Tuesday, April 07, 2009

80 Plates: Armenia

So last night was my book club's regular meeting. We read the book The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. The dinner theme was to take a chapter title, all of which were ingredients, select one, and use it to make a dish. Most of the ladies signed up to bring desserts, so I decided that I would make a main dish. While I didn't finish the book, I read in the jacket notes that it had something to do with the Armenian genocide, so I decided to make some Armenian dishes. There was an Armenian lady who volunteered at my old job in Boston, and I used to love the food that she'd make, so I was excited to select some dishes and make them.

I found The Gutsy Gourmet online and decided to use their "Gourmet Armenian Recipes" from the cookbook "Dining at Noah's Table". I selected three recipes to make: sou-berag, imom bayeldi, and stuffed zucchini.

I was cooking at my sister's house, and she has still not fully unpacked, so it was going to be a challenge to find everything I needed equipment-wise, but that is kind of the adventure of cooking in someone else's house. I also had no choice but to use ingredients of which I was not fond--most notably eggplant and cottage cheese.

I cooked everything all at once, but I'll try to divide up each recipe and report on it on its own to make it easier to read. I'll start with imom bayeldi, also known as Sultan's Delight. This is a wonderful vegetable dish, and a great way to use up extra veggies if you have them! I did cut down on the amount of eggplant that I used because I am not that crazy about eggplant, and also the local grocery store's selection of eggplant SUCKED. There was only one worth buying, really.

So the first task is to slice up the eggplant into rounds, leaving the skins on. Then you dump some salt on them and let them sit for about 30 minutes and let them release water.



I don't know if I did something wrong, but apart from a little bit of sweating, not a damn thing happened with the eggplant. The directions said to squeeze out the excess moisture and then put them in the oven to roast until they are lightly golden. I did that too, but frankly, they were in there for a while and nothing seemed to happen. Since I didn't eat them, I can't say if I know they were undercooked or anything, but no one was complaining, so I figure they were probably fine!

Next job was to slice up a boatload of vegetables and herbs. The recipe called for slices/rounds of peppers, onions, and tomatoes, crushed garlic, and basil, parsley, and mint. I was at a slight disadvantage in that my sister has lost her cutting board, so I chopped on a cookie sheet to save her counters.


Aren't they beauties?


I used red onions and green peppers to give some nice color to the dish. The Pampered Chef's garlic press can't be beat for crushing garlic, it does a thorough job indeed!

Here's a little tip of you need to chop fresh herbs. I hate doing it because, really, if you do it on a cutting board, it can be a challenge to get them really finely chopped and you run the risk of mashing them into the board, which is then where all those great flavors stay without going into your food! Try this instead. Put a handful of the herbs into a cup or glass, and chop the heck out of them with a pair of scissors. The herbs stay nicely contained and if you have any extra, you can store them in there for your next recipe (since two of these recipes required fresh herbs, I did the old "chop it once, use it twice" routine using this method. And because mint, basil, and parsley smell radically different from one another, it was easy to tell which was which despite their chopped states).

Then it was time to sautee everything up. You start with the peppers and onions and garlic, and sautee them 'gently'. Once they're soft, you add the herbs and the tomatoes and let them all cook in together. I did find that I had cut the peppers quite a bit too big, so I cut them a bit smaller, but man were they HOT! (heat hot, not spicy hot) So I may have burned a finger or two in their preparation. It took a while, honestly. I didn't turn up the heat very high because I didn't want to overtly fry anything, but there were a LOT of veggies in that pan, so it took the better part of 30 minutes to get everything even remotely soft. The pan was cast iron and HEAVY and with everything in there, I could lift it up to dump everything into the pan with the eggplant, so I wound up trying to scoop everything on top of the eggplant. It worked out OK, but I did wind up making a bit of a mess for myself to clean up afterwards.

Once the pepper mixture was spread out on top of the eggplant, the whole thing was lightly covered in "a can of tomato sauce". I really didn't know what size can to buy, so I went with a 14 ouncer since it was only supposed to be a smattering of tomato sauce. Then it was back in the oven for another 30 minutes before letting it cool--this dish can be served warm or at room temperature, so I decided to let it cool off. (I'll post a picture of the three finished dishes at the end--be patient :-D)

So that done, I turned my attention to the stuffed zucchini. I love zucchini and if I start some container gardens this summer, I might plant a couple of zucchini plants. Especially now that I know this dish! The zucchini dish was my entry into food for omnivores and had sausage in it. I LOVE sausage!! I was nervous that it used hot sausage, and I briefly considered substituting sweet sausage, but I wanted to be authentic and true to the recipe, so I decided to use the hot.

