Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Cocktail Hour: Dragon's Kiss

Friday, I stopped by the grocery store on my way home from work, brain-dead and ready for the long weekend, my stomach grumbling like a caged beast. What usually happens in situations like this one is that I push the shopping cart up and down every aisle (I do not like missing anything), snatching this and that off the shelves, loading up on all sorts of fruits, vegetables, herbs, with the intention to make stuffed cabbage, Mom's herb stew, schnitzel, fish tacos, quesadillas with homemade mole sauce. Aren't you impressed? So, am I. By the time I get to my favourite cashier, the shopping cart is packed with all sorts of things and I have completely forgotten the main reason I was there in the first place (usually just milk). While pounding meat to a thin sheet for schnitzel is cheap therapy after a long day in the office, when I get home, there is barely enough motivation left to put the food away, let alone cook something from scratch like a  full-blooded Mexican grandma would.  

Not this time. I had my act together. It was probably the cheapest trip in the history of Coco Supermarket Raids, mainly because I was not hungry for a change. And I remembered the milk. But I also came home with dragonfruit. Shawn gave me the old "You keep buying these exotic things and just let them rot in the fridge." I said nothing, just cast a squinty-eyed look his way.
While I have not figured out what to do with the two paddles of cactus from a previous trip to the store, I knew exactly what to do with this dragonfruit. Well, I had an idea.

 Dragonfruit looks unreal with an electric pink peel, alien egg shape and dotty interior. I love dots. This was the first time I had noticed it in the produce section. I had to see what this odd little fruit is all about. Luckily, I practiced some constraint and bought only 2. The Old Colette would have picked up as many as she could hold in her arms. Now that I had it, what was I going to do with it? The inside was soft, almost like a pudding with an unexpectedly mild taste, something close to a pear. Apparently, most people just slice it in half, scoop the flesh out with a spoon and eat it. That's it? How boring. Something with such wild looks deserves a proper place on the menu, like a dazzling show-stopping cocktail. And, as luck would have it, the good folks at Cocozia had sent me a box of their delicious organic coconut water. I just could not convince myself to do anything but whip up a batch of tropical potion with a naturally vibrant green color.  Dragon's Kiss is a refreshing and nutritious drink that anyone can enjoy. Just nix the booze so the kiddies can raise a glass, too. 

Dragon's Kiss
Fills 4 martini glasses

2 dragon fruits
2 Granny Smith apples
2 lemons, juice + zest
2 Tb fresh parsley
2 Tb fresh mint
3 cups coconut water (I like Cocozia)*
1/2 cup ice
1 tsp sugar
2 shots Amaretto (optional)
4 edible sugar wafer butterflies
pinch chia seeds (optional)

Use a vegetable peeler to take 4 ribbons of zest off of a lemon.
Punch/cut a little star pattern out of each zest ribbon.

Peel and cut apples into large chunks.
Toss into pitcher of a blender.

Add remaining lemon zest and squeeze juice over the apples.
Cut dragonfruit in half and scoop the polka-dot pulp out.
Add to blender.
Add herbs, coconut water, ice sugar and Amaretto (if using).
Blend smooth, fill glasses and decorate with a pretty edible butterfly!

Using coconut water in any drink is a lovely substitute to ordinary water. Sugary store-bought cocktail mixes have no place in my kitchen. The Dragon's Kiss is so easy to make from scratch using the freshest fruit and herbs with a hint of coconut flavour. This isn't the stuff that comes in a can. Coconut water is extracted from young fruit. So it is light and mild in flavour. Cocozia tastes so fresh you'd think someone just climbed a coconut tree, grabbed a coconut and stuck a straw into it. Get ready for the hot summer with a vibrant drink that is sure to keep you as cool as a tropical breeze.

*This is not a paid post. I was given a sample of Cocozia coconut water to review. All opinions are my own.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mother's Day Special: Interview with Chef Michelle Bernstein + Her Flan de Mama

My li'l blue-eyed beauty woke up this morning when I was off, brushing my teeth. That is when I heard a sweet li'l voice calling, "Maaamaaaaaa?" So, I rushed to the bedroom and found a cute, little girl, yawning and rubbing her sleepy eyes under messy curls. She fumbled to the edge of the bed and wrapped her arms around my neck. Then, she settled down and said, "Mommy, I want someteeng to eat. And juice. And I want to watch Hello Keetty," finishing with, "In bed.

Every morning, it's the same routine, serving her Royal Littleness while scrambling to get myself ready for work. Sometimes she asks for Peppa Pig or Pingu, but her demands are otherwise the same. It's that soft, warm hug that reminds me every day how grateful I am to be her mother. 

