UNDER THE ARMENIAN SUN
By Cathy Thomas

Belleville News-Democrat, IL
July 3 2006

The Orange County Register (MCT)

The midmorning sun burns through an intense turquoise sky. The
greenish-blue color startles me and I take off my sunglasses to assure
myself that it really is the same shade as the semiprecious stone.

Perhaps it's the lush green blanket of vegetation covering the Armenian
countryside that creates such a brilliant celestial hue.

Hills, ridges, canyons, open fields and even jagged outcroppings of
rocks are the verdant green of an elf's shoe.

Our private bus travels northeast from Yerevan, the capital of
Armenia. We're headed for the Garni Temple, built in the first
century, and the Geghard Monastery, a medieval complex carved into
the mountainside.

With me is Zov Karamardian, cookbook author and chef-owner of Zov's
Bistro and Bakery in Tustin, Calif., along with her daughter Taleene,
my daughter Christy, and nine other culinary enthusiasts.

Zov sees Armenia through a colorful prism formed by lifelong exposure
to the food, music and stories of her Armenian ancestors. My eyes
take it in through a squeaky-clean prism. Not one drop of Armenian
blood runs through my veins. Hers is 100 percent.

I want to see and taste Armenia with her, a desire kindled when she
returned from her first visit two years ago. Zov doesn't keep her
passion for life, people and food closed in her heart. She openly
shares her enthusiasm, a trait that endears her to friends, customers
and strangers alike.

Reaching the path to the monastery, we pass a row of women selling
homemade goodies - baked goods, canned goods and candies that make
our stomachs growl. Many hold up large disks of their golden-brown
bread personalized in some artistic manner that makes each unique.

Some bakers have loaves topped with bread-dough cutouts of leaves and
tendrils. Some have the names of people and places created by lining
up tiny elevated circles of dough side by side to form the letters.

Some surfaces display comical faces.

Called ghata, these delectable breads are like coffeecake. The
sweetened yeast dough has a filling made of walnuts that have been
cooked in butter and sugar.

Some cooks hold up jars of honey or preserves made with cherries,
plums, apricots or mulberries. Other cooks offer curled fruit leathers,
as well as ropes of candy-covered walnuts called rojig.

Rojig's fruity, paste-like exterior is made by cooking fresh grape
juice to condense it, and then adding cornstarch to further thicken
it. The walnut halves are strung on cotton string, then dipped in
the juice mixture and placed in the sun to dry. The dipping-drying
process is repeated daily for about a week, or until the nuts are
topped with a generous coating - enough fruity paste to make it chewy,
yet not so much that it overpowers the taste of the crunchy nuts.

We return to the bus to find Zov breaking rojig into bite-size
pieces and insisting that everyone has a sample. She declares it a
"superfood," and says that even one bite is enough to make everyone
feel great.

But the biggest feast was yet to come, an alfresco barbecue at the
home of Sergei Gabrielyan on the outskirts of Garni. Sergei is a
professional photographer, but today he demonstrates the fine art of
Armenian kebabs and grilled vegetables. Two sisters-in-law will show
us how to make fresh lahvosh, the paper-thin bread that is served at
most Armenian meals.

As with all our lunches and dinners, the first course is on the table
before we sit down. A variety of ingredients are available for each
diner to prepare lahvosh-wrapped delicacies to suit their own tastes.

This isn't an eat-it-fast nibble. Designed to be a convivial, chatty
process, Armenian appetizers aren't to be rushed. Communal platters of
deep-red tomatoes and robust cucumbers are cut into chunks and placed
next to plates of raw vegetables and herbs (slender green onions,
long green chilies, radishes, parsley and cilantro). The tomatoes
smell like warm summer grass; as with all the tomatoes we encountered
in Armenia, they're dead ripe and promise maximum flavor.

There are plates topped with firm, white cheese, and plates of warm
green beans. There are bowls of enormous black olives, plus bottles
of beer, as well as jugs of wine. And, yes, tempting mulberry vodka.

