Friday, November 30, 2007

the evolution of a thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner at our house was never like the ones we saw on TV. Growing up we never had pumpkin pie, cornbread stuffing or yams. The turkey was always there but everything else on the table was pretty "un-American" and I’m pretty sure not on the pilgrim’s table.

The typical thanksgiving menu at our house had a huge, deliciously moist turkey stuffed with vegetables like potatoes, celery, and carrots, instead of stuffing we had pilaf with bits of ground beef and toasted pine nuts, and the sides were hummus, cheese bouregs, ground beef keftas, tabouleh, roasted eggplants, and plenty of pickled vegetables and olives.

After a decade and a half in the States, my mother got a little curious and more daring (or she was tired of me asking about yams and cranberries). “Sweets during the main course???” It was absolute madness for her (just like my insistence to try peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), but she gave in. "I made these especially for Seta," she announces to the confused faces around the table as she sets down a tiny bowl of cranberry sauce next to the hummus and candied yams next to the baklava.

Our dinners growing up might not have been traditional but for us they were what Thanksgiving is about – our big family getting together, squeezing around the dining table, talking over each other, overfilling our plates, and eating until we can’t move. Occasionally we attempted to go around the table and give thanks like we saw in the movies, but mostly we heard thinly veiled speeches from our uncles and aunts about marriage and children and what are we kids waiting for…they want grandkids already!! Akh….Thanksgiving.

So it’s a week after actual Thanksgiving, and my girlfriends are coming over. I can’t find whole turkeys here in Paris, but in respect and some nostalgia, I am cooking up Turkey legs (cuisse de dinde) and pilaf. I might add some butternut squash soup, or endive salad. There will be cheese before dessert and of course there will be wine and some champagne. After all, it’s all about evolving, right?

I didn’t find a recipe for Cuisse de Dinde in any of the cookbooks I had or on line so I got ideas from a few sources like from Jamie Oliver’s classic roast chicken recipe, and made up a simple way to make it happen.

Cuisse de Dinde Rôti et Parfumée / Herb-Roasted Turkey Leg

Serving 4

1kg/2 pounds Turkey leg (with skin on)
3 garlic cloves (each one cut into half)
3 tablespoons butter (room temperature)
1 tablespoon rosemary (fresh preferred)
1 tablespoon thyme (dried ok)
2 medium or 1 large onion
4 carrots
2 stalks celery

Preheat the oven to 200 C / 400 F .

Wash and pat dry a 2 pound leg. Place the turkey in a roasting pan. With a sharp knife, gash the leg in six places, particularly near the joint and in the meatiest part. Push in a half of a garlic clove in each gash.

Chop the rosemary and thyme finely. In a small bowl, mix the butter with the herbs, mashing the herbs into the butter with a fork. Lift the skin of the turkey leg creating areas of separation between the skin and the flesh of the turkey. With your fingers spread as much of the butter under the skin as you can. One way to do this is by placing a dab of the herb butter under the skin then pressing down with your palm over that area.

Tip: While you’re at it, might as well make some extra herbed butter for serving with bread. Use the same proportions of butter to herbs, depending on how much herbed butter you want. However, if you are using fresh herbs, keep in mind that it won’t last as long as if you use dried herbs. It doesn’t take long to make, so make only enough as you intend to use that day. Also, be careful not to cross-contaminate with the turkey.

Slice the carrots and celery to one inch thick pieces. Cut the onion into eight pieces (e.g., quarter the onion and then halve each quarter). Arrange the vegetables around the turkey leg. Drop the rest of the butter on top of the vegetables. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil evenly on the surface of the turkey, placing it in the pan with the skin side up. Sprinkle the turkey and vegetables with plenty of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

Place the pan in the oven and let brown for 10 minutes, then flip over (adding olive oil to the new side before putting it back in the oven). Let the underside of the leg roast for 10 minutes, and then flip it back to skin side up. Continue letting it roast for a total of 45 minutes per 2 lbs of meat. Check in on it time to time and baste it with some of the juices from the bottom of the pan. If the skin is getting too browned and you fear that it might burn, cover the turkey with a tent of foil.

Once done, pull out the roasting pan and let the turkey rest for at least five minutes before cutting into it. During this time you can make the pilaf.



