Monday, June 13, 2011

Armenian picnic: Lamb Shish Kebob, Pilaf, Summer Salad

In time for my 5th birthday, my family moved inland, from California’s Bay Area to Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. Summers in the Valley were often in the triple digits, and Sunday afternoons, the large Armenian community of Fresno seemed to have huge weekly picnics attended by hundreds of Armenian families; the picnics were sometimes sponsored by the Church – the blessing of the grapes – or by organizations to help Armenians in difficult situations around the world, or simply by groups gathering from their ancestral village or town in Turkey, such as Karpet, Bursa, Erzerum, or Izmir (Smyrna).They took place in various parks  with tall trees and stationary picnic wooden picnic tables with attached benches covered with clean white paper.  What fun it was to draw on the paper, but mom always would make me wait until after people had eaten.   My memories go back to the mid-forties and fifties, the men wore mostly dark pants and white shirts or print cotton shirts, with the boys miniature versions of their dads (nary a blue jeans was to be seen). The women and girls mostly wore cotton ginghams and prints – pretty dresses and lovely sun dresses with little bolero jackets; strappy sandals, that would not look out of date today, were worn by many. Older women – many widowed, my father’s mother included – always wore all black. The American uniform of jeans and tee-shirts was not seen. Of course women and girls did not wear jeans at the time, but we were cool in our cotton dresses and full skirts. And what a colorful spectacle the picnics presented: Armenian and English with other languages could all be heard, and everyone ate basically the same Armenian meal each week – oddly it was too delicious to tire of.
First there was peda bread – a round 10-inch loaf topped with sesame seeds and around 2½ inches high, shaped with an inner circle of dough (like a huge doughnut with the hole still in place). The bread was sliced, usually in quarters, with each quarter split horizontally up to a hinge of crust left at the edge; this was the basis of a shish kebob sandwich. Peda bread had a fantastic chewy crust, but in the late 50s, the noted Fresno bakery of Peda began to turn out a more spongy type bread. I surmised to Papa that it was because they began to put the Peda in plastic bags instead of the paper bags they had used before. However, the cause was not so simple. My cousin told me a few years ago that the bakery had switched from their original brick oven to an electric over in the late 50s, so Peda can never taste the same, at least from that bakery in that city. But there are so many good breads, so a shish kebob sandwich today can be made with many choices (including pita or French bread).
So here is a typical Armenian picnic meal: Shish Kebob sandwich, pilaf, summer salad, ice-cold watermelon, ice cream (thanks to dry ice, which fascinated me as a child), 6-oz cokes (in glass bottles, and made with care sugar – coca cola has never tasted so good),there was creme soda and strawberry soda-too fake even then for my childish tastes, and 7-up  which mom would call "nice 7-up" but I dislike as well. The men might have a bottle of beer with their meal but women in those days usually drank soda or ton if available. Ton is an acquired taste, I actually loved it, but not better than cola, it was plain yogurt mixed with water and served very cold.. Water-alas there were no bottles of water in these times and our valley water was pure and delicious then, but there always seemed to be a water fountain of some sort around and of course in such heat it was the ultimate thirst quencher. And finally in the fifties, the stand appeared for snow cones, now to our tastes an overly sweet concoction, but it did manage to keep us cool. The Dads would volunteer to barbecue the meat on skewers, and they seemed always to cook it just right! Big pots of pilaf appeared as if by magic. Somehow, though there were so many people, there always seemed to be enough food. I never understood much about the food since we kids were too busy running around, playing, eating, and cooling off with snow cones. My Dad, a natural speaker, was the master of ceremonies at many of these picnics, for there were always ceremonies of one sort or another. Then the Armenian musicians would take out their instruments, and the dancing would start- so many wonderful circle dances, village folk dances enjoyed by young adults and the middle aged alike. One dance started slowly and ended up in a frenzy, as the dancers and musicians would work to keep up with each other. I would watch in awe, thinking what fun I was going to have when I was old enough to circle dance.
It has been years since we have been to an Armenian picnic, though I’m sure they still exist and probably with a similar menu. This menu remains a favorite family meal for a celebration, in fact great for a Father’s Day cookout. As lamb can be costly, I’ve added chicken shish kebob as a great substitute.

Lamb Shish Kebob – serves 8:
1 leg of lamb (about 4 ½ pounds)
1 teaspoon kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 medium onions (red or yellow) coarsely chopped
2 cups coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon plus 1 teaspoon wine vinegar
3 dashes (appx. 1 teaspoon) Lea and Perrins Worchestershire sauce – optional.

