By Robyn and Doug Kalajian
FLArmenians Cuisine Contributors
Upon receiving news that our beautiful daughter Mandy would be joining us from New York City on a business trip to South Florida, we were forced to enjoy a wonderful meal in an absolutely idyllic setting.
For her, it was a grind, but it was a fun grind that involved escorting clients to art shows, performances and parties at glittering venues from the beach to downtown, often lasting well into the night. She was too busy or exhausted to chat, much less drag the old folks along.
However, as soon as the manic pace subsided, Mandy set aside a couple of days for fun with Mom and Dad. After regaling us with tales of her weeklong tour of chic South Beach eateries, she told us to pick any cuisine and any restaurant we liked for a family feast.
We picked the Hollywood Grill, possibly the world’s most unlikely setting for an Armenian restaurant.
A bit of explanation: When you think of Hollywood and Armenians, you probably think of Hollywood, California. The Florida city of the same name lies along the East Coast about halfway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, very much in the heart of South Florida’s relatively small but growing Armenian-American community.
The restaurant’s most unusual feature is that it’s on the beach. Not near the beach or across from the beach but actually on it, separated from the dunes and ocean only by a sand-strewn walking path known as the Hollywood Broadwalk.
There are very few such venues in all of South Florida. There are none, of course, in Armenia. That alone makes it special.
It’s also appropriately beach-side casual, with a narrow dining area barely larger than a covered home patio and no more formal in furnishings or decor. The menu, however, is far bigger and more sophisticated than you’d expect to find in a row of cheese-steak-and-burger shacks.
Of course, this is an Armenian restaurant so the menu isn’t to be taken literally, as we discovered when asking our very friendly server for several lamb dishes that are apparently available only if ordered ahead.
I got a kick out of seeing khash listed, if only because you so seldom read the phrase “cow feet” on a menu. Alas, the waitress explained that the traditional feet-and-innards soup is best enjoyed before dawn and the restaurant doesn’t open until 1 p.m. As an Armenian, I appreciated the philosophical dilemma. I suspect “odars” might not, but they’re unlikely to order such a thing anyway.
The menu is also unusual in another way, at least for us: The fare is not just Armenian but also Russian and Georgian. Dining at Hollywood Grill is a uniquely Trans-Caucasian experience in a tropical setting. In fact, in 2006 the Broward New Times ran a story about the Hollywood Grill and it’s diverse South Caucasian cuisine.
We weren’t feeling quite so adventurous, so we passed up the dumplings and borscht and stuck with mostly familiar choices — and none disappointed us.
The Greek salad was far more than enough for three, and very much Armenian with large chunks of cucumber, tomato and Armenian cheese mixed with herbs. No lettuce, thank you. There are several other salads available, including one laced with basturma!
The stuffed cabbage was neatly done, with a generous and moist meat stuffing. The lule kebab was excellent. The lahmajoun was most impressive, with a crisp and clearly home-made crust and served with generous slices of fresh tomato as well as raw onion, parsley, and lemon.
In all, it was a very satisfying meal and we were able to walk off at least a few of the calories while enjoying the balmy breeze as we strolled along the crystal-blue oceanfront.
The smile on Mandy’s face showed us how much she enjoyed the meal. What you won’t see are the smiles on our faces. We enjoyed the meal, too, but we enjoyed the company even more.
Robyn Kalajian is a retired culinary teacher in Florida and Chief Cook at www.TheArmenianKitchen.com. Douglas Kalajian is a retired editor/journalist and Sous Chef at www.TheArmenianKitchen.com.
Kalajians Cook Up a Storm Inside Their Armenian Kitchen
By Tom Vartabedian
BOYNTON BEACH, Fla.—Want to know the perfect recipe for vosbov kufteh? How about the ideal bourma? Looking for a new and different pilaf recipe?
Doug and Robyn Kalajian offer their home to you as collaborators and connoisseurs of ‘The Armenian Kitchen’.
Take it from Doug and Robyn Kalajian. It all starts with the best ingredients, plenty of time, a sprinkle of patience, and a measure of love.
“A well-stocked pantry doesn‘t hurt, either,” they agree. “It’s all in the way you delve off the beaten path. Explore. Experiment. Enjoy. Paree akhorjag. Have a good appetite!”
The Kalajians don’t consider themselves epicureans by any stretch, just a fun-loving couple who enjoy sampling good Armenian food and sharing recipes with others—whether their own or from others.
Log on to their website www.theArmenianKitchen.com and you’ll find a heritage of Armenian recipes with a personal touch, whether it’s French toast, chicken soup, or Christmas pudding.
It’s where you will be inspired by an ancient cuisine, experiment with exotic ingredients, master cooking techniques you were afraid to attempt, and much more.
It doesn’t matter where you live, what your ethnic background happens to be, what degree your food preparation skills are, or your finances. Everybody has to eat.
