Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Recipes from Armenia

Recipes from Armenia
Just after I got out of college, in ... Oh I don't know, like a million years ago, I had an Armenian boyfriend. So you would think I'd already have one or two Armenian recipes filed away somewhere, but sadly, no. My Armenian boyfriend knew how to cook exactly one meal, and that one came out of a very American cookbook called "Cooking for Bachelors," or something to that effect. I think it was made with ground beef and refrigerated pie crust. I really can't remember, because it was pretty underwhelming.

So I embarked on this leg of my culinary adventure just as blind as I've been for all the other nations on my list. Fortunately, for the second week in a row I am cooking recipes from a nation with a rich culinary tradition, so I had plenty to choose from.

First the usual background stuff:

Armenia is in a geographically interesting location; it is landlocked and positioned right at the proverbial crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It has Middle-Eastern neighbors, including Turkey and Iran and is a former republic of the Soviet Union, but the European Union considers it a European country.

Armenia is a small country wedged between Asia and Europe.

Armenia's current position in the world can be heavily attributed to its status as a former Soviet republic. Its economy--in fact its entire economic system--depended on Soviet dollars and policies for so long that since independence it has just been sort of limping along. Agriculture has replaced industry in many sectors, but the economy still relies heavily on outside investment, mostly from Armenians living abroad.

Armenia's cuisine, like its economy, has also been heavily influenced by its neighbors, with Middle-Eastern, Russian and Greek qualities evident in many popular dishes. Armenian food relies less on spices and more on fresh ingredients like fruit and nuts, and a lot of the recipes are either very labor-intensive or just have to cook for a very long time, which made my choice a little difficult, since time isn't really something I have a lot of.

Despite knowing all this, I stupidly chose four recipes this week, one of which has a cooking time of about six hours, give or take two hours. Actually, just take two hours. I know, I'm a masochist.

The first recipe I chose is an appetizer made with cheese. I'll bet you are so surprised. Here it is:

Cheese Borags
(Makes about 30, I cut this recipe down to 1/4 and there were still plenty)
  • 8 oz Monterey Jack or Muenster cheese, shredded
  • 15 oz ricotta cheese
  • 4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 lb phyllo dough, thawed
  • 1/2 stick melted butter

Next, the godfather of all stews, and I mean that in the sense that if it were a person, this stew would cut off a horse's head and leave it in your bed.

Chicken Herriseh 

  • 1 3 lb whole chicken (I just used a pack of thigh/leg pieces)
  • 8 cups water
  • 2 cups wheat berries, rinsed in cold water and drained
  • 2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • cumin to taste
  • paprika, optional
  • butter, optional

This is the side dish I chose, because my kids love artichokes even though my poor husband isn't too enamored with them:

Enguinar (Artichokes)
  • 4 small to medium artichokes
  • 2 large onions, sliced thin
  • 1 tsp dried dill
  • 1 tsp parsley
  • 1 15-oz can tomato sauce
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • salt and pepper to taste

(Recipe comes from Helen Merigian)

And finally, the dessert. I almost didn't do this recipe because I thought I was just putting too much on my plate (pun intended, sigh) and also because I'm trying to shed some summer vacation/Halloween/Thanksgiving pounds and figured I didn't need the extra calories. But I'm glad I did decide to make it because it was probably my favorite of the four recipes.

Armenian Lemon Cake

For the cake:
  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

For the syrup:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3/4 cup water 
  • 3 sprigs mint

I have another blogger to thank this week: the cheese borag and the Chicken Herriseh recipes both came from The Armenian Kitchen, which is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Armenian cooking. The other two recipes came from Adventures in Armenian Cooking, which is not quite as colorful (or illustrated) but is also a great resource with tons of recipes to choose from.

Onward: I made the cake first, but I'll start here with the appetizers:

The cheese borags are pretty straightforward, and thanks to Robyn Kalajian from The Armenian Kitchen, I now have some useful tips on how to work with Phyllo dough, which until now has been an activity that has usually ended in disaster.

Armenian cheese borags are usually made with, surprise, Armenian cheese, which I bet I could have gotten from our semi-local cheese shop. However, with Thanksgiving just behind me and my husband's birthday just ahead of me, I really couldn't be bothered to hunt down any Armenian cheese. Besides, Robyn's recipe calls for Monterey Jack or Muenster; I chose Muenster because Monterey Jack is so, you know, California.

So start by mixing the three cheeses with the egg. Because I cut this recipe back quite a bit, I just used a tablespoon or so of the egg, or roughly a quarter of it once it had been beaten.

Once blended, set aside.

Mix the cheeses with the egg.

Note: thaw the Phyllo dough out in the fridge overnight before using. You'll save yourself a lot of headache.

Here are the tips I got from Robyn's recipe: Have you ever used Phyllo dough and had it just become papery and brittle and impossible to work with? Well, that's because it doesn't like being exposed to air for even short periods of time. To solve this problem, simply cover the dough with a piece of plastic wrap, then put a damp towel over the plastic wrap. The dough will stay pliable long enough for you to finish working with it.

Ready? Take one sheet of Phyllo and fold it in half. That's right, just one sheet. Now brush the folded sheet with melted butter.

Put a blob of the filling onto the lower right corner of the sheet.

First put a dollop of filling on the corner of the dough.