So I make a mad dash for the kitchen, get a bowl of blueberries rinsed, a sippy of mango-peach-orange juice (her fav) and gummy vitamins ready for delivery. After serving my little sweetheart, I make another mad dash, this time for my coffee. That is usually when crazy ideas cross my minds. Today it was making the batter for a cake before I leave for work so that when I get home all I have to do is toss it into the oven. Genius, right? 

Well, that is when it happened. For the first time in my life, the words "I 've got butter in my cleavage!" came flying out of my mouth. There I was, creaming some butter with sugar in my stand mixer when a big, fat chunk of cold butter curve-balled right out of the bowl, landing in my blouse. Clearly, the butter was not softened enough.  Now we know. All operations in the kitchen came to a screeching halt as I made a mad dash to the laundry room, then the shower. 

It is not exactly a great feeling, being assaulted by a dairy product. Life in the professional kitchen is a foodie's fantasy, but in reality, it can be quite hectic. I wondered how hectic. So I asked someone who would know. James Beard Award winning executive chef, cookbook author and owner of several fab Miami restaurants including the famed Michy's needs little, if any introduction. That would be Michelle Bernstein who is one very busy lady. 
With her husband and mother at her side, it's a family affair presenting gourmet dishes with an eclectic take on Latin favourites. Balancing motherhood with a demanding culinary career, she still manages to find time as founder of a local chapter of a program that engages youngsters to learn to cook and eat better, something we all strive to do for our kids. 

Casting her signature bright smile also makes her the perfect TV personality and may have contributed to her victory on Iron Chef. But, you do not have to go as far as Florida for a taste of her creations - Just fly Delta, business or first class. Despite her dizzying schedule, the acclaimed chef made time to share a few, fun facts with me.

Coco: Growing up, who cooked? Mom, Dad or both?
Chef Michelle: Mom cooked and still does; in fact for Christmas Eve she made a Roast Goose (18
pounds) and braised cabbage!!! Dad makes great salami and eggs, but that’s it...

Coco: What's the best thing they cooked for you?

Chef Michelle: Everything she makes is good, literally. I guess my favorite is when she makes
gnocchi in cream sauce paired with braised chicken thighs with pizza spices.

Coco: How many siblings do you have?

Chef Michelle: One older sister

Coco: What do you do for fun?

Chef Michelle: Go to the beach with our son or biking or grilling out with friends.

Coco: Like all moms, mine is a fabulous cook, but always asks my dad or me to taste her dish

and tell her if it needs more salt, heat, etc. Do you sample your dishes yourself before
you send them out?
Chef Michelle: As a chef, I always (as all kitchens do) have pans filled with plastic tasting spoons
all over the kitchen to make sure our reductions and sauces and broths are always on point; I even
make our garde manger cooks try the lettuce before plating a salad.

Coco: What is your biggest challenge as a female chef?

Chef Michelle: I don’t see the difference.

Coco: What's the best chocolate? (You do like chocolate, yes?)

Chef Michelle: I do.  I like finding new and different chocolates; I don’t care about combinations
of flavor or fillings, just really good quality chocolate. I tried a dark chocolate bar called Pacari recently that was unforgettable.

Coco: Do you love shoes or handbags?

Chef Michelle: Both; but I have a bit of a shoe...problem.

Coco: Do you prefer sweet over savory?

Chef Michelle: SAVORY always; you can keep the sweet…

She may not have a voracious sweet-tooth, so you can bet your first-born that Michelle Bernstein's desserts are absolutely fabulous, especially one from her own mother. This Mother's Day, don't just buy Mom a pearl bracelet or an iTunes gift card. Make something for her, like a silky, rich flan and serve it as breakfast in bed.

Yes, for breakfast. Why not? Flan has all the breakfast basics in check: Eggs, cream cheese, milk. How decadent would that be? Chef's Michelle's recipe is flawless and easy to follow. The chef uses an ovenproof glass baking dish, but metal works really well, too.

Just remember to make your caramel first, even the night before. Wait for it to cool completely before adding the custard. Sugar retains a lot of heat and, if the caramel is still hot, it will start cooking the eggs in the custard, making the flan taste "eggy." Wait for the caramel to cool, then add the custard. Blend the custard to a perfectly smooth consistency. An immersion blender works very well.

Flan de Mama
Courtesy of Michelle Bernstein

Flan                                                                                                       Caramel
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk                                               1 cup granulated sugar 
14 oz whole milk                                                                                  3/4 cup water 
4 oz (1/2 a brick) Philadelphia Cream Cheese, room temperature
5 large Grade A free-range eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup granulated white sugar
1 tsp lemon peel, finely grated

Equipment: 9 inch glass baking dish, large baking pan, aluminum foil


Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Place all the ingredients into a blender and mix until smooth with no lumps, about 3-5 minutes.Set aside.

