Friday, May 29, 2015

Aveluk (Wild Sorrel) - a Uniquely Armenian Herb

Aveluk (Rumex crispus) -or- wild sorrel is indigenous to certain regions of Armenia. It's popular in authentic Armenian cuisine – especially in restaurants which serve aveluk soup or salad as ‘exotic’ fare to outsiders - like me!

Fresh Aveluk (Internet photo)

According to Sonia Tashjian, my friend and personal tour guide in Armenia, villagers gather aveluk in the spring – its peak season. It is then braided and sold either in the fresh or dried form. To dry aveluk, villagers hang the braids from the roof in a shadowy, windy place, until it is dry. Dried aveluk keeps well and is used in recipes throughout the year.

Dried Aveluk (Internet photo)

Armenia’s aveluk is unique in that it isn’t as sour as sorrel which grows wild throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Sorrel’s flavor has a natural acidic sourness due to oxalic acid. As sorrel matures, the flavor becomes even more sour. If you can’t find aveluk or sorrel, a suitable substitute would be spinach combined with a touch of lemon juice.

In the US, we’re not likely to find aveluk, but might find sorrel at a farmer’s market. Some specialty shops might sell cooked sorrel in jars or cans. If you’re really lucky, you might find dried, braided aveluk in a well-stocked Middle Eastern store.
Sonia Tashjian's Aveluk Soup
Aveluk Soup I ordered at Our Village, Yerevan
Aveluk Soup, courtesy of Sonia Tashjian
Serves 4 to 5

6 ounces (about 4 cups) dried aveluk (See preparation of aveluk below)
6 to 8 cups of water (See step #3)
2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup coarse bulgur
1 onion, chopped

1 potato, peeled and chopped
 dried plums, pitted and chopped (amount depends on how sour the aveluk is)

 Aleppo red pepper & black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp. flour, or some cut pieces of lavash, optional

a little bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced

Prepare the aveluk:
Place the dried aveluk in a large bowl of hot water. Let it sit for several minutes. Drain the water. Do this procedure two more times.

Prepare Aveluk Soup:
1. Add 6 cups of water to a large pot; bring to a boil and add 2 tsp salt. To the pot of boiling water, add the bulgur, onion & potato. Reduce heat and continue to cook, stirring occasionally. (NOTE: Lentils may be substituted for the bulgur.)

2. Next, add the pre-soaked & drained aveluk, the dried plum pieces, and the red and black pepper.
3. Cook until the potatoes and bulgur are soft. (NOTE: The starch from the potato helps make the soup creamy. If you wish, you may add 2 Tbsp. flour or lavash pieces to the soup at this point, if desired.) Add the additional 2 cups of water if soup is becoming too thick. Just before the soup is done cooking, add the garlic and the coriander. Remove from heat. Serve with sour cream, if desired.

Aveluk Soup Variations:
Sonia notes that in different regions of Armenia there are many variations of aveluk soup. For example, some places add tomato paste; some do not add potato. Some use lentils instead of bulgur. Some add chopped walnuts to the soup, while others only use walnuts in Aveluk Salad. Another variation: some fry the onion separately and mix it into the soup, but the busy cook would add all of the ingredients to the soup and cook it slowly.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dining-Out in Yerevan

Selecting a good restaurant in Yerevan can be a tricky experience – just like anywhere else in the world. We rely on recommendations from friends, family, even strangers if they are locals-in-the-know in a foreign land.
Here are a few of our dining- out experiences:

Congress Hotel dining room
1. Doug, Aram Aslanian and I had the good fortune of having our breakfast included in the cost of our hotel room at the Congress Hotel. Each morning breakfast was served buffet-style in a bright, cheerful setting. Much to our delight, there was an omelet station, assorted fresh fruit, juices (including apricot nectar- our favorite!), Armenian cheeses, yogurt and honey, breakfast meats, lavash, an array of pastries, plus too many other items to mention. This fueled us well for much of the day.

Would we stay at the Congress Hotel again? Yes, indeed.