Now fold the sheet over the filling, from corner to corner, as if you were folding a flag. You should have a triangle. Fold again, and one more time, like this:.

The recipe says to fold the borag like a flag.

I have no idea how to fold a flag.

I'm pretty sure, though, that this is not how you do it.

Cut off the excess. This worked fine for me, even if it wasn't exactly correct.

You may need to squish the filling around a bit inside the borag to be able to fold it properly. Take care not to let it squish out of the folds, though. You may also have to trim excess dough off of your finished borag, as above.

Repeat with the rest of the filling, until it's gone. Keep the finished borags moist by covering with plastic wrap and a damp towel. 

Cheese borags, ready for the oven.

Brush the top of each borag with melted butter, then bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the borags turn a golden brown color. Serve hot.

Finished plate of borags. Yum!!

Now for the Chicken Herriseh. I picked this recipe because I like trying out unusual ingredients, and I've never cooked anything with wheat berries. I have a warning for you, though: don't make this recipe unless you have all day. Seriously, all day. The chicken takes almost two hours to prepare and the stew has to simmer for four to six hours.

Now that you are forewarned, start by boiling the chicken in 8 cups of water for about an hour and 45 minutes. Leave the lid on your pot but tilt it slightly so that not a whole lot of steam can escape. I used a package of leg/thigh joints instead of a whole chicken, because I hate trying to pull apart a whole chicken, even after it's been cooked.

Boil the chicken and let cool.

Remove the chicken to a plate and let cool. Do not discard the broth! Shred the chicken and set aside.

After this long in the pot, you should be able to shred the chicken with your fingers.

Strain the broth into a measuring cup and figure out how much you have left. Then add water to the broth to bring the amount back up to 8 cups.

Put the broth in a large pot and add the wheat berries, the shredded chicken, and salt to taste. Note: you should be able to find wheat berries at an organic grocer, or at a grocer that specializes in Middle-Eastern foods.

These are wheat berries. I got mine at the co-op, where they sell a lot of organic, healthy type stuff.

Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low. Simmer covered for four to six hours, or until the berries are soft. Don't be tempted to stir the pot.

Now get a potato masher and squish the wheat berries up with the chicken. The finished mixture should look like oatmeal. If it doesn't, you didn't cook it long enough.

The finished Herriseh. I think mine could have been cooked longer.

Serve in bowls with a pat of butter and some cumin and paprika sprinkled on top.

Now on to the artichokes. They don't take quite as long to cook, but you do need to allow about 45 minutes or so in order for them to become tender.

First cook the onions in the water until they become soft. No oil! How's that for healthy? Then add the remaining ingredients and stir.

First cook the onions in water, then add the tomato sauce and spices.

Here's where I had to do some guesswork. The recipe called for frozen artichokes, but I've never been able to find frozen artichokes at any grocery store in California, maybe because fresh artichokes are so easy to find here. So I don't know how pre-cooked frozen artichokes usually are, but the recipe said to simmer the onion/tomato sauce mixture for 15 to 20 minutes, then add the artichokes and "cook until tender." I chose to add the artichokes right away, because 20 minutes plus 45 seemed like way too long for that little bit of tomato sauce and all of those onions. As it was, I cooked the sauce with the artichokes for about 45 minutes and still managed to burn the sauce.

Now add the artichokes and cook until tender.

At last, the cake. As I said, I made this before I made anything else, mainly because it also has kind of a long preparation time.

The batter is easy. First preheat the oven to 350 degrees, then cream the butter and sugar together.

Cream the butter and sugar. Mine didn't really cream that well, it just got lumpy.

Add the yogurt and the eggs, mixing well. Pour in the lemon juice. Sift together the flour, baking soda and baking powder and add to the bowl, mixing until everything is well incorporated.

I would have had more batter if I hadn't eaten so much of the dough.

Spoon the batter into a buttered pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the color is golden. In my oven this took about 40 minutes.

Let the cake cool. Meanwhile, combine the ingredients for the syrup in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until the syrup coats the back of a spoon.

Put the mint sauce ingredients into a small saucepan and boil.

Remove the mint, which will just be a limp vaguely green weedy looking thing at this point, and let the syrup cool until it is just warm.

Loosen the cake in its pan and pour 1/3 of the syrup over the top. Wait 10 minutes, then do it again. Wait another 10 minutes, then pour the rest of the syrup on the top. Your cake should now have a clear glaze on it, like this:

Here's the finished cake with the syrup glaze.

Let the cake sit for about an hour, which will give it enough time to absorb the syrup.

Now the recipe said to invert the cake onto a platter, then slice and serve. I didn't do this because I thought the cake looked a lot nicer from the top. But I guess that's just my opinion.

Best part of the meal: dessert!

The meal went over okay. I thought I'd like the Herriseh a little more than I did. It had a very earthy flavor but was a little too chewy for my tastes (maybe six hours on the stove wasn't enough?). I guess I expected it to be a bit more like a risotto, which I adore.

The cheese borags were delicious, loved by everyone in my family except of course for Hailey, who hates all things cheesy. The artichokes were so-so, really nothing special but entirely edible. The cake was really good, with a texture that reminded me of a scone. The cake itself wasn't too sweet but the syrup was just sweet enough to make it a nice treat. We all really liked the cake.

Next week: Aruba. A Caribbean nation. Another Caribbean nation.


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