Place the sugar and water in a small pan. Cook over medium-high heat until it becomes golden, making sure not stir at any time.
Once the caramel is ready, pour it into a 9-inch glass baking dish, covering the base and sides up to an inch in height.

Carefully pour the flan into the prepared dish with the caramel.
Place the dish in a baking pan, and pour in enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the flan dish. Cover only the glass baking dish with aluminum foil.

Place the pan in the center of the oven, making sure not to get water inside the flan dish [Editor’s note: pour water into baking pan once it is in the oven to ensure no spillage]. Cook for about an hour, or until the flan is set.

Let the flan cool completely, then refrigerate until very cold. When ready to serve, remove the flan by turning the dish upside down on a large plate.
Tomorrow, the famous Michy's of Miami reopens as Cena by Michy with a fresh new look and innovative menu. Cena means supper in both Italian and Spanish,  The new restaurant features mouthwatering creations like Sunchoke and Potato Hash, but Chef Michelle's Flan de Mama is a family classic. With Mother's Day peeking around the corner, we are lucky she shares her recipe. Flan is the Latin cousin to the French crème caramel. For years, I've been using the same recipe. It's fullproof, delicious, never eggy. But, now, I am officially ruined.  This morning I ate the last of it for breakfast with fresh raspberries. Michelle Bernstein's flan is sheer luxury that you can recreate at home. Rich, creamy, luscious and so easy to make that you will have it ready when Mom opens her eyes on Sunday morning, because she deserves the very best of everything.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How to Eat a Cupcake + Other Bits of Kitchen Wisdom

In the last three decades, food shows have flooded the airwaves, inspiring more and more Americans to cook at home. Anyone can master the most basic and important techniques that guarantee consistent success. Find out why garlic should be the first thing you should chop, what to do when you do not have any buttermilk on hand, why all-purpose flour is so versatile, what causes egg shells to crack, what al-dente means, how to cook the perfect steak. Most importantly, you will find out how to eat a cupcake without getting a frosting facial. These simple tricks will have you cooking like a champ in no time.

How to Eat a Cupcake
You didn't think someone had to tell you how to eat a cupcake, but I want to share this neat little trick I found with you, because there actually is a science to it.  Most of us attack a cupcake head-on, making ridiculous expressions, trying to avoid getting a facial with the frosting and failing miserably. Sometimes the frosting is sacrificed in the process and not eaten at all. What a waste. The most practical and delicious way to enjoy a cupcake takes 4 simple little steps:
1. Remove the wrapper
2. Gently split the cupcake in half
3. Place the bottom over the frosting
4. Eat your neat, little cupcake sandwich.
Your life will be better forever.


Garlic is one of those super-foods. The ordinary, often overlooked plant is actually quite extraordinary. Not only is it essential to adding beautiful flavour to any savory dish, it also contains heart-healthy, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-cancer properties, prevents food poisoning and fights off vampires. The potency of the beneficial compounds is destroyed by the heat of cooking. So, the first thing that goes onto my chopping board is always the garlic. I take 2-3 cloves of garlic and give them a good bashing with the flat of my cooking knife. Then I mince and smoosh the garlic against the cutting board. Finally, I collect the minced garlic in a little bowl where it must rest at least 10 minutes. This is sufficient time for the precious allicin compound to develop. As Dad explains, allicin is crucial to the heart-healthy, anti-cancer, antibacterial qualities of garlic that would otherwise be destroyed by the heat of the cooking process. So, while my garlic rests in that little bowl, I move on to the rest of the ingredients. If you are worried about stinky breath, just drink a cup of black tea after dinner. No one will ever suspect you ate any garlic.


There are those who believe buttermilk imparts a very special delicate texture to your pancakes. While that may be true, you will probably never catch me reaching for the carton at the supermarket. It is one more less-often used ingredient that will soon turn into a science experiment in the fridge. So, when I need it, I make my own. 

Homemade Buttermilk

1 cup milk
4 tsp lemon juice or white vinegar
15 minutes

Fancy Flours

The recipe calls for cake flour, but you don't have any? No problem. Use all-purpose.
Most of us do not stock-pile what I call specialty ingredients. Cake flour is one of them. It is basically all-purpose flour without the gluten. In the old days, I used to spend a pretty penny on a small of box of precious cake flour.
Nowadays, I just get 5-pounders of the regular stuff and use it for everything, including fluffy sponge cake. It turns out perfectly every time. The trick is to not overwork the batter. Vigorous mixing causes the gluten to develop and results in tough, chewy baked goods. Once the flour is added to the bowl, just mix gently just until the flour disappears. Then, your cookies and cakes will turn out beautifully every time. And, because cake flour wasn't enough, there is also another fancy flour. Self-raising, Self-rising, whatever it's called. If that recipe calls for cake flour or self-rising flour, don't chuck it. Just make your own. Here's how:

Cake Flour

1 cup flour
2 Tb cornstarch

Self-rising Flour

2 cups flour
1 Tb baking powder
pinch salt

Hens all over the world would be grateful if we just stopped stealing their eggs, but vegan baking is challenging and limiting. Not everything can be made well without the traditional addition of eggs. Case in point, sponge cake. I should like to see someone successfully make a vegan sponge cake that is both delicious and airy. So, I use eggs, but I don't buy just any eggs - They must be free-range, free-roaming, because I want the girls to have a chance to stretch their legs and breath fresh air. And I handle them with care.

