to confess to Karen that I’d never actually made the long version, frankly because it sounded like more effort than I was ever willing to put forth. I did have a recipe, however, to share with her. It was from my trusted Alice Antreassian cookbook, ‘Armenian Cooking Today’.
After sending the recipe to Karen, she indicated that she, too, had this cookbook and had already sent the midia dolma recipe to her friends. Karen promised to let me know how the preparation went.

Here’s the recipe I sent to Karen:
Midia Dolma – the long version!
(from Armenian Cooking Today, by Alice Antreassian)
NOTE: The Armenian Kitchen has not tested this recipe. (But, maybe someday!)

Fr. (now Archbishop) Findikyan, Prof. Roberta Ervine, and St. Nersess cook, Ovi Padilla hard at work
3 lbs. mussels
2 lbs. onions, chopped (about 6 cups)
1 cup olive oil
1 cup rice
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
Student Christopher Sheklian (far right) offers his help
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. chopped dill
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 Tbsp. sugar
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
½ cup pine nuts
¼ cup currants, optional

2 cups water
1 lemon

Ready to bake

1. Rinse mussels well. Place in basin of cold water. Sprinkle generously with salt and let stand for 1 hour to loosen sand and dirt. Drain and rinse well. Scrub mussels with stiff brush or steel pad, going over each mussel at least twice. Use a small knife to open shells part way. Cut off mussel hairs and waste matter on the inside without disturbing the pink fleshy meat. Wash each shell under cold running water once more then set aside in cold water.

2. Saute onions in olive oil until transparent, about 20 minutes. Turn off heat and add all ingredients except 2 cups water and lemon.

3. Mix thoroughly, then adjust seasonings, if necessary, before stuffing mussels.

4. Place one tablespoon of filling in each mussel, then close carefully. Arrange stuffed mussels in alternating rows in a roasting pan. Add the water slowly over the mussels, cut the lemon in half and squeeze juice over mussels. (Reserve the other lemon half for later use.) Place an inverted dish on top of mussels to prevent shells from opening while baking.

5. Bake, covered, in a preheated 350°F oven for 1 ½ hours. Allow to cool completely before removing mussels from pan.

6. Serve cold, garnished with lemon slices cut from remaining half of lemon.
NOTE: This can be cooked on stovetop. Reduce water by ½ cup, bring to a boil, then simmer 1 hr. and 15 min.
Archbishop Findikyan and Christopher Sheklian present their completed work of art!

Karen’s Update: "(My friends) used the filling recipe from the orange binder book (Armenian Cooking Today) and prepared it two different ways -- cooked in the oven (as per those instructions) and steamed (Istanbul street vendor style).  They had ALOT of mussels!   Both styles were very tasty, but I preferred the oven-baked ones because the stuffing seemed to take on a sweeter note. My friends took pictures, so I will ask them to send them.”

On January 18th, 2012, the photos arrived:

Karen wrote: “As promised, attached please find pictures from the "midia extravaganza" last month (Dec. 2011).  They were made for the annual St. Nersess Armenian Seminary Christmas decorating party and really took a group effort -- the dean, Fr. Daniel Findikyan; a professor, Dr. Roberta Ervine; the seminary cook, Ovi Padilla; and student, Christopher Sheklian, all had a hand in the research and preparation!”

When I saw the photos, I couldn’t help but swoon. The sight of the midia dolma reminded me of the first time I’d ever tasted these delicate, delicious morsels.

Congratulations to Fr. Daniel Findikyan and his cooking team for a job well-done!
PS: Professor Ervine said that the midia dolma also freezes really well. Good to know!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sonia Tashjian and St. Sarkis Day

Although we’ve never met, Sonia Tashjian and I are kindred spirits. She is originally from Musa Dagh; my maternal grandparents are from the same region. Sonia and I both have cooking websites; hers in Armenian, mine in English. Our goals are the same – the preservation of recipes and traditional foods of our Armenian ancestors.  You can imagine my excitement when she introduced herself to me!

