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 Tava. Present 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.
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.