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The Armenian table

Make it soecial with cusine’s unique flavors

By Natalie Haughton

Staff Writer

Armenian cooking, a cuisine that blends Mediterranean flavors with Persian, Turkish and Russian accents, stirs up fond childhood memories for Carla Simonian of Woodland Hills for foods like shish kebabs, sarmas (stuffed grape leaves), dolmas (stuffed vegetables), basterma (air-dried beef), boeregs (filo cheese triangles), lavosh, lahmajoun (Armenian pizza), pilafs and kadayif (filo dessert).
Whenever her family gathered, there were abundant tables of food. Now she’s sharing her culinary heritage with her daughters.

“I think my cooking was influenced by a tight family background and always being around Armenian food,” said Simonian, who taught herself to cook Armenian food with the help of books and advice from her aunts, grandmother, cousins and mother-in-law.

Food traditions are important to Armenian families.

In a recently released cookbook, “The Armenian Table” (St. Martin’s Press; $29.95), Victoria Jenanyan Wise of Oakland shares her heritage and treasured family recipes.

Wise recalls regularly visiting her father’s relatives in Sacramento (her father was Armenian) “who were the major family figures of my childhood in terms of food.” For major celebratory occasions, the men always grilled the shish kebabs while the woman handled the other cooking tasks.

“Altogether, the cupboard holds a nutritious and fragrant mix, aromatic and colorful as a spice bazaar or open-air market,” said Wise of Armenian cuisine.

Hallmarks include lamb, dried fruits (apricots, dates, raisins, figs, prunes), nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, pistachios), yogurt, string cheese, filo dough, butter, olive oil, bulgur, rice, lemon juice, cider vinegar, lots of vegetables (eggplant, green beans, tomatoes, fresh peppers, etc.), fresh herbs such as mint, dill and parsley, and spices and seasonings like cumin, paprika, cinnamon, Aleppo pepper and sumac.

“Most of the ingredients in Armenian food are very natural and healthy,” said Simonian. “We were eating yogurt years before it ever caught on here.”

While Armenian food has some similarities to other Middle Eastern cuisines, there are differences. Armenians typically don’t use tahini or hummus.

Simonian, a Los Angeles native, recollects her grandfather (who raised her along with an aunt after her mother died) making a delicious hot yogurt soup and lots of stews (green beans with lamb and others with leeks).

“We had lots of vegetables (green beans, stuffed bell peppers, stuffed onions, squash and so on), only a small amount of meat and often just sliced cucumbers, tomatoes or radishes or olives instead of a green salad.”

Lavosh — a yeast dough Armenian cracker bread that softens when you dampen with a little water and let stand covered with a towel for 20 to 40 minutes — replaced bread. Available in bags of 6 in Middle Eastern markets, large dry lavosh rounds will keep for weeks at room temperature.

When friends and relatives gathered, a glorious, colorful maza (appetizer) platter — a mainstay of the Armenian table — with basterma (dried beef with a coating of chaiman, a paste made of fenugreek with paprika and other spices), string cheese, assorted black olives, tourshi (pickled vegetables like carrots, cabbage, cauliflower or green beans), eggplant dip, lavosh, boeregs and more was always served before dinner, said Simonian. It’s a tradition she’s kept alive when entertaining today, even when she serves nontraditional Armenian entrees like grilled steaks, chicken or chops.

Although neither Simonian nor Wise serves Armenian fare daily (it’s reserved for special occasions and family gatherings), the flavors and scents permeate their everyday cooking.

Wise’s informative cookbook, her 13th, contains more than 165 recipes, a mix of traditional signature favorites along with inspired, innovative and contemporary variations on the theme. For cooks, it’s Armenian 101 and much more — a great way to learn about the cuisine. Wise made a concerted effort to make the recipes approachable and easy to execute.

Particularly interesting are her notes accompanying each recipe and her from-scratch renditions of yogurt, lavosh, mock basterma and lahmajoun.

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