Cooking eggs seems like the easiest, most basic thing anyone can do in the kitchen, but it can actually be a bit challenging. Between Jacques Pépin and my coworker friend Danny who is an egg connoisseur, I learned the secret to cooking eggs perfectly every time.

Crack eggs against a clean, flat surface.
Breaking them against the rim of the mixing bowl or frying pan can introduce bacteria and break the yolk.

Before cooking, puncture a tiny hole into the rounder end of the egg. This releases the pressure from air pocket inside the shell and prevents cracking.

Take eggs out of fridge, cold.

Collect them in a shallow pan in a single layer and cover with enough water to cover the eggs.

Add a pinch of baking soda. This will make the shell slide right off.

Once the water just starts to bubble, wait 8-10 seconds, 

then take the pot off of the heat, put the lid on.
Let the eggs rest in the hot water
*6-7-minutes for a soft yolk
*10-12 minutes for hardboiled.

Remove, peel and enjoy!

How to Cook Pasta
It sounds quite ridiculous for someone to have to tell you how to cook pasta. How hard could it be?
You boil some water, add some olive oil, toss the pasta in and Bob's your uncle. Well, that is what I thought, until I heard what I heard on the radio one morning on my way to the office. That's when I realized I had been doing it wrong all along. Anyone can do it right with a few tricks to guarantee perfect.

Knowing when to take the pasta out of the hot water is the secret. Al dente is Italian for to the tooth and marks the point at which the pasta should be drained. It will continue to cook from its own residual heat and that of the sauce to perfect consistency. Overcooking pasta will give you nothing more than a bowl of mush.

The pros recommend 5 quarts of water for every pound of pasta. That's 1 gallon + 4 cups or 20 cups of water. That may seem like a lot. 5 cups should be enough plenty.

Add 1/4 cup of salt to the water and put the lid on.
Once the water has reached a rolling boil, add the pasta and stir gently. This helps keep the pasta from sticking. Do not add olive oil to the cooking water.

Different shapes of pasta cook differently. Refer to the package instructions for cooking time.
Most will achieve al-dente consistency in 5-7 minutes.

Scoop a cup of the starchy pasta water and save it to add to your sauce as needed.

Drain the pasta, but do not rinse it.

Serve in bowls to help keep the pasta warm longer.

How to Cook Steaks

The secret to fancy steakhouse food is simple: Good quality meat, a thermometer and a bit of patience. The most delicious food takes time to prepare and this is one of those techniques you will want to master.

Look for the best quality of meat you can afford. Homegrown Cow offers a variety of meats from humanely treated livestock delivered right to your door.

Traditionally, steaks are seared first, then finished in the oven. We are going to turn the tables and bake first, on low.

The magical numbers are 275*F for the oven and 125*F for the inside of the steak, regardless of the size and thickness of the meat.

Get a probe thermometer to take the guesswork out of the process and consistent results, Something that has a long probe and an alarm that will alert you when the internal temperature has reached target (like this).

Preheat oven to 275*F.
Season steak on all sides. We love Snider's Prime Rib dry rub.

Place steak onto wire rack over baking tray and transfer to warm oven.

Bake until the internal temperature is 125*F.

For a 2-inch thick, 1-pound piece of steak, it will take close to 1 hour to get the internal temperature up to target. After the steak is taken out of the oven, it will continue cooking. Once the internal temp reaches 135*F, a quick sear in a cast iron pan, 1 minute on each side crisps the outside with a beautiful thin crust and the inside to a perfectly even medium-rare. You can also grill it, which is what we prefer. Then, slice and serve!