“Armenian recipes are as varied as their regions and dialects,” says Robyn. “No two choreg recipes are alike. Food connects us across all boundaries—generational, national, physical, social, nutritional, and cultural.”
They each have their roles. Robyn, a retired culinary arts teacher, is the chief cook. Doug remains the sous chef. He’s an author and retired journalist who spent 16 years at the Palm Beach Post. He worked as an editor, reporter, and feature writer during that stint before retiring in 2008 from what he called “our sadly shrinking industry.”
Over the years, Doug hunkered down to cover a few hurricanes, chronicled the annual outbreak of spring break madness, sneaked into a mob funeral, and came nose-to-nose with an alligator or two while crisscrossing the state.
Along the way, he wrote a non-fiction book called Snow Blind about a crusading public defender caught up in Florida’s cocaine insanity of the 1980’s. His favorite assignment?
“Going to France and walking Normandy’s Utah Beach with a veteran who landed there on D-Day in 1944,” he recalls. “When I’m not cooking, or more likely eating, I do freelance editing and writing.”
He and Robyn discovered a common interest in Armenian cooking the night they met back in 1976. He was working at the New York Daily News while she was teaching at a high school by the New Jersey shore.
“We were immediately struck by our similarities and backgrounds,” said Doug. “Not only were we both Armenian, but our fathers’ families both came from Dikranagerd. We had many friends in common and had experienced similarly Armenian-intensive childhoods. Talk about destiny!”
They wed the following year and moved to Florida when Doug took an editing job at the Miami Herald. Although they suspected Florida to be a short-term engagement, they’re still in the Sunshine State after 31 years. A daughter Mandy lives in New York where she’s a marketing executive.
Robyn studied home economics at New Jersey’s Montclair State College. She taught in New Jersey and Florida public schools for more than 30 years. During that time, she honed her cooking skills in a variety of classes at such noted institutions as Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.
Before retiring nearly three years ago, she taught in the culinary academy at Olympic Heights High School in Boca Raton.
The idea for “The Armenian Kitchen” evolved while discussing retirement plans.
“We’ve always wanted to work on something together,” added Doug. “Robyn’s knowledge of food and cooking with my writing skill was an obvious conclusion.”
They discussed a number of potential projects, including a cookbook and a theme calendar.
Every idea they hatched involved Armenian food. Using the internet was something that would have intimidated both of them not long ago. But friends who were avid bloggers suggested they give it a try.
“It was daunting at times,” Doug admitted. “But we were both delighted and amazed at how quickly we reached a large and enthusiastic audience. So many people are interested in Armenian cuisine and willing to help by contributing recipes, photos, even videos.”
They started their project with a gut feeling that many folks shared an urge to preserve the recipes and cooking techniques of their parents and ancestors. The reaction they get each day proves them right.
Many requests come from around the world and start with the phrase “I remember…” and go on to describe some wonderful dish they haven’t consumed since grandma died.
“A non-Armenian gentleman from Queensland, Australia, who was so desperate for the taste of basterma, asked for a recipe to make it at home since there were no stores near him to purchase it,” said Robyn. “A woman from Canada sent us an easy method of making madzoon in a microwave. Others write us hoping to find lost family recipes.”
The most unusual request had nothing to do with food. A reader asked the Kalajians if they could translate an English saying into Armenian (including the lettering) for a family member who wanted to have it tattooed on her arm before her upcoming wedding. The request was fulfilled.
Since the first item appeared in March 2009, the Kalajians have reached more than 70,000 readers in 160 countries.
“You can attribute much of it to digital magic,” Doug maintains. “The internet makes it possible to keep track of every computer that clicks its way to our site. The analytics even tell us where they are. What a thrill it is to discover that someone in Armenia, or even China and Africa, has taken the time to read one of our posts.”
Posting videos on YouTube has carried them to an even broader audience, including many non-Armenians.
“I’m amazed that more than 20,000 people around the world have watched me make Armenian coffee,” Doug reveals. “Judging by the comments, it’s clear people take their coffee seriously. Even more rewarding is the fact we hear from readers every day.”
It’s not for the money because there isn’t any. The website is a labor of love. Advertising on the site is provided by Google through an arrangement available to all bloggers.
“Our income from this is what I would call modest, but only if I were bragging,” says Doug. “It doesn’t actually cover the cost of ingredients. Our goal from the beginning was to preserve and share the recipes Armenians have carried around the world and the stories behind them. The reaction we’ve received is incredibly positive and far-reaching.”
Growing up, Armenian food was on the default menu. Doug’s parents worked long hours in the dry cleaning store, but that never stopped Mom from making fresh madzoon to spoon over her kufteh.
“I can’t match her energy, much less her cooking style,” he admits, “but making her kind of food is a way of remembering and honoring her. Sharing our food with family and friends is a gesture of love and respect that’s missing from today’s microwave society.”
