Friday, August 11, 2017

Armenian Tava


I grew up eating Armenian food that ranged from complex, time intensive dishes, such as my paternal grandmother’s Izmir Kufta, to simple country food, like Tava. What is Tava? This depends upon who you ask. According to my mother, Tava consists of lamb shoulder chops baked on top of layered vegetables. My dad will tell you that Tava’s lamb chops rest on cubed—and not layered—vegetables. You’ll find Armenian families that top the vegetables with seasoned ground beef or ground lamb instead of chops and call the dish Tava or Duzmeh. A Book of Favorite Recipes (1968) compiled by the Los Angeles Daughters of Vartan includes a recipe for Tava that layers vegetables on top of seasoned meatballs. Vegetarians, don’t worry: Many Armenians entirely skip the meat and they still call the resulting dish TavaPresent this meatless version to a Frenchman or Frenchwoman and he or she will tell you that you have made Ratatouille.

The vegetables in Tava come from every corner of a summer garden, but mainstays include eggplant, tomato, squash, onion and potato. Expect to find recipes that add bell peppers, green beans and even okra. My mother claims that Tava just isn’t Tava without carrots (layered—and this is important—on top of the potatoes). Most, but not all, recipes pour a little water or tomato sauce over the vegetables. Some recipes call for mint or parsley as seasonings, but most versions call for nothing more than salt and pepper.

With countless Tava recipes, why do I post my version? Because I believe it important to memorialize how a family—in this case my family—makes a loved food. My grandmother and great-aunt frequently made Tava. My mother only occasionally. Unless a family’s recipe boards a food ark, children (or grandchildren) might never eat a dish that comforted their great-grandparents.

Armenian Tava

Pre-heat oven to 375°F. Butter a baking dish. The size and depth of the dish depends upon how much meat and how many vegetables you wish to accommodate. This recipe, which makes 2 to 4 servings, uses 2 large lamb shoulder chops, so I suggest a deep 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish. A deep, 10-inch diameter pie plate also works nicely.

Peel 2 medium-sized yellow potatoes (e.g., Yukon Golds) and slice into ¼-inch rounds. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a single, overlapping layer of potatoes. As you arrange the slices in the dish, season the potatoes with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. You will add salt and pepper to each following vegetable layer, so season judiciously. Peel a medium eggplant and slice it into ¼-inch rounds. Place a single layer of eggplant slices on top of the potatoes and season. Slice a medium zucchini into rounds—again ¼-inch thick—and layer on top of the eggplant, seasoning the squash layer to taste. Next, peel a large yellow (or white or red or sweet) onion and make ¼-inch thick slices and lay these into the dish in a single layer, seasoning as you go. Finally, slice enough ripe tomatoes to cover the onions and lightly season this final vegetable layer.

Pour about ¼ cup water or tomato sauce over the vegetables.

Place seasoned lamb shoulder chops on top of the tomatoes and cover the baking dish with foil. Place the package in the oven and bake for approximately 1 hour. Remove the foil and flip the lamb chops over and return to the oven to bake for another 15 minutes. Flip the lamb chops again and increase the oven temperature to 400°F and bake for 15 more minutes until the chop look browned.

As I mentioned, countless versions of Tava exist, so feel free to add or subtract vegetables to satisfy your family’s palate. As a general rule, vegetables that give up their liquid sit on top of vegetables that absorb liquid.


Personally, I like to salt the lamb shoulder chops the night before I make Tava. I put a rack into a baking sheet and dust the lamb with kosher salt and refrigerate the lamb, uncovered, overnight. I also like to use mild red pepper flakes—think Aleppo or Marash or Piment d’ville—when seasoning the vegetables and lamb. Sometimes I substitute a splash of dashi (here) in place of water or tomato sauce. I think this completely and utterly nontraditional ingredient adds a lovely smoky flavor to this simple dish.

If you want to have a true Armenian experience, serve Tava with an authentic Armenian Pilaf (here). The lamb and vegetables and pilaf marry beautifully.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Blackberry Whisky


A number of years ago I purchased Booze by John Wright (2013, Bloomsbury). Booze, the twelfth installment in a series of River Cottage Handbooks, guides the reader on how to make infusions, wine, cider and beer. Other handbooks in River Cottage series explore subjects such as Chicken & Eggs; Curing & Smoking; Edible Seashore; Hedgerow; Pigs & Pork; Sea Fishing; and Veg Patch.

I bought Booze to learn more about British infusions. Wright marries his knowledge as a “dedicated forager” with his enthusiasm for infusing. He writes that “few items of vegetable matter have escaped my infuser’s hand.” Case in point, Booze sports a recipe for Oak moss gin.

Booze covers four types of infusions: fruit, nut, floral and plant. Wright instructs the reader on the making of Sloe gin; Sea buckthorn vodka; Haw gin; Gorse flower white rum; Sweet vernal grass vodka, and even Absinthe. But perhaps the Best In Show infusion in Booze goes to Blackberry whisky. Wright writes: “[it] is one of the finest of all infusions, a rival to even sloe gin.” To make Blackberry whisky you need only sugar in addition to the drink’s titular ingredients. Wright’s instructions follow.