Shortening can be stored at room temperature for 1,500 years and won't ever spoil. (A slight exaggeration, of course.) Its consistency stays creamy and makes pastry beautifully crumbly. But, I'm a butter girl through and through. My best friend is a cardiologist and confirmed butter is better for your arteries than shortening. So, there you go. I keep my butter in the fridge, which is fine unless the recipe calls for soft butter. Then I have to plan ahead, put a couple a sticks on the counter for a bit while. When there isn't enough time to wait for it to warm up to room temp, I fast-forward to the future by nuking it in the microwave or heating it on the stove. These both sound like great ideas, but you end up with bubbling hot liquid and a big chunk of solid butter in the center, not exactly the creamy, soft consistency we were going for. So, go low-tech and grate the butter like it's cheese. This works perfectly. Not only do I pump up my biceps, the shredding exposes more of the surface area to the elements and brings the butter to room temperature quickly with perfect consistency.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Roasted Marshmallow Meringue Frosting and How I Acquired a Plumber's Torch

Having a child is the greatest gift anyone could dream of receiving. Every time I look at my li'l blue-eyed beauty's face, I realize how lucky I am to have her in my life. Her adorable giggles, sharp wit and generous heart make me beam with pride. Some say I spoil her too much. The world will not be so kind and she will be expected to follow rules every step of the way. Even at home, there are many rules: Remember your pleases and thank-yous. Finish your dinner if you want ice cream. Stay seated at the dinner table until you've finished eating.  Home should also be a place where she can be free, let her imagination run wild without fear of judgement. So, I spoil her, but she really does not ask for much: Play dates with her cousins, trips to the zoo, horseback riding lessons, ice cream and roasted marshmallows.
For her birthday this year, Daisy would have been happy just to have one of those ready-made ice cream cakes from the store, but I really wanted to make something special for her. So her favourite lemon sponge layer cake with champagne cream filling got a supermodel makeover, dressed in a brown sugar marshmallow meringue frosting torched to caramelly perfection.  

Yup, I said torched. Everybody has a teeny pyromaniac tendency, even you. Mine showed up years ago when Dad took me fishing for the first time. We stayed in an RV parked on the bank of a small lake and dined on Cup O'Noodles, dreaming of the trout we were going to catch. During the day, everyone went fishing, while I wasted several boxes of matches, trying to build a campfire (over damp pebbles). Maybe that's why my parents signed me up for scouts as soon as we got home.

These days, campfires and s'mores still rank high on my list, but I spend more time trying to figure out things like crème brûlée.  So, my hubby upgraded me from one of those little cook's torches to a professional one, you know the one that plumbers use to fuse copper pipes and stuff?  It does a great job toasting marshmallow frosting. Everyone should get one. But, before you jet off to the home improvement store, there are a few things you should know: 

*The small cook's torches burn butane which can leave a bad after-taste. My plumber's torch came with MAP/MAPP gas which is food safe, but might melt the stove. So better switch to propane. 

*Have a fire extinguisher handy and the kiddies at a safe distance. 

*If you have long hair, tie it up before you start.

* Light the torch away from yourself and the cake. Then adjust the flame - it should be short and burn blue.

Making marshmallow meringue frosting is really not difficult. It just takes a bit of time. The best part is "pulling" the frosting into curly waves all over the cake, which is great fun for the kids. Then roasting it with a torch makes a beautiful finish and fills the air with a sweet, toasty vanilla scent. The cake looks so elegant, like a sophisticated socialite dressed in a shimmering goddess gown.

Someone asked me if my recipe is for Italian Meringue. Honestly, I have no idea if it is French, Swiss or Italian. What I can tell you is that it looks, smells and tastes beautiful. The recipe has a short list of ingredients, only 4 - egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and vanilla. Be sure your mixing bowl is very clean and dry - it should have no oily residue. This is a cooked meringue. It does require a bit more patience than the conventional approach, but is safe for everyone to eat and well worth the effort.

Roasted Meringue Frosting
Makes ~2 cups, enough for a 4-layer cake


4 free-range egg whites
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract


Fill a heavy pot 1/3 full of water and place over medium heat.
Separate eggs and reserve yolks for another recipe.

Collect whites in a clean, heatproof mixing bowl.
Add brown sugar and mix to combine.
Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the mixing bowl and place the bowl over pot of hot water.

Stir constantly until the thermometer registers 160*F, about 10 minutes.
Remove from heat, add cream of tartar and beat on high until stiff peaks form, another 7 minutes or so.

Now, the fun part:  Frost the cake, making swirly patterns.

Pull: Using the flat side of a spatula or knife, touch the frosting and lift 90 degrees away from the cake, to form little curly peaks.

Torch: Roast the waves of frosting with your new torch and serve.

You may also like....

Stovetop S'Mores: Gooey, Salty, Melty Mess

Campfire Steak Rub

Campfire Cake

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Luscious Greek Phyllo Custard Pie (Galaktoboureko)

Easter is around the corner and if you watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you learned some important things about Greeks:
#1 Lamb is vegetarian.
#2 The origin of the word kimono is Greek.
#3 Easter is a REALLY big deal.
At a recent meeting of the hens, the topic of conversation somehow steered toward sweets (probably my fault). One of the girls said something to the other in Greek, then turned to me, nodding knowlingly as if I had a clue - I'm Armenian and don't speak a lick of Greek over here. Then, she said one very long word. The fact that I could neither spell nor pronounce it did not stop me, of course. There I was, typing away frantically on my phone, desperately seeking a recipe for whatever this dessert was that she absolutely loves, but can not have because it is just too difficult to make. Too difficult? We shall see about that.