Baking the distinctive cheese bread recipe that Robyn learned from her grandmother not only brings back memories, it gives the Kalajians a small taste of the little village in the shadow of Musa Dagh, which her ancestors left nearly a century ago.
Their ultimate Armenian dinner would start with cheese beoregs and a hefty plate of mezza, including basterma and yalanchi. The main course would include bulgur pilaf, any type of kebab, kufteh, vegetable geragoor, and chopped salad. Finally, dessert would be baklava with Armenian coffee.
“None of that is particularly fancy or exotic,” Doug notes. “But it’s the food we know and love, and that makes us happy.”
One thing that may surprise people about Doug is that he can’t taste much of what Robyn or anyone else cooks.
Last fall while on a freelance writing assignment, he took a tumble and cracked his skull. As a result, he completely lost his sense of smell. Doctors say it’s unlikely to return.
“I’ve since discovered just how closely smell and taste are related,” Doug says. “I can still sense sweet, sour, hot, and a few other basic tastes. But most herbs and subtle flavorings are just a memory. Just as bad, I can’t smell what’s cooking.”
The good news is, he hasn’t lost his appetite. But any epicurean pretense is kaput at the moment.
“All this would be annoying under any circumstances, but it makes food blogging even more of a challenge,” he points out. “Luckily, Robyn has always had the more refined palate. She’s more than capable of maintaining the lead role in the kitchen as well as on the web.”
A New Fusion Cuisine is Born: Flormenian Cuisine (Floridian-Armenian)
By Robyn and Douglas Kalajian
FLArmenians Cuisine Contributors
The best part of mango season here in Florida is the end, when the ripe fruit tumbles from the trees and spreads across lawns and backyards.
Friends beg you to take home a bag or two. Some people actually leave piles of them by the curb, inviting passers-by to scoop them up.
We came home with a surprise armload of free mangoes the other day and decided to try something a little different instead of the usual mango desserts. We had lamb on the brain, as usual, so we settled on a lamb-mango stew.
Mango isn’t part of the Armenian kitchen tradition, but apricots and other fruits are. We wondered, could our local bounty be a tasty substitute? The short answer is: Yes!
We knew mango and lamb would work because it’s done in India, although the recipes we found were variations on curry. We wanted a more traditional Armenian taste, and we also wanted to keep it simple.
We have a habit of freezing lamb tidbits — the pieces that don’t quite work as kebab — so we started by defrosting a container full. We also cooked up some fresh neck bones and picked the meat off them. (You know the drill: You just boil and boil, and then boil some more.)
We wound up with about two cups of well-trimmed lamb meat, and about three cups of broth. Basically, we added about two cups of sliced mangoes, seasoned the mix and kept on cooking.
The main seasonings: sumac, coriander, onions and garlic. If you’re not familiar with sumac, you should cozy up as soon as you have the chance. It’s a tart berry, almost lemony but with a unique flavor.
We infused the broth by placing two tablespoons of the whole, dried sumac berries in a tea strainer and letting it simmer for about 10 minutes.
The sumac balanced the sweetness of the mango perfectly. We also added a little heat with some fresh, diced ginger and a heaping tablespoon of Aleppo red pepper.
The result tasted something like an Armenian chutney: sweet, but not too sweet.
Overall, we were really happy (and a little surprised) at how nicely it all came together. One thing we’d change: I put all the mango in the broth with the lamb and let it all cook together for almost an hour. As a result, the mango pretty much melted. I should have reserved half the mango for the last 10 or 15 minutes for more fruity chunks.
Armenian Lamb Mango Stew (serves 4)
2 cups cooked, trimmed lamb meat
3 cups lamb broth (or chicken broth)
2 cups sliced, fresh mango
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon finely diced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons whole sumac, or 1 teaspoon ground sumac
salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup fresh yogurt
a few springs of fresh mint
1. Start with broth in a stew pot, reserving the lamb. Bring to a simmer.
2. Place the sumac in a tea strainer and lower into the broth. Leave it there about 10 minutes, until the broth is flavored. If you don’t have a strainer, or whole sumac, you can just add ground sumac when you add the other seasonings. If you don’t have either, use a tablespoon of lemon juice.
3. Sauté the onion, garlic and ginger in olive oil until just soft but not brown, then add to the broth.
4. Add 1 cup of the sliced mango, reserving the other.
5. Add the lamb.
6. Add the red pepper and coriander, plus salt and black pepper to taste.
7. Cook it all for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mango is blended and the lamb is tender.
8. Add the rest of the mango and cook another 10-15 minutes.
Serve over white rice or pilaf if you like. Garnish each serving with a dollop of cold yogurt and a sprig of fresh mint. And don’t forget to eat the mint!
Robyn Kalajian is a retired culinary teacher in Florida and Chief Cook at http://www.TheArmenianKitchen.com. Douglas Kalajian is a retired editor/journalist (Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post) and Sous Chef at http://www.TheArmenianKitchen.com.