2. We ventured out to area establishments but found that some restaurants were geared to locals and others clearly for Western tourists. We’d heard about a place called Dolmama. Some swore by it; others said it was over-rated. Frankly, we loved it. The food was a feast for the eyes and the palette, but it was the piped-in music that spoke to us. Who would have thought that while dining in Yerevan one would be listening to the tunes of Barry White, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations?   
As we left the restaurant, we noticed the Armenian flag on the outside of building flying right next to the American flag. I guess Dolmama knows who their customers are!
Lamb Stew - Dolmama

Basturma-Soujouk Board - Dolmama

 Would we dine at Dolmama again? For sure!

3. Another excellent dining experience was at the restaurant, Anteb, chosen by our friend Arman Avedian. This place boasts Western Armenian cuisine, meaning they serve Armenian food we Americans can best relate to. One specialty of the house is a type of lavash that comes out light and puffy – such fun to eat! Their kufteh, lahmajoun – and everything else we ordered greatly satisfied us! A group of diners at another table ordered lule kebab that was almost the entire length of their table – what a sight! They devoured it.

Anteb's Kufteh and Salad
Anteb's puffy Lavash

Anteb's lahmajoun
Extra-long lule kebab at Anteb!
Would we dine at Anteb again? Absolutely!

Lamb BBQ sandwich - Our Village
4. A restaurant recommended by our tour guide was a place called Our Village which served food which represented different Armenian regions. The décor was rustic and the menu sounded enticing.  I ordered the Aveluk soup, which was a hearty, tasty combination of lentils, potatoes, and earthy herbs.(Aveluk soup recipe will be a separate post.) Doug and Aram ordered “barbequed” lamb and beef sandwiches which were served on sheets of lavash. They looked amazing. ‘Barbeque’ in Armenia apparently doesn’t mean the same as it does in the US. There was no hint of tomato- or - vinegar based sauce. In fact, there was no sauce at all. The meat was grilled, we think. Eating the sandwiches proved to be a jaw-breaking experience. Doug gave up; Aram persevered. On a positive note, the potatoes were delicious.
Aveluk Soup
Would we return? Not for the meat dishes, but everything else was good.

Real Armenian Kitchen
5. Right around the corner from our hotel was a restaurant whose name caught my eye - Real Armenian Kitchen! Peeking through the window, it looked like someone’s home dining room. We sauntered in, were seated, then realized no one here spoke any English. We were able to figure out a few things on the menu, and ended up with chicken soup and a few other tidbits. The soup arrived steaming hot with nothing more than the broth, a few potatoes, and a few green aromatics swimming around. It smelled wonderful, although it wasn’t quite what we expected. The main feature of the soup was its garnish …. a chicken leg or, rather, a hen leg. We looked forward to eating the meat but discovered it was tough stringy, rubbery and completely inedible! We left slightly hungry.
Chicken soup, one turkey 'meatball' and one cheese 'cigar' boureg
Would we eat at the Real Armenian Kitchen again? Only if we learn more Armenian so we know what to order!

If you travel to Armenia, don’t be afraid to try food that may be new to you. Immerse yourself in the culture - completely, and with reckless abandon. You’ll be glad you did!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Geghard Monastery, Garni Temple, and freshly made Lavash!

Because our week-long trip to Armenia was mostly dedicated to Genocide Commemorative activities, we really didn’t have much time to visit and experience village life outside of Yerevan – with one exception.
On the afternoon of April 24th, Sonia Tashjian escorted Aram Aslanian and me to the Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple. (Doug couldn’t join us because he was preparing for his Huffington Post interview.)

Armenian village roadside stand
It was chilly, rainy and foggy, but that didn’t deter Sonia from making it up the rough roadways to our destinations. Along the way we passed a man and woman standing next to their makeshift shelves lined with jars of homemade pickled vegetables, hoping to make a sale. We only stopped long enough to take a photo, much to their dismay.

Before we reached Geghard Monastery, we watched as women gathered herbs in the hillside, placing them in their aprons and rough-hewn cloth bags. No doubt these herbs would be used in teas, soups, stews, and jingalov hats!

After bucking livestock in the roadway, and children running up to cars selling flowers, we made it to the monastery. (Sonia did buy lovely wildflowers from the kiddies!)