As my friends moved on to some other topic of conversation about the neighbour's husband's brother's cat (by now, I was really not paying attention), I was singing Galaktoboureko in my mind and scouring the internet for the stuff. It sure looked good, but the recipe had to be authentic, so it had to come from a Greek. After doing some research, I found a clip showing how to make this Galaktoboureko. Maybe it was the hostess's funky hairdo and cute dress or her confidence and smile that had me convinced she has the best recipe in town

Now, to be clear, for Greeks to deem anything too difficult means that it is truly a pain in the derrière for even the French to fathom. Everyone knows French recipes are often either elegantly simple or painstakingly difficult. My experience with Greek cuisine is quite limited, but from what I have attempted, I would say that Greek recipes rank up there with the Arabic and French for mouthwatering, but complicated.
Case in point: Pastitsio, the Greek interpretation of lasagne crowned with Béchamel sauce. Their sweets, on the other hand, are typically not as involved. Only a handful of ingredients, tossed together, drenched in luscious syrup.

Greek kitchens are buzzing with activity this time of year. There is so much to do. Big, elaborate recipes from ancient times are revived. This not to say that we Armenians do anything simple, either. We insist on baking a special Easter cake called Paska. This seemingly plain cake with a hint of orange favour is actually a fuss to make. Look the wrong way and it instantly deflates. This year, I decided to start my own Easter tradition with my grandmother's Nazook (buttery streusel-stuffed cookies) and Greek Galaktoboureko. After learning to spell it, pronounce it and make it, I risked death at the hands of the Greek gods with a few changes to the original recipe. This luscious phyllo custard pie got a crunchy foundation of cinnamon, brown sugar and crushed pecans and a crown of orange marmalade. Hopefully, the Greek pantheon will forgive me.

Greek Phyllo Custard Pie (Galaktoboureko)
Serves 10
Adapted from Greek TV


1 cup fine semolina or farina
5 cups whole milk
4 yolks + 2 whole Grade A free-range eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract
1 orange zest
2 sticks butter
1 package (12 sheets) phyllo pastry

2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 lemon
3 Tb honey

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar 
1/4 cup walnuts or pecans
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt

4-5 Tb orange marmalade


Rough-chop the nuts.
Mix with sugars, cinnamon, salt. 
Set aside.

Pour milk and a slice of orange peel into a heavy-bottomed pot and place onto medium heat.
Meanwhile, whisk eggs and sugar together and set aside.

Use a wooden spoon to stir the warm milk gently and slowly incorporate the semolina. 
Stir continuously until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Remove the pot from the stove and temper the egg mixture with the warm milk, a bit at a time.
Add vanilla and a knob of butter and stir. Put the lid on and set aside.

Butter a glass baking dish and line with a sheet of phyllo pastry. 
Brush the top with melted butter and lay another sheet of dough on top.
Sprinkle some streusel evenly over the pastry.
Continue with this layering for 10 sheets.
Gently position the edges of the pastry sheets over the edges of the baking dish.over the sides of the dish.
Pour the custard cream and spread evenly.
Fold the hanging phyllo sheets to cover the custard, buttering each time.
Lay 3 phyllo sheets on the top, folding them in half and tucking in the sides. 
Butter every layer.

Preheat oven to 350*F.

Use a sharp knife to cut slits in the top phyllo layer, vertically and horizontally to form 3 columns, 5 rows. 
Pour the remaining butter into the cuts and the edges.
Sprinkle a bit of water over the top - this helps keep the thin pastry sheet from flying off.
Bake for1 hour, til golden brown.

Combine water, sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon in a heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat.
Stir until it reaches a boil.
Simmer 5 minutes.  
Remove from the heat and discard the cinnamon and lemon.
Add honey and stir to combine. 
Set aside to cool.

Remove pie from oven and set to cool 10 minutes.
Pour the syrup evenly over the pie.
Allow the pie to cool 4-5 hours before cutting and serving.

