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Armenian cooking made easy

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

By PAT CAHILL

pcahill@repub.com

As soon as the cultural committee at St. Mark’s Armenian Church in Springfield saw a video of Eleanor Demirjian of Longmeadow making rice-stuffed grape leaves in her kitchen, they knew they had a winner.

They were right. Six months later, a video and DVD called “From Our Kitchen to Yours: Armenian Cooking Made Easy” is selling like, well, hotcakes.

The instructional tape features 13 cooks from the congregation demonstrating traditional Armenian recipes in their own kitchens, including three appetizers, two breads, two main dishes and four desserts. It’s available from St. Mark’s for $25.

The cultural committee began tossing around ideas for fundraising last summer. They wanted a project that was food-related, because the church’s annual Armenian Fest is famous for its traditional cuisine. But how could they put their culinary knowledge to good use? Classes? Sales?

Then Stephen Demirjian, a professional cinematographer whose mother just happens to be one of the best cooks in the congregation, shot the sample video of his mom making “yalanchi,” or stuffed grape leaves.

Eureka!

Stephen’s mother, Eleanor Demirjian, directed the whole production from start to finish, attending each taping with her son or with David A. Jermakian of Wilbraham, who also did some of the taping.

David is married to Brenda Jermakian, head of the cultural committee, who demonstrates on the tape how to make spinach pie, or “boreg.”

So far 170 copies of the video/DVD have been sold.

Most of the tapings were day-long affairs, with cast and crew taking breaks or going to lunch as yeast rose or appetizers steamed.

The cooks on the video are no dilettantes. They are the kinds of women who have secret stashes of wild grape leaves in the neighborhood, who know which leaves to pick for the right texture, who know how to preserve them in canning jars.

Anita Assarian of Springfield has been using the same wooden cutting board for 55 years, as she tells the camera. Her mother-in-law gave it to her. Same goes for her broomstick-shaped rolling pin, which she wields with a dazzling expertise.

To watch Assarian roll out a huge perfect circle of dough is alone worth the price of admission.

The women describe what they are doing as they go along, peppering their instructions with asides gleaned from years of experience. “Feel your earlobe,” says Sally Jermakian of Springfield as she makes the dough for “lahmajoon,” or meat pies. “It should be the same consistency. Maybe a little stiffer than that.”

“Don’t be afraid of the dough,” urges Virginia Omartian of Springfield as she lays down a sheet of delicate phyllo dough to make “paklava,” a sweet pastry. “Don’t be afraid.”

Indeed, convincing culinary wannabes to master phyllo may be one of the triumphs of this production. The cooks handle the thin sheets so easily it looks like a slam-dunk. Brenda Jermakian even has her little daughter Ani do it.

On the other hand, isn’t that what great artists always do – make it look easy?

The production has an encouraging tone. “That’s OK, it’s not science,” says Karen Tesini of East Longmeadow when a square of dough for “manti,” a meat-stuffed pastry, comes out a little lopsided.

And enthusiastic? “Boy oh boy, are we going to have a feast in a minute!” crows Tesini as she whips the manti from the oven.

Other cooks on the video include Joyce Zeroogian of Hampden, who shows how to make a braided bread called “choreg,” Mary Omartian of Springfield, who makes a butter cookie called “khourabia,” and sisters-in-law Anna and Jane Garabedian, of Palmer and Wilbraham, respectively, who make “simit,” a sesame cookie.

Diane Boghosian of Wilbraham makes a spectacular dessert called “khadayeef” from a shredded dough that looks like masses of curly angel hair pasta. (One place to find it is Milano’s in Springfield’s South End).

Elaine Devine of Monson, who appears with Tesini in the manti segment, is a professional graphic designer who also donated her talents for the cover of the video/DVD.

The project was a team effort that created a lot of excitement, says Brenda Jermakian. “We’re a very small congregation, about 120 members,” she says, “but everybody put in time.” Lisa M. Natcharian of Wilbraham did the publicity.

A key to the project’s success was Stephen’s expertise and equipment. Thanks to him, the product has a polished look, with Armenian folk music playing discreetly between demonstrations, names of each cook and her featured dish spelled out as each segment begins, and even a diagram showing how to cut boreg.

The cooks who share their culinary artistry on camera were as professional as anyone. How many times did they have to rehearse? They didn’t rehearse at all, says Brenda. The camera rolled and they were ready. That’s what it means to have life experience.

The video/DVD includes an insert listing the ingredients of each dish. To learn how to put them all together, just watch.

Spinach boreg (“Spinach Pie”) (Makes 15 squares or 30 triangles)

3 packages frozen chopped spinach (squeeze out water)

1/2 pound crumbled feta cheese

6 ounces cottage cheese

4 ounces cream cheese

3 eggs

3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped or dried

1 clove garlic, chopped, or 2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 bunch scallions, chopped

2 onions, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil and 3 tablespoons butter

1 stick butter and 1/2 cup Crisco, melted together, heated

Salt, pepper to taste

1 egg, beaten, to brush on top

One package phyllo dough

Here’s a summary of what Jermakian instructs on camera: Sauté onions and scallions in olive oil and butter. Mix with squeezed spinach, feta cheese, cottage cheese and cream cheese. Add 3 beaten eggs, dill, salt and pepper.

Dip a pastry brush in the heated butter-and-Crisco mixture, and brush it over a large 13-by-18-inch pan. Unpeel two layers of the phyllo dough and place them flat side-by-side on the pan. Brush them with the butter-and-Crisco, put down another layer of phyllo, brush with butter-and-Crisco, and so on.

After laying down about 10 layers, stir the filling and spread it evenly over the layers. Then begin the process again with 10 more layers of phyllo dough. Finally, brush the top with one beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake at 375 degrees 25-30 minutes. Cut into diamonds or triangles.

Khourabia

1 pound sweet butter

4-5 cups cake flour

1/2 cup finely chopped nuts

3/4 cup confectioners sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla

Beat butter with electric beater. Add flour, 2 cups at a time, continuing to beat. Add nuts, confectioner’s sugar and vanilla extract and keep beating (yes, with the nuts in there).

Dough should be sticky. Scrape it off beaters to keep from sticking, and flour your hands. Roll dough out flat and cut cookies in rectangles 1 to 1-1/2 inches long.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.

To order a video or DVD of “From Our Kitchen to Yours: Armenian Cooking Made Easy,” make out checks for $25 to St. Mark’s Church at 2427 Wilbraham Road, Springfield MA 01129 or call 783-5793 or e-mail stmarkarmch1@ hotmail.com.

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