Gata stands outside the monastery
Just outside the monastery we passed an area lined with long tables laden with mounds of baked gatas, assorted fruit leathers, and more. The sellers barked at prospective customers to ‘buy from me!”.

The altar inside Geghard Monastery
Once we made it past them, the climb up the cobblestone path brought us to our destination – Geghard Monastery. Built in the 1200’s, in the side of a mountain, this truly felt like a holy place. Therein was a beautiful altar that took my breath away. I truly cannot explain the feelings that passed through my veins - just know that I lit candles and prayed.

Ancient Khatchkars (carved stone crosses) outside the monastery

Making lavash #1
Making lavash #2
On our way to the Garni Temple, Sonia insisted we stop at a roadside eatery – a covered outdoor deck with tables, chairs, and a view of the hillside, gorge and water below. (Sadly, the fog prevented us from actually seeing the view.)  It seemed a fairly new place, and clearly designed for tourists. (They even had modern bathrooms!)

Sonia (right) and me enjoying our feast!

What made this place interesting to me was that two women prepared fresh, thin, crisp lavash using a tonir while we watched. We were served a hot, herbal concoction sweetened with local honey, freshly-made lavash, locally made cheeses, olives, and homemade jams. A true feast!
Garni Temple

Refreshed, we headed to our final stop, Garni Temple. It was an amazing sight with incredible views all around. Despite the weather, we had an inspiring tour with and Sonia as our ultimate hostess.

Monday, May 11, 2015

'Spas' - Madzoon (Yogurt) Soup with Grains

Just as we arrived in Yerevan, Doug began to feel down-right rotten due to a nasty head cold. Besides needing a good night’s sleep, he craved a bowl of steaming hot soup. Luckily for us, our hotel, Best Western Congress Hotel, had a rather nice, extremely convenient, restaurant on the premises.

Our hotel in Yerevan -  Congress Hotel 
Doug noticed ‘spas’ on the menu, and chose it for medicinal purposes. It’s pretty-much the same as the yogurt soup we’d eaten as kids, so it was a comforting choice.

Did spas cure Doug’s head cold? Well, in a manner of speaking; he (unintentionally) passed it on to me!

'Spas' from the Congress Hotel's restaurant

The Armenian Kitchen's Spas 
Spas -  Madzoon (Yogurt) Soup with Grains
Yield: 4 to 5 servings

NOTE: This soup may be served hot or cold, but, if you choose to serve this cold, omit the egg yolk! 

1/2 cup shelled wheat (a.k.a. dzedzadz) (NOTE: Found in Middle Eastern stores, BUT, farro, wheat berries or pearl barley may be substituted.)
3 cups strained or Greek-style plain yogurt
1 1/2 cups water – or - low-sodium chicken broth (NOTE: For a thinner soup add more water or broth; for a thicker soup, add less.)
1 egg yolk, beaten (Save egg white for another use.)
 2 Tbsp. flour
 ½ tsp salt
 3 Tbsp. butter
 1/3 cup onion, finely chopped
  2 tsp. dried crush mint - or- 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint leaves
  1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped, optional

1. Cook shelled wheat (dzedzadz) in 4 cups of lightly salted, boiling water until tender - about 25 minutes. Stir occasionally. If there is any excess liquid, drain it. Set cooked wheat aside until ready to use.
Cooked shelled wheat (dzedzadz)
Step #2
2. In a 6-quart pot, blend together yogurt, water (or broth), egg yolk and flour with an electric hand mixer. Cook until mixture reaches a gentle boil, stirring constantly with a wire whisk or wooden spoon. Stir in salt and cooked wheat; cook one minute longer.  Remove from heat. 

3. In a skillet, sautė onion in butter until soft, but not brown. Add mint, and parsley, if using. 
Step #3
4. Add onion mixture to soup; simmer for five more minutes. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

We’re back from our travels, and are stocking-up our pantry, so please stand by!

Doug and I traveled to London, Paris and Yerevan (by way of Moscow) in just under 3 weeks. It was a whirlwind journey, but we did it!

Robyn and Doug with Notre Dame (Paris) in the background

It’ll take was us a little while to recuperate and get the kitchen up-and-running, but we’ll be ready to share snippets of our trip with you soon.