Two-thirds fill a Kilner jar with blackberries, then sprinkle sugar over them until it covers the bottom half of the fruit. The blackberries should be dry for this operation otherwise the sugar will not flow. Top the jar with whisky, close the lid and shake gently. Store in a dark cupboard and shake once a day until the sugar has dissolved.

After 6 months, decant the infused whisky into a bottle and store for at least a year to mature.


Since buying Booze I’ve made three batches of Blackberry whisky. I call my 2015 batch The Inferno because I completely disregarded Wright’s counsel on whisky selection: “Do use cheap whisky for this recipe as there is a special pit in hell for those who drink good whisky in any way other than on its own.” I dipped into a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask (so, I guess, I’m going to hell). Save your soul and don’t make the same mistake (and furthermore, to my taste, the Laphroaig’s intense peatiness makes it a questionable base solvent).

In 2016 I made two different version of Blackberry whisky: one using a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey and the other with Buffalo Trace Kentucky Bourdon Whiskey. Both batches taste promising. I used foraged Evergreen blackberries in the bourdon version and a mixture of Evergreen and Himalayan blackberries with the Jameson. Aside: One day I hope to make Blackberry whisky with a local native blackberry variety called the Pacific blackberry or Northwest dewberry. These small berries taste outstanding, but I rarely find even a handful per season. Between the ubiquitous Himalayan and Evergreen blackberries, I prefer the latter, but pick according to your personal taste.

And speaking of taste: How does Blackberry whisky taste? Wright encourages his readers to make this infusion with these words: “For those few who do not like blackberries and the many more who do not like whisky I have some good news. Given time—about a year, but two is better—the flavour mellows into something quite its own, not dissimilar from port, and with never a hint of peat bogs and barely a trace of blackberry crumble.” No hint of peat…unless, of course, you use Laphroaig. Did I mention that I have a special pit in hell?


Monday, June 5, 2017

Santa Rosa Plum Galette


Back in 2000, I clipped out a recipe for a Santa Rosa Plum galette that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The recipe came from a Chez Panisse pastry chef, Mary Jo Thoresen, who learned the dessert’s dough from the great Jacques Pépin when he spent a week cooking at Chez Panisse. Thoresen claimed that “[i]f I was stranded on an island with only one dessert, this [galette] would be the one.” Mighty high praise indeed, especially from a Chez Panisse chef! I tried the recipe and, no surprise, it’s brilliant. With different local fruits coming into season across the country, there’s no better time to try this recipe. The galette serves 8.

The Dough

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 to 6 ounces cold unsalted butter (see note)
Ice water

The Filling

8 to 10 firm-ripe Santa Rosa plums
2 to 3 tablespoons flour
5 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

To Finish

Melted butter for brushing
Sugar for sprinkling on crust
French vanilla ice cream

To make the dough: Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the flour. Work in the butter with a mixer or by hand until the pieces are the size of tiny peas. Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing and mixing gently by hand until the dough is moist but not sticky.

Wrap the dough in plastic and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight.

Roll out the dough to a 12-inch diameter circle on a floured surface. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly round; the tart is beautiful no matter what shape it is. Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined pizza pan or baking sheet. Cover with plastic and refrigerate.

To finish the galette: Preheat oven to 400°F. Halve and pit the plums. Cut each into 5 or 6 slices.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Leaving a 2-inch border, sprinkle the surface of the dough with 2 to 3 tablespoons flour and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Place the plums slices on the dough. You can arrange them artfully or place them helter-skelter; either way, it will look lovely.

Carefully draw up the dough from the sides and fold it over to form the rim. Make sure there are no cracks where juices can run out during baking. Brush the rim of the dough with melted butter and sprinkle generously with sugar. Sprinkle the plums with the remaining 4 tablespoons sugar, or more, depending upon sweetness of plums.

Bake until well-browned and bubbly, about 40 minutes, rotating as needed so the tart browns evenly.

Transfer to a cooling rack so the bottom of the crust doesn’t get soggy. Use a pastry brush to dab the plums with plum juice to glaze them while still hot.

Serve the galette warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The recipe’s note comes from the Chronicle’s testers. It reads: When we tested this recipe, we used 6 ounces of butter to make the pastry. Although the finished crust was rich, flaky, buttery and totally delicious, it was difficult to roll out. Using 4 ounces of butter produces dough that is easier to work with, although it is not quite as rich.

Let me conclude with a few recommendations, observations and notes of my own. Don't forgo this galette if you cannot find Santa Rosa plums; the recipe works equally well with peaches, nectarines, cherries, apples, all sorts of berries, rhubarb, figs, apricots, quince and…well, you name it. Feel free to pair favorite fruits: peach and raspberry; rhubarb and strawberry; or nectarine and blackberry. I particularly love an apple and quince galette. I have made hundreds of different fruit galettes using the above recipe; the only tricky part is dosing the sugar relative to the sweetness of one’s chosen fruit(s). More often than not I follow the Chronicle’s note and use 4 ounces of butter. The finished galette turns out rich enough for my taste. On average I use about 3 to 4 tablespoons of ice water to bring the dough together. And if I don’t have any vanilla ice cream in the freeze, I top off my slice of galette with either whipped cream or crème fraîche.