2 cups long-grain rice
1 ½ cup water
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons of the turkey juices from the roasting pan
1 tablespoon butter (optional)

Bring the salted water and broth to a boil. Once boiled add the turkey juices and stir. Add the rice, bring the temperature down to low, and cover. Follow instructions for the rice you use (cooking time can vary from 10 minutes to 20). Once cooked (all the water has been absorbed), add a tablespoon of butter and stir it in, if you wish).

Friday, November 23, 2007

a pot on the fire

Last week was a week spent at home. Winter arrived - not that it really left this year - and at the same time les cheminots were on strike, making trekking to work an ordeal not worth daring unless I really had to. So I set up my desk at home, brewed some fresh, hot coffee, and set about to write and edit and all that I do at the office at home.

The biggest advantage to working at home is that I can multi-task. The washing machine was running, the ironing board was hanging out, and by the end of the week my apartment was never as clean or as organized. The papers I was editing still needed editing though.
I guess it's not that efficient to work from home.

I did wander out into the cold and metro-less city a few times. One morning I went to the marche where autumn was still lingering. Everywhere I looked there were carrots, turnips, leeks, and cabbages. It turns out that it's pot-au-feu season in France. Perfect! It's cold out, I am home to watch over a low-burning stove, and there is nothing like stew to make you feel nourished and happy, especially for the unfortunate ones like my husband for whom working at home was not an option. After an hour walk back from the last train stop, pot-au-feu is exactly what you need.

This is a meal that is ridiculously easy to make. Throw everything in the pot and do what you gotta do. If you are pressed for time, cut the meat and vegetables into small, uniform pieces and leave out the bones, and it can cook in an hour. But the longer it cooks, the better the flavors blend together.


Ingredients: Serving 6-8

4 lbs of meat (mix stew beef, lamb or veal: top round, heel round, shank) Make sure at least one cut has bone in it.
1 tablespoon butter
6 carrots
2-3 turnips
2 leeks (cut off dark green ends)
1 onion, roughly chopped
1/2 medium chou vert (in the States you can use green or curly cabbage, kale or swiss chard)
1 bouquet garni (tie up 2 bay leaves and 3/4 tablespoon of dried thyme in a small piece of cheesecloth)
3 cloves
2 tablespoons of kosher salt

Cut the boneless meats into bite-size pieces. In a large stockpot, sweat the chopped onions in the melted butter. Add the meats and let brown. Once browned, fill the stockpot ¾ full with cold water, the salt, the cloves, and the bouquet garni (if you don’t have cheesecloth, you can just directly put the spices in the pot, but remember to take out the bay leaves before serving). Cover and let it come to a boil and cook for at least 30 minutes before adding the vegetables.

Meanwhile wash, peel, and chop the vegetables (carrots, turnips and leeks into bite-size chunks, and cabbage/kale/swiss chard into 2 inch strips). To minimize the effects of cabbage, you can boil them separately in water for about 10 minutes then discard the water.

Add the vegetables to the meat, add some pepper (to taste), cover, and let it simmer for about an hour on low heat. Check on it regularly for doneness (if the meat is falling apart and the vegetables are soft) and to make sure there’s enough water. Add water as necessary.

Once done, pull out the large bone-in pieces and pull off the meat. Ladle the vegetables, the broth and a bit of each kind of meat for each person. Serve with kosher salt, pepper, mustards, and big chunks of peasant/country bread.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

one word to start it off - dolma

I am fortunate enough to have traveled quite a bit and lived in very different places. As a true Armenian I have also somehow found other Armenians in all these places. We are not a homogeneous group at all. French Armenians are pretty French, New Yorkers pretty New York-y, LA Armenians of course are classically LA Armenians (that's a whole other blog), and Lebanese Armenians - well, you know. Armenians can be found everywhere - Armenia, Australia, the Middle East, California, Boston, New Jersey, France, Italy, Belgium, Sudan, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, India....everywhere.

There are two sure things that you will find in any Armenian community anywhere in the world: an Armenian church and dolma.

When I moved to Paris, after I came out of my readjustment coma, I started to have cravings for dolma. The scent of the meat, vegetables and spices cooking away slowly on the stove-top was such a strong symbol. I had to bring it to my new home.

I called up my mother to get her recipe. She laughed and started to tell me to put a little of this, a little of that. How much is a little? "You'll know," she said, "Atchkee tchapov" (measure by the eye). I thought there was no way it was going to come out right. But it did. And I realized I had absorbed something from her.