We sit on rustic benches draped with colorful ethnic rugs and practice
stuffing and rolling Armenian "burritos." Zov says her favorite filling
is a combination of feta or string cheese, fresh mint, tomato wedges,
cucumbers slices and lebni, a yogurt cheese spread made with strained
yogurt, herbs and Aleppo pepper. She says there is something very
appealing about the combination: the sweet juiciness of the tomato,
the crunchy texture of the cucumber, the slightly salty nature of the
cheese and the thin bread (that she describes as "without heaviness -
bread without bulk").

After some debate about the years Armenia spent under Soviet rule,
some joke telling and belly laughs, we're invited into the outdoor
stone kitchen where the lahvosh is made.

We watch as the two-person team turns out the quintessential bread,
the element that ties every meal together. The baking takes place in
the wood-fired tonir, a cylindrical, brick-lined ground-level oven
that's about 3 feet deep. The first woman rolls a ball of dough into
an oval sheet and the second stretches that dough over a large cushion
with a handle on the back.

Bam! The dough-covered cushion is slammed against the hot wall of the
oven. The dough sticks and quickly cooks. After it cools a few minutes,
stacks of the bread are placed onto the arms of Sergei's costumed
daughters, who carry it to our table. The oven has formed sporadic
dark-mahogany spots on one side, sending the smell of warm yeast and
caramelized flour over the yard. We tear them into manageable pieces
and use them to wrap grilled eggplant and elongated green peppers.

Already, the bread is cool enough to be cracker-y crisp. It's the
perfect consistency and taste to showcase the soft texture and smoky
taste of the vegetables.

Irina Astvatsatouryants, our guide, explains that a large quantity
of lahvosh is made at one time. In a village, cooking is often a
group project, she said, often with several women participating in
the work. After the lahvosh is baked, it's dried and stored. Before
it's served, it's sprinkled with a little water to soften it and make
it pliable.

Recalling her childhood visits to Syria to see her grandparents, Zov
mentions the older ladies in the village of Kessab preparing lahvosh.

She says they would give her a warm piece of very thin lahvosh and she
would top it with a sliver of cheese. Plain, she says, but absolutely
delicious.

Years later, after moving to the U.S. from Iraq at age 14, she watched
the process at bakeries in Fresno. There, she says, it wasn't as
thin. A different technique was used to create it, and rather than
a tonir, Fresno bakers used traditional ovens.

Meanwhile, Sergei lowers a grid - attached to a chain with a horizontal
rod-like handle - into the tonir. The grid is topped with peeled
baking potatoes that have been cut in half and rubbed with oil and
paprika. Once the grid is in place, the rod rests over the top of
the tonir, holding the potatoes at a just-right spot close to the
fire. Sword-like skewers filled with pork, lamb and onion halves are
suspended vertically from the rod.

He covers the opening with a thick red carpet. We smell the aroma of
wood smoke that fills the oven, and imagine the taste of potatoes
below as they absorb the gentle drip-drip-drip of meat juices from
above. In minutes we eat the kebabs and spuds with joy, our enthusiasm
intensified by the effect of cool mulberry vodka.

Now the prism through which my mind's eye views the world includes
that day spent around the homey backyard table in Garni. A day that
ended with a gentle rain, and plenty of treasured memories of friendly
hosts and irresistible food.

WHERE IS ARMENIA?

Armenia is in Asia, situated in the southern Caucasus, sometimes
referred to as Transcaucasia. It is landlocked, bordered to the north
by Georgia, to the east by Azerbaijan, to the south by Iran and to
the west by Turkey.

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GRILLED LAMB AND VEGETABLE KEBABS

Yield: 6 large servings, 12 smaller servings

For lamb kebabs:

12 lamb loin chops (about 4 1/2 pounds); see cook's notes

2 large onions, thinly sliced

2 lemons, thinly sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon salt

For vegetable kebabs:

1/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

12 large white mushrooms

4 small red bell peppers, cored, seeded, cut into 6 chunks each

2 large Japanese eggplants, each cut crosswise into 6 pieces

2 large zucchini, each cut crosswise into 6 pieces

Optional for serving: Feta cheese, cilantro, mint, olives, cucumber
slices, tomato wedges, walnuts, lahvosh; seek cook's notes

Cook's notes: If you prefer, leg of lamb can be substituted for the
loin chops. Be sure to remove as much gristle and fat as possible; cut
into 1-inch chunks. If desired, serve skewers on platter accompanied
by feta cheese, cilantro, fresh mint, olives, cucumber slices, tomato
wedges, walnuts and lahvosh.