Baklava Fans, hold on to your hats, because galaktoboureko is going to rock your world. The first time I made it was for Mom's birthday and found a mob outside my window, demanding some. Despite the lengthy instructions and seemingly difficult technique, it was actually fun to make, especially with the help of my li'l blue-eyed beauty. Neither the pecan streusel nor marmalade are authentic to the original recipe, but provide a nice crunch in texture and more punch of the orange flavour to this very unusual dessert. This Easter, go Greek!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

DIY Haji Firooz Egg for Persian New Year (Nowruz)

Friday is the first day of Spring and the Persian New Year. Although Armenian, my family is from Iran and we revel in celebrations from our Zoroastrian roots. A special tablescape called haft sin (meaning seven S's) is set up before the eve of the first day of Spring. Seven items whose names begin with the letter S in Farsi are featured, each one representing the seven ancient Zoroastrian figures who protect the waters, fire, earth, heavens, plants, animals and humans. 

Commonly seen items include:
-Apple represents health and beauty
-Garlic stands for medicine
-Green sprouts grown from lentils or wheat symbolize rebirth
-Coins symbolize prosperity
-Hyacinth represents Spring and Heaven
-Sumac (a tart spice) translates to the sunrise
-Vinegar stands for patience
-Wild olive fruit (oleaster) symbolizes love

A holy book is usually on the table, lit by candles and the reflection of a mirror. I always have my grandmother's leatherbound bible set as a reminder of her sweet personality. Often a goldfish flutters in a glass bowl, bringing life to this festive table. An orange set in a bowl of water is fabled to rotate right at the turn of the new year, imitating the start of the earth's new cycle. Traditional sweets, pastries and painted eggs attest to the hospitality of the Persian people. My table has one additional character, an adorable Haji Firuz egg that is an easy and fun way to teach kids about traditions from the Old World. Haji Firooz is a mythical jovial figure, dressed in his trademark red costume and soot-covered face. He oversees major celebrations such as the Persian New Year and weddings, often handing gifts to children while dancing and tapping his tamborine. Making the Haji Firuz egg is a fun, easy craft that anyone, even the little ones can tackle. Your local craft store has everything you need. Make a few extra and give them as gifts to your fellow Iranians.

DIY Haji Firooz Egg
cardboard or wood egg(s)
nontoxic acrylic paint: red, black, white
cardstock paper
a CD or any round object with a 4-inch diameter
stapler or tape

First, paint the eggs black. This is the most messy step. Let them dry and apply a second coat, if necessary.

Next, trace a circle about 4 inches in diameter on the paper and cut out. Roll the circle into a pointy cone and staple or tape it in place.  Cut a ribbon about 2 inches long and wrap it into a circle, securing with a staple or tape. This will be the shirt collar that will act as a stand for the egg.

Apply red paint over the hat and stand, then set aside to dry. Once the eggs are dry, apply two white spots for the eyes and smaller black dots as pupils. Draw a smile using red paint.  Set the hat over  the egg head and set the egg over the collar-stand. 

Now that my decorations are in place, I can focus on the food, my favourite part of any holiday. Thanks to Persian Basket,  I have everything I need on hand and do not have to stress about getting to the stores for those last-minute items. Thursday night is the eve of the New Year. So, we will have the TV set to the Persian channel so we can enjoy traditional music. Mom's Herb Beef Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi) is sure to make everyone happy at dinner, after which we will enjoy freshly brewed tea and yummy treats. We hope you will join us in keeping old traditions alive and celebrating a fresh start with Spring.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mom's Persian Herb Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi) for Persian New Year #Norouz2015

Spring is coming and, with it, a fresh start. Long before Christianity, Armenians and Persians were Zoroastrian, upholding the importance of water and fire. This ancient religion marks the new year on the first day of Spring with a celebration called Nowruz/Norouz, meaning New Day in Farsi.  Even now, Christians, Muslims and Jews alike still observe Zoroastrian celebrations of Spring. A beautiful table is set with sweets and symbols representing elements of a happy life. Music and dancing see the festivities through the night. But, the most anticipated event is Mom's Ghormeh Sabzi, a mouth-watering stew made with fresh herbs, black limes, beans and beef, well-worth the time and effort.  

Some say the secret to delicious Persian food is in the slowly caramelized onions while others argue it is all in the hands of a patient cook. Mom says using the freshest ingredients is key and she would know, because, as we Armenians say her hand is delicious. My versions of her dishes are nowhere nearly as tasty. Mom says I have the talent, but lack the patience.  And, as always, she is right. Cooking should be done with attention to every detail and as much as I enjoy the process, I often give in to tempting shortcuts, except when I am making Mom's dishes.

Now is the best time to stop by the Middle Eastern markets, because many of them carry fresh blooming branches from fruit trees and lovely flowers. Bakeries are busy making old fashioned cookies, pastries and candies. Unlike my East Coast cousins, we have hundreds of grocers in Los Angeles. As much as I enjoy running up and down the aisles with my shopping cart, this year I am going to avoid the crazy crowds and for the very first time, do most of my shopping online, because I finally can. Founded in 2013 and based in metro Atlanta, Persian Basket is the most comprehensive online storefront for Middle Eastern ingredients. This is great news especially for my friends and family who live on the East Coast. The shop's bestseller is their very own Pure Grade 1 Iranian Saffron, which is regarded to be the the best in the world. They take great pride and care in shipping grocery products, including preserves and jams, rose water and orange blossom water, carefully wrapped in bubblewrap blankets and shipped with care. Finding good quality raw pistachios, pine nuts and Persian saffron is no longer a worry for me. Now, everything you need to get ready for Norouz is at your fingertips (except for Mr. Goldfish, of course).