The first task was to halve and hollow the zucchini into little boats. This doesn't seem like it'd be that hard, but the zucchini offered at the Giant was actually pretty puny, so I had a bit of a challenge with it. In fact, one of the halves broke. But I soldiered on and eventually had some lovely little vessels waiting to be filled with sausagey goodness.

Then it was time to get cookin'! The recipe only called for 4 ounces of sausage, so really this is a fairly healthy dish when you consider that those 4 ounces get spread over 8 zucchini halves. I fried that up in a mercifully smaller frying pan that didn't break my wrists when I tried to pick it up!



Meanwhile, I combined the rest of the stuffing ingredients. These included 4 ounces of feta cheese (I used that instead of goat cheese, because I couldn't find goat cheese at the store), 4 ounces of mozarella cheese, 2 cups of diced Italian tomatoes (I used canned), fresh basil, and salt and pepper. When the sausage was done, I added it to the cheese mixture and stirred it all together.



All that was left was to STUFF! So I carefully stuffed each zucchini to its fill. I had a little bit of stuffing left over, so I put it in a pan and threw it in the oven separately, and later sampled it as a pre-book-club treat. YUM. Once the zucchini were stuffed, I sprinkled a little parmesan cheese over them and put them in the oven to cook away!



Time to turn my attention to the sou-berag, which is an Armenian lasagna. In order to save time, I decided to buy the oven-ready noodles, which was probably a mistake in retrospect. I should have just boiled the noodles. But oh well. This dish is also vegetarian friendly, but since it uses animal by-products, namely dairy, is not vegan friendly. It's also a recipe I was slightly anxious about due to the fact it uses cottage cheese. But since it used small curd cottage cheese, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. And the fact that it is a pretty simple recipe to make endeared it to my heart.

By now, you all know of my love for pasta, and I love lasagna a lot! I had high hopes for this dish. And for a lasagna, I found it pretty easy to boot! WOO HOO! Basically, you mix together a lot of cheese and spread it over the noodles.

The main problem I had was that I don't think Judy has a cheese grater. And I had a full pound of jack cheese to grate. So I wound up crumbling it. It actually worked out just fine. After that, it was easy--measuring out ricotta and cottage cheeses, chopping up parsley, beating up and adding a couple of eggs, and melting some cheese. The recipe had the baffling instructions of "half a cube of melted butter" and I couldn't tell if that meant half a stick or half a pound. I erred on the side of more is more and melted a quarter pound, which was right in the middle. Since most of it was supposed to be poured over the top of the finished, assembled lasagna, I only poured a splash into the mixture itself.

And then it was assembly time! I put down a layer of noodles and then a layer of cheese, another layer of noodles, another layer of cheese, and finished it off with a layer of noodles, which I then drenched in butter.




So that was it! I put it in the oven to cook up. I pulled it out after what I thought was a good amount of time, but those top noodles looked a little sketchy to me. My sister asked, "Aren't they supposed to be, you know...?" and she trailed off, so I supplied the word she was missing, "Edible?" "Yeah," she said, and I pondered the situation. We decided to put it back in the oven for a while to continue to soften, and I added some more butter just to be safe. In the end, the top noodles were kind of crispy, which is why I think I should just have boiled the noodles and been done with it.

My three finished dishes took up most of the table (sorry ladies!).



Man were they yummy!!! I was surprised about the vegetables with the mint--it was very subtle. I don't think I will make that dish again, just on account of we're not vegetable people. However, the other two dishes I LOVED!!! I will definitely make them again.

Try them and let me know what you think!

3 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Sarah said...

I printed out the recipe for the roasted veggies dish and am planning on bringing that to a bbq this weekend. I loved how it was vegetarian friendly AND filling! The lasagna one was great, too. I didn't try the stuffed zucchini because of the sausage, but it looks good! I think I may try making it with veggie crumbles or something. Thanks for making us so much food! I was still stuffed this morning.

Melissa said...

I'm satisfactorly amazed...you are going to be a new mom any second and you cooked more for book club than I hae cooked in months! Amazing!

It all looks so yummy! :-)

americangirlabroad said...

All of your dishes were amazing! It's hard to pick a favorite, but I especially enjoyed the stuffed zucchini--so many different flavors there!

We appreciate all of your hard work!

--Cecily