(Update: I had the pleasure of meeting Sonia in Yerevan in April, 2015, when my husband and I traveled there in time for the 100th anniversary the Armenian Genocide.) 

Now, I would like to introduce you to…Sonia Tashjian:
Sonia is currently living in Yerevan, Armenia and, for the past 8 years, has had a TV show - a kitchen (cooking) program, although she insists she’s not a cook. In addition to being a poet and philosopher, Sonia has spent many years studying & researching all about Armenian traditional cuisine, gathering whatever information and traditional recipes she could from the various villages.  Her latest endeavors are to complete her PHD studies and to prepare a dictionary of Armenian foods. 

View of Musa Dagh from Karaduran, Kesab

St. Sarkis Holy Place, Kebusiye, Musa Dagh
In keeping with St. Sarkis Day, which falls on February 4th this year, Sonia also shared one of her grandmother’s special recipes to commemorate the day – KUMBA cake. Sonia has visited the St. Sarkis holy place in Kebusiye, Musa Dagh, and sent the photo seen here. In addition to the cake recipe, Sonia included a story about St. Sarkis Day.

We certainly admire Sonia’s many accomplishments, and wish her much success in the completion of her PHD degree, and her Armenian food dictionary. We also offer our profuse thanks to Sonia for sharing her grandmother’s recipe as well as the photos of her homeland and wonderful holiday cake!!

Read on, and if the mood strikes you, why not whip-up a St. Sarkis Day Kumba cake of your own!
(PS: Don’t forget about the St. Sarkis Halvah recipe!)

The Story of St. Sarkis Day
from Sonia Tashjian

St. Sarkis has been one of the most popular saints for Armenians, especially for teenagers & lovers. There is an interesting tradition in Armenia related to this holiday. The night before St. Sarkis Day, the teenagers will go to church, firmly keeping an “Aghi plit” (salty cookie) in their pockets, which must be eaten before going to sleep. The salty cookie will make them thirsty & in their dreams whoever offers them a drink of water, will be their future husband or wife.
There are other special foods related to that holiday. St. Sarkis’s holiday known as “Khashil bas”, “khashil” is a very unique food, prepared with roasted & ground wheat. The Armenians in Lebanon and Syria used to buy a special halva for that occasion. But the most delicious cake for St. Sarkis holiday is the Musa Daghian “kumba”, a kind of “Darehats” (Year Bread), which has been a habit to prepare at New Year, in all the regions of Armenia. According to the tradition of darehats, also in kumba, it’s a term to put a “michink” (something to put in), a coin or a core of a fruit. Whoever receives the item in their serving of bread or cake will be the luckiest of that year, and will be the supporter of that family.

Here is the Kumba cake recipe from my grandmother Marinus (Mariam). The cake is very aromatic and has a special taste because of the abundance of spices and nuts. By the way, it’s a Lenten recipe, and because of that, the cake does not contain milk, eggs or butter, so the cake doesn’t rise much and the texture is a bit dense.
Sonia Tashjian's Kumba Cake
5 cups of all-purpose flour
1 cup of olive oil
1 cup of boiling water
1 cup of sugar
½ cup of honey
1 cup of chopped nuts (walnut, almond, pistachio, hazelnut)
½ cup of raisins
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
½  teaspoon of ground cardamom
½  teaspoon of ground nutmeg
½  teaspoon of ground mahlab
a coin, wrapped in foil

½ cup of white sesame seeds for the top

1.      If you desire, roast the flour, until it turns to pale. Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and the spices.
2.      Add the oil & boiling water, stir until a thick dough is formed.
3.      Add the honey, nuts & raisins.
4.      Spread the dough in a large non-stick pan. Put the wrapped coin in it & cover with dough.
5.      Dip your hands in water and smooth out the surface of the dough.
6.      Sprinkle the sesame seeds on the surface.
7.      Bake Kumba at 350° F, about 25-30 minutes, until golden brown.