Procedure:

1.Prepare lamb kebabs: Using sharp knife, cut 2 pieces of meat from
each chop. Trim away fat and sinew. Cut larger pieces crosswise
in half. Toss onions, lemon slices, oil, pepper, soy sauce and
salt in large bowl. Add meat. Using hands, massage marinade into
meat. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or up to 2 days,
stirring occasionally.

2.Thread up to 6 pieces of lamb onto each of 6 skewers, spacing
meat 1/2 inch apart. Cover and refrigerate until ready to grill. (If
you prefer, make smaller kebabs using half as much meat on each of
12 skewers.)

3.Prepare vegetable kebabs: Whisk oil, rosemary, pepper and salt
in large bowl. Add vegetables and toss to coat. Let stand up to 1
hour at room temperature, tossing occasionally. Thread 2 mushrooms,
4 pieces bell pepper, 2 pieces eggplant, and 2 pieces of zucchini
alternately onto each of 6 skewers. (If you prefer, make smaller
kebabs using half as many vegetables on each of 12 skewers.)

4.Prepare barbecue for high heat. Grill lamb until crisp and brown
on outside but pink in center, turning occasionally, about 8 minutes.

Grill vegetable kebabs until tender and beginning to get nice grill
marks, turning occasionally, about 8 minutes. Arrange on plates and
serve, if desired, accompanied by lahvosh.

Nutritional information (for smaller servings): Calories 330 (62
percent from fat), protein 20 g, carbohydrates 11.2 g, fat 22.8 g
(saturated 10.8 g), cholesterol 105 mg, sodium 143 mg, fiber 0.5 g

Source: "Zov: Recipes and Memories From the Heart" by Zov Karamardian
(Zov's Publishing, $35)

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LEBNI (YOGURT CHEESE SPREAD)

Yield: 1 cup

1 cup yogurt cheese; see cook's notes

1 tablespoon dried mint

1 teaspoon garlic powder

3/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, plus more for garnish; see cook's notes

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

For garnish: Italian parsley, fresh mint

For serving: Lahvosh, sliced cucumbers, tomato wedges, fresh mint,
string cheese or feta cheese

Cook's notes: To make yogurt cheese, line colander with 4 layers
of cheesecloth and place in bowl (there should be at least 1 inch
between the bottom of the colander and the bottom of the bowl). Add
4 cups plain yogurt (not low-fat or nonfat) to colander. Place in
refrigerator overnight or at least 8 hours. Once strained, yogurt
cheese will have a consistency that is thicker than sour cream.

Aleppo pepper, a coarse-ground, deep red pepper, is found in Middle
Eastern markets and at www.penzeys.com(1.9-ounce jar is $3.49).

Procedure:

1.In medium bowl, stir yogurt cheese, dried mint, garlic powder,
Aleppo pepper and salt until well-combined. Transfer to serving bowl.

Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with Aleppo pepper. Garnish with parsley
sprigs and mint sprigs.

2.Spread each piece of lahvosh (about 6-by-6-inch piece) with layer
of lebni (cheese spread). Top with cucumber, tomato, mint and cheese.

Roll up "burrito style" and serve.

Nutritional information (per teaspoon): Calories 74 (80 percent from
fat), protein 2.8 g, carbohydrates 1.1 g, fat 6.6 g (saturated 4.2 g),
cholesterol 22 mg, sodium 113 mg, no fiber

Source: Adapted from "Zov: Recipes and Memories From the Heart"
by Zov Karamardian (Zov's Publishing, $35)

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PAPER-THIN LAHVOSH

Lahvosh, also spelled lavash or lavosh, is sold at many supermarkets,
Middle Eastern markets and Trader Joe's. A 1-pound package of Trader
Joe's lahvosh is $1.59. A 1-pound package of Babylon Bakery's lahvosh,
available at Ralphs, is $2.19. The following recipe uses an upside-down
wok to cook the dough over a gas flame. The sheets cook quickly,
but are much smaller than those we saw in Armenia.