The butcher should be able to cut up your lamb into shish kebob pieces for you: he will bone the lamb, trim the fat, and then cut the lamb into even 1½ inch cubes, eliminating the gristle and extra fat as he proceeds. Sometimes Papa does this – it’s not difficult, but is time consuming. Stress to the butcher that it is for shish kebob and you want the pieces as even as possible. Next, I use a large glass or stainless bowl (anything non-reactive) and salt and pepper the meat. Then mix the rest of the ingredients in a smaller bowl, and then thoroughly mix the lamb and marinade together. Cover and marinate in the fridge 2 to 3 hours (not more than 6). Bring out of the fridge 30 minutes before cooking. Preheat your gas grill to medium hot, or prepare a medium hot charcoal fire. Meanwhile skewer the meat on steel skewers (best are square shaped, so meat won’t twirl around as it does on round skewers). Cook the lamb as you like it (we prefer medium rare), rotating in one quarter turns for about 8 minutes. Also, it’s delicious to grill whole tomatoes, medium onions, and Cuban peppers, and split Japanese eggplant as an accompaniment to the shish kebob; we brush the vegetables with a mix of olive oil, salt, crushed garlic, and squeezed lemon, both before and after grilling, and then set it aside while the meat is cooking.

For the Chicken Shish Kebob alternative, use 2 pounds of boneless chicken thighs cut up into 1½ inch chunks, and for the marinade, use the same ingredients as above except: only one coarsely chopped onion, only 1 cup of the parsley, and add 2 minced cloves of garlic and a teaspoon of dried mint or tablespoon of fresh mint. Marinate and grill as detailed above. You can also add yogurt either to the marinade itself or afterwards as a sauce to the pita sandwich; for the sauce mix together 1 cup plain yogurt, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 clove of garlic minced (if used as a sauce, we boil the clove for 45 seconds to make it fully digestible).

Pilaf – serves 8:

There is something wonderful about the smell of pilaf, as welcoming to people entering your home as the smell of the best cookies in the world. When I was a child, pilaf was a rich indulgence in many homes, for many Armenians used a stick (½ cup) of butter per cup of rice. However, my mother – ever the enlightened healthy eater and cook – never subjected her family to that excess.
The ingredients:
2 tablespoons sweet (unsalted) butter
¾ cup angel hair pasta – broken up into 1 or 2 inch lengths (I use DeCecco’s, but any will do).
2 cups chicken broth (msg-free is best)
1 cup long grain white rice (Carolina-style)
¾ teaspoon salt (kosher)
Freshly ground pepper to taste.

Melt butter in 1 quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add broken-up pasta and sauté, watching carefully until golden; it will smell wonderful, but it can darken if not watched). Add rice, salt, and pepper, and sauté for a minute or two. Then add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, cover and turn to simmer for 20 minutes. Test with a fork to be sure pilaf is done, and remove from heat; toss with fork and cover. It’s ready to serve and always delicious.

Summer Salad (for 8):

4 large ripe tomatoes
1 cucumber, peeled (we prefer English cucumber; best would be Armenian cucumber: gouda)
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 red pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice or wine vinegar or apple vinegar

Chop tomato in ½ inch chunks and place in bowl. Do the same with cucumber. Then add chopped parsley. (If using red pepper, chop into ¼ inch chunks.) Mix together olive oil, lemon juice and/or vinegar, salt and pepper, and pour over the salad and toss. Let sit for 20 minutes before serving. Here are added options: A couple of teaspoons of fresh mint can be a delicious addition. Chopped red onion is used by many Armenians in their summer salad, though I do not, for good reason – raw onion gives me (and many others) a serious headache; so I slice or chop red onion and provide it as one would a condiment to gazpacho, and each guest may add their own. Traditionally red onion is sliced like a thin wedge of orange.

 About dessert, I’ll stick to tradition and serve ice cold watermelon. However, “the best chocolate chip cookies in the world” ought to be on hand (see my previous post, from May 7). I hope I have some batter in the freezer!

I especially love Father’s Day. It is a day of memory for my wonderful father and Papa’s father and Papa himself – and all the great Dads in our family. Happy Father’s Day to the wonderful fathers in our lives. 

1 comment:

  1. Food as a metaphor: for health and love, for hospitality and comfort and much much more.
    I like this kind of food on the cognitive, it is more close to our life.I also like this with the nice post!Thank you!!!