Don't worry. I'll be a little more precise here.

Dolma is essentially stuffed vegetables or legumes farci in French. There are variations of it probably in any culture. What makes dolma Armenian dolma is the spice combination and the meat. You can use zucchini, bell peppers and/or tomatoes. Eggplant can also be used, but it gives it a different, slightly bitter flavor with this recipe.


Ingredients: Serving 8

4 pounds combined of zucchini, tomatoes and bell peppers (green, yellow or red) / two vegetables per serving

I like to use round zucchini because it looks prettier, but regular long zucchini is fine. Choose firm ones. As for the tomatoes – nice firm beefsteak tomatoes are good. They should have a thick skin/outside so that they won’t fall apart once you empty out the insides.

1 pound / 250 g of ground beef or lamb (or a combination of both)
150 g / 1 cup of rice
If you like it with more rice, add another ¼ cup.
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon of allspice
½ teaspoon of dried mint
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons of tomato puree
1 tablespoon of vegetable or olive oil (your preference)


1 cup of plain low-fat yogurt
1 clove crushed garlic
A little water to thin it out

Wash the vegetables and cut off the extremities. Try to be neat about it. Empty out the inside of the vegetables taking care not to pierce the outer wall of the vegetables. A potato peeler works great here.

Save the insides of the zucchini. They make a nice side for fish, pork or chicken. Sauté the 1 chopped onion with some vegetable oil. Add the insides of the zucchini. It cooks quickly once the zucchini is added. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over it. My mother calls this “tchitma.” I don’t know if it’s the real name for it, but it’s good and nutritious.

For the stuffing: sweat the onions in a sauté pan over low heat with a tiny bit of butter (1/2 a tablespoon). When the onions get translucent add the ground meat, salt, pepper, allspice, and dried mint. Let the mixture sauté for 10 minutes, stirring regularly. If it the mixture looks dried out (if you use lean meat this could happen), add half of the oil to the mixture. Once nicely browned, add the rice (rinsed) and mix it up well. With a teaspoon or with your hands, stuff the vegetables with the meat and rice mixture. Stuff them only about ¾ full as the rice will expand.

Layer the stuffed vegetables in heavy-bottomed pot, with the open sides up, as close together as you can. The size of the pot depends on how many vegetables you are using. A medium, 24 cm pot should work well. Add water to the pot up to the just under the level of the vegetables. Add the tomato puree to the water and a little bit to the top of each vegetable. Place a plate over the vegetables, and cover the pot. Let it cook over a medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Check on it every 10-15 minutes to make sure the water has not dried out. Add more water as needed.

Serve warm with the cool garlic-yogurt sauce. For the sauce, mix all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Add water if the yogurt is too thick.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

three big changes and one big discovery

about a year ago my life changed in three big ways...

I was living in New York, buried in my studies and work. Next thing I know I am in Paris and married with my first real job after what seems like a lifetime as a student. Life is full of good surprises sometimes.

French took on slowly. Dinners with friends turned into once relaxing and enjoyable evenings to exhausting, headache- inducing struggles. Listening, watching and learning became my way of life. Every task, every activity required effort. Even watching TV was tiring.

Soon I realized that I was spending a lot of time thinking about food - not because I was hungry, but because it brought me a sense of peace and calm. In this new strange world, where it was a real effort to have an adult conversation, food was the one thing that didn’t need to be translated. It was the one thing that I could do to clear my mind and do well and finish with something that brought a smile to my new family’s and friends’ faces and a look of understanding in their eyes. It became a way for me to see an immediate product, an immediate achievement.

But it wasn’t just French food I was discovering. I was rediscovering my roots, what I grew up with, the foods that brought with them memories and the feeling of back home. The foods of my Armenian-Lebanese-American home. I wanted to bring those flavors, aromas and memories to my new home, my new life.

Apricots & Thyme -
a symbol the two cultures that met in my present life. Apricots - of Armenian food and culture. Thyme - a staple of French home cooking. A blog about re-exploration, rediscovery. A search for home in my kitchen in this new land. It is about food but the food is about home. It's about dolma, jarret d'agneau, hommus, yogurt soup (kebbe labnieh), petit salee aux lentilles, tabouleh, menaeesh, bouregs, gratins, crepes and galettes, and of course - plenty of desserts from nammoura to fondant au chocolat.

Anoush ellah and Bon appetit!