Yield: 8 thin flat breads

1 tablespoon mild honey (or brown sugar)

1/2 teaspoon dry yeast

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water

2 1/2 to 3 cups hard unbleached white flour; see cook's notes

1 teaspoon salt

Vegetable oil

Cook's notes: "Hard" wheat products have an endosperm with a higher
proportion of hard protein molecules and produce a flour containing
more protein particles. Arrowhead Mills Organic Unbleached White
Flour is one example. It can be ordered at www.southnatural.com.

Procedure:

1. Stir honey and yeast into warm water in medium bowl until
dissolved. Gradually add 2 cups flour, stirring constantly in the same
direction. Then stir 100 times, about 1 minute, in same direction to
help develop gluten. Sprinkle on salt and gradually add more flour
until dough is too stiff to mix. Turn onto lightly floured surface
and knead until smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes, adding flour only
as needed.

2.Clean and lightly oil bowl. Place dough in bowl and cover with
plastic wrap. Let rise about 3 hours in warm location, or until
doubled in volume. Or you can let dough rise overnight in cool place;
the slower rise will give more flavor. Punch down dough and let rest
10 minutes.

3. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Flatten each piece between
floured palms. To roll out, work on 2 pieces at a time, leaving
remaining dough covered. Roll out 1 piece to a round 5 to 6 inches
in diameter, then switch to the other piece. In rolling out yeasted
dough, it is important to roll them out only so far and then let them
rest. Alternate between 2 pieces of dough until each is a very thin
round about 13 to 14 inches in diameter.

4. To cook lahvosh, turn wok upside down over high heat. Lightly
oil top surface with paper towel, and let it get hot before putting
on bread. The rolled-out bread is a little fragile at this point and
may tear while being transferred to wok. To carry it, roll it halfway
up onto rolling pin. Then lay 1 edge on hot wok and gradually unroll
bread over wok.

5.Cook 15 seconds and delicately turn with wooden spatula. Cook 30-40
seconds, then turn again and cook about 30 seconds. Remove and place
on clean kitchen towel. Fold lahvosh in half and wrap it in towel to
keep warm. Continue in same manner for remaining rounds.

Nutritional information(per lahvosh): Calories 98 (3 percent from
fat), protein 3.7 g, carbohydrates 22.1 g, fat 0.4 g (saturated 0.1
g), cholesterol 0.1 mg, sodium 23 mg, fiber 1.8 g

Source: "Flatbreads and Flavors" by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
(Morrow, $35.95)

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SAVORY MINCED BEEF KEBABS WITH ONION-SUMAC RELISH

Yield: 8 servings

For beef kebabs:

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef

1 small onion, finely minced, about 3/4 cup

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint

1 jalapeno, seeded, finely minced; see cook's notes

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

[ teaspoon ground allspice

[ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For relish:

1 small red onion, very thinly sliced

3 tablespoons ground sumac; see cook's notes

1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh mint

For serving: Lahvosh, cucumber slices, cilantro, mint, tomato wedges,
thinly sliced cabbage

Cook's notes: Sumac is sold at Middle Eastern markets and at
www.penzeys.com. Use caution when handling chilies, keeping hands
away from face and eyes and washing carefully afterward.

Procedure:

1.Prepare kebabs: Using your hands, mix beef, onion, cilantro, parsley,
mint, jalapeno, salt, pepper, allspice and cinnamon in large bowl
until well-combined. Divide into 8 equal portions. Shape each into
sausage-shaped patty. Insert a metal skewer at one end and push it
through to opposite end of each patty.

2.Prepare relish: Toss onion with sumac in medium bowl to coat.

Squeeze mixture to extract as much juice as possible from the onion.

Discard juice. Stir in parsley and mint.

3.Prepare barbecue for high heat. Grill kebabs until just cooked
through, turning occasionally, about 10 minutes. Transfer kebabs
to platter. Fold lahvosh around patty and pull meat off skewer. Add
ingredients to taste, such as cucumber, tomato, cabbage, fresh herbs
and Onion-Sumac Relish. Roll up each or fold in half like taco.

Nutritional information (per serving): Calories 316 (14 percent from
fat), protein 52.4 g, carbohydrates 15.3 g, fat 5 g (saturated 2.5 g),
cholesterol 37 mg, sodium 230 mg, fiber 2.5 g

Source: "Zov: Recipes and Memories From the Heart" by Zov Karamardian
(Zov's Publishing, $35)

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