Monthly Archives: November 2008

Food Can Be Beautiful

I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about how a homesick Mark Twain one lonely day in Italy decided to devise a menu of his favorite foods. I thought I would do the same on this Thanksgiving Day to follow, albeit distantly, in the genius writer’s footsteps. As the writer of the article Andrew Beahrs points out, most of the foods he described are now unavailable or are illegal to consume. However, for the most part all the morsels and meats in the list below should be yours for the savoring, depending on the part of the world you are residing. Without further ado, and in no particular order of preference:

Grilled filet mignon. Served rare, with béarnaise sauce or “au poivre” with toasted green peppercorns (or both).

Slow-roasted aged prime rib. Sliced at the table and served rare, with pureed potatoes, creamed spinach, and buttered popovers accompanied by a vodka martini with extra green olives. I savored this meal at the House of Prime Rib of San Francisco nine years ago with my faithful dining companion, Chrissy. And as I remember I had a peculiar, tingling sensation that numbed my body, which started in the back of my head and gradually made its way down through my chest to my loins, where it blossomed. It was perhaps the most fabulous, memorable dining experience I have had to date.

Barbecued wild boar chops. Seasoned with salt and pepper. It is a specialty of the Syunik region of Armenia, and if done right it’s superb. Tastes like beef, but better.

Roast duck. Preferably with orange glaze. In my university years I cooked up a frozen duck that I purchased from the supermarket, and again Chrissy was present. Unfortunately I didn’t realize at the time that the duck had to be placed on a rack within the roasting pan to let the fatty drippings drip down away from the bird. It was a pleasant, but greasy disaster.

Sautéed frog legs. Dressed with lemon, garlic, and a little oil. I first tried them at the age of 8 at a family New Year’s bash. Another remarkably memorable meal.

Brussel sprouts. Braised and served in a rich cream sauce topped with ground black pepper. A great accompaniment to roast turkey.

Chi kufta (a.k.a., kheyma). Twice-ground (or else pureed in a food processor) lean beef, such as bottom of the round, with very little fat, mixed by hand with fine ground bulgur and spices such as allspice and ground black pepper, then formed into a round or oblong shape about one to two inches high, or optionally bite-sized pieces, topped with chopped parsley and white onions; served uncooked. Optional condiments include sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, ground cumin, black pepper, and a hot pepper paste made from habanero or other sorts. This dish is found in Western Armenian cuisine and I believe Lebanese as well. Chi kufta has been served to me just about my whole life, and thus I’m unable to pinpoint the first time I ate it—I am guessing at my grandmother’s table. I have never had an unpleasant experience with this excellent delicacy.

Yellowfin tuna nigiri. Served with wasabi mustard and lite soy sauce. Accompanied by other types of choice nigiri and select sushi rolls that don’t contain imitation crabmeat, it makes a light, but satisfying meal.

Steamed young asparagus. Cooked full-length, topped with pure butter. This can even be eaten as a standalone dish without meat. Absolutely fantastic. Perhaps the best asparagus I have had grows wild in Armenia’s Lori region—in the spring vendors pick and sell it along the roadside.

Hamburg à la Linda. My mother’s invention. Ground beef, with about 25 percent fat, flattened in a shallow pan and seasoned with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce, topped with sliced tomatoes and green peppers, then broiled for 20 minutes. Served with authentic Lebanese or Syrian pita bread. This simple meal was a childhood favorite, and to this day I swoon when I smell it sizzling in the oven.

Roast leg of lamb. Marinated in dry, red wine overnight with garlic cloves, black pepper and dried rosemary. Served medium rare. Can be accompanied with rice pilaf seasoned with cinnamon, blanched almonds, and white raisins. A hearty, scrumptious meal.

Roast chicken with garlic, lemon and tarragon. Click here to read my recipe.

Dolma. Ground beef mixed with rice, salt and pepper, then stuffed in tomato, green pepper, zucchini, or eggplant shells. The meat mixture can also be rolled in grape or cabbage leaves. They are packed in a pot and pressed down with a heavy plate, then covered and simmered in water with tomato paste. The stuffed grape leaves (or Sarma for some Armenians) should simmer with whole cloves of garlic in the pot and optionally, baby-back lamb ribs, without paste. Served steaming hot with yoghurt (or matzoun as the Armenians call it), optionally mixed with crushed garlic. Many Middle Eastern cultures make this dish but Armenians excel in its preparation. A great meal for frigid, winter evenings to warm the bones.

Sini kufta. Two layers of ground beef mixed with bulgur, with a layer of ground beef sautéed with diced onions, parsley, pine nuts, salt and pepper sandwiched in between, placed in a shallow pan. Several diamond-shaped cuts are made through the layers prior to baking the meat in the oven. Served with yoghurt. This is another Western Armenian delight.

Chicken piccata. Perhaps one of the simplest chicken dishes you can prepare. With a basic rice or potato side dish, you can’t go wrong.

Mante, or more aptly put, Armenian wonton soup. A smidgen of ground beef mixed with diced onions, parsley, salt and pepper, is placed onto a piece of flat dough cut about an inch square. The sides of the dough are pinched to reveal part of the meat mixture on top. The wontons are then assorted on a cookie sheet or in a shallow pan and toasted in the oven. After they are done, the wontons are simmered in chicken broth, but they should maintain their form and not fall apart. Served in a bowl topped with yoghurt mixed with crushed garlic and sumac. Perfect for meat and garlic lovers who enjoy a hearty soup now and then. It’s fun to make, too.

Typical Lebanese mezze. Plates of taboule, hummus, baba ganush, lebane (strained yoghurt dressed with olive oil, crumbled dried mint and paprika), and mahamara (a red pepper, pomegranate and walnut or pine nut paste mixed with finely ground breadcrumbs). Lebanese cuisine is exquisite and most importantly, it’s very healthy food.

Caesar salad. But prepared the way it should be, tossed with a coddled egg and grated Parmesan cheese, then topped with freshly ground pepper. Anchovy fillets packed in Italy are a must. Obviously, you can’t use anything but romaine lettuce.

Crisp, ice-cold wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with thick, Roquefort dressing. This is a sensational prelude to a fine meal of beefsteak (naturally served rare).

Fresh walnuts in the shell. Wet walnuts, in other words those with kernels that are still moist having just fallen from the tree, are sweeter than dried ones. If the shells are thin enough walnuts can be cracked between the fingers in pairs.

Oysters on the half shell. Served at any restaurant that sells fresh, quality fish. Topped with a bit of lemon, horseradish and Tabasco sauce. It’s best to slurp down this manly mixture right from the shell so as to savor the juices, radish and spicy vinegar that delicately tinge your throat as you swallow.

Beverages to wash it all down:

My favorite beers: Pilsner Urquel, Kilikia, Harpoon IPA, Bass Ale.

My favorite wines: Rioja, Côte du Rhône, Areni (from Maran Winery only).

Tan. A simple yoghurt drink, with water and salt to taste.

A good, clean carbonated mineral water. Especially that bottled in Jermuk, Armenia. San Pellegrino is great, too.

Cold, freshly squeezed orange juice. Classic and unsophisticated, but very refreshing.

If you’re going to eat, might as well eat heartily.



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