Over the years I have figured a couple of things out: #1 Do not go grocery-shopping when you are hungry. 
#2 Do not try to cook dinner when you are hungry. I still do #1. Luckily, Shawn has taken to juicing the surplus produce I drag home. To battle #2, I keep a teeny treat bowl by the stove and munch on dried cherries and pistachios or 5 candy-coated mini chocolate eggs, no more, no less.

Another habit I have adopted is starting any savory dish by mincing the garlic. I take 2-3 cloves of garlic and give them a good bashing with the flat of my cooking knife. Then I mince and smoosh the garlic against the cutting board. Finally, I collect the minced garlic in a little bowl where it must rest at least 10 minute. This is sufficient time for the precious allicin compound to develop. As Dad explains,  allicin is crucial to the heart-healthy, anti-cancer, antibacterial qualities of garlic that would otherwise be destroyed by the heat of the cooking process. So, while my garlic rests in that little bowl, I move on to the rest of the ingredients.

Cleaning and trimming the fresh herbs is the most time-consuming step to preparing Ghormeh Sabzi. Most Middle-Eastern markets offer the herbs in a dried mix or frozen, but they are often the best combination of herbs, nor cleaned very well. No one will deny the taste and nutritional value of fresh herbs. Mom's choice is always parsley, scallion and fenugreek. Called shambalileh in Farsi, fenugreek is prized in the West for its health benefits for nursing mothers. In the East, it is known for its distinct herby flavour, crucial to the bouquet of this stew.  Reserve a bit of extra time to make this dish. You will soon lose yourself in the process and enjoy every minute of it. Lucky for me, Little Miss Daisy is still more than happy to hop onto my lap and help me with the herbs. I savor this time with her so much that I am actually sad when we run out of greens.

Mom's Persian Herb Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi)
Serves 8
Note: The meat can easily be omitted for a vegetarian version without compromise protein or flavour.
I suggest you wash and trim the herbs the night before so you have less to do the next day. Pulsing the herbs in a food processor also saves time.

2 lbs meat
5 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
1/2 cup olive oil
2 bunches fresh parsley
2 bunches fresh Persian chive (or green scallion tops)
1 bunch fresh fenugreek
6 black limes (limoo omani)
1 tsp turmeric
1 Tb Arabic 7-spice (advieh)
2 14oz cans beans (red kidney, cannellini or black-eyed peas)
salt + pepper to taste
2 lemons, juiced
1 cup water
2 Tb butter

Fill a big bowl or a clean kitchen sink with cold water. Immerse herbs into the water several times so that the dirt settles to the bottom. Rinse and drain the excess water from the herbs in batches using a colander. Set them onto clean tea towels to dry a bit.

Snap the tough lower stems and yellowy leaves off of the herbs. Working in batches, pulse a couple handfuls of herbs in a food processor.

Trim and cube meat. Collect in a big pot and fill with just enough water to cover the meat.
Put the lid on and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, occasionally skimming the
froth that forms over the top of the water.

Remove the meat and strain the broth.
The broth is lovely for cooking the rice or as a base for a soup.

Peel, crush and mince the garlic. Set aside and allow it to rest at least 10 minutes. (Now you know why.)

Set a heavy-bottomed pot onto medium heat and drizzle a bit of olive oil.
Peel and chop onions, add to the pot and fry until golden brown, ~10 minutes.
This step takes patience and is key to the success of the dish.

Add the rest of the olive oil and the herbs to the pan.
Add the garlic.
Sautee the herbs, stirring often to prevent burning, another 10 minutes.

Drain and rinse the kidney beans. Add to the pot.
Add turmeric, 7-spice, salt and pepper.
Crush the black limes and toss into the pot.
Add lemon juice, water and a bit of butter.
Stire everything gently and put the lid on.
Lower the heat and allow the stew to simmer, ~20 minutes.
When the oil settles around the edges of the pot, the stew is ready.

Serve with fluffy saffron-infused basmati rice and a fresh salad.

Remember to order all those hard-to-find specialty ingredients from Persian Basket.
See what my Persian foodie friends are cooking up for the Norouz celebrations of Spring 2015!

Please note that I was not compensated for this post. Persian Basket sent me a gift basket of Middle Eastern products. All content and opinions are my own.