Here we find ourselves yet again venturing into into the unknown as we create a dish for February’s Ethnic Exploration. Maybe not everything is completely foreign to us, but for the most part, we are always learning something new. This time, we decided to try something Armenian. Luckily for us, there is a very strong and present Armenian community in Los Angeles, so one need not travel far. Plus, there are tons of markets around that make it easy to grab what you need, whether you’re in a specifically Armenian community or not. Though what we decided to make was in no way unknown to us, it was the first time we would make them for ourselves. There’s always something fun to be found with these ventures.
Hollywood also has an area called Little Armenia that you will find overlapping just a bit with Thai Town. Nestled in the square bordered by Hollywood Boulevard to the North, Vermont Avenue to the East, Santa Monica Boulevard to the South and Western Avenue to the West, you’ll find a number of eateries, markets, churches and entertainment shops. This used to be the biggest community in LA until people began moving into Glendale. Not too far away from Hollywood, Glendale is a suburban town that now may be Los Angeles county’s most well known Armenian communities. Outside of Armenia, it is said that Glendale has the fifth largest Armenian population.
Funny enough, we did not go to Glendale or Little Armenia to grab the few items we needed for this exploration. Instead, we kept it close to the streets of North Hollywood. North Hollywood is just another diverse town in LA, usually associated with its large Mexican community, but there is also a strong Eastern European community. It is not hard to find a market that will provide you with a hard to find ingredient if you do a bit of searching. Or if you just walk outside your door. Amir drove down to my neighborhood, and we ventured to Olive Fresh Garden Marketplace. The shop is not very big, but it stays very busy. There are always lines of cars steaming in and out of the parking lot, and the aisles are full of activity. You may have to squeeze through several people to pick through the produce, grab a jar of grape molasses, snag a loaf of freshly baked lavash or speak with the man behind the meat counter. It is worth the effort as there are many treasures to be found.
We were looking for grape leaves to stuff, so we could make one type of dolma. When most people hear dolma, they think of grape leaves automatically, but the word actually refers to a range of stuffed vegetables. Honestly, the grape leaves were the only goods we needed that would not be at our mainstream stores. There are a few stores that sell them fresh, but usually, you will find them in a jar of brine. The brine has to be rinsed off before use, then it’s nice to soak them just a bit. After that, they are ready. With the jar of leaves in hand, we were ready. The plan was to do a twist on stuffed grape leaves by filling them with our own version of something known as Armenian rice pilaf. We’d also whip up a batch of fresh lavash flatbread. Believe it or not, this Armenian pilaf–rice mixed with buttery noodles–is said to have inspired what has been called the San Francisco treat…Rice-a-Roni. (NPR featured an intriguing article on this, along with an original Armenian rice pilaf recipe if you want to know more.) The lavash flatbread would be based on a Lemon Dill Flatbread recipe that made its way to this blog just under a year ago. It’s crunchy, crispy and easy to adapt, so we could do a new version if desired.
This entire meal is easy to adapt. You can add cooked ground beef, lamb or turkey to the rice. Or you can cook the rice in chicken or vegetable broth. If you can’t find the skinny coil fideo noodles, try vermicelli. There are even some versions with orzo. If you can get your hands on barberries, try sprinkling a few of those into the rice rather than raisins or currants. Pistachios are a popular nut in Armenian food, and they’d do just the trick instead of or in conjunction with the almonds. Of course, you have room to play with the herbs, especially the cilantro in the crackers, so feel free. If you’ve ever wanted to make your own grape leaves or lavash, this is the easiest way to go about it.
Olive Fresh Garden Marketplace
12521 Oxnard Street
North Hollywood, CA 91606
Armenian Rice Dolma (Stuffed Grape Leaves) – Serves 6 to 8 (inspired by Pailadzo Captanian and MyRecipes)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup basmati rice
1/2 cup coil fideo pasta, broken into 1″ pieces
2 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup shaved almonds
1/2 cup blend of raisins, cranberries and currants
1/3 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
30-35 grape leaves, rinsed several times and soaking in room temperature water
1. Drop 2 tablespoons of the butter into a pot and set over medium high heat. Once melted, add the rice and pasta. Cook until toasty, and the rice begins to turn just slightly opaque and golden brown, approximately 5-7 minutes.
2. Add the chicken broth, cinnamon and cumin to the rice and bring to a rolling boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer, cover and cook 12-15 minutes or until just slightly underdone. (You do not want the rice to be mushy, as it will continue to cook in the oven.)
3. While the rice cooks, pop the last bit of butter into a shallow pan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the shaved almonds and berries, tossing to coat. Cook until the nuts turn golden brown and begin to emit a toasted aroma, approximately 3-4 minutes. When done, slide everything into a separate bowl and set aside.
4. Once the rice is done, stir in the almonds, berries, peas, parsley, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt. Set aside.
5. Lay the grape leaves with the shiny side down on a flat surface. Depending on how large the leaf is, place a teaspoon or up to a tablespoon of rice filling near the bottom edge closest to the stem. (You can slice off the stem or leave it attached if desired.) Fold the leftside and rightside edges in, then roll the leaf up starting from the bottom to form a tight bundle. Repeat with all of the leaves.
6. Pack the stuffed leaves into a casserole dish just big enough to fit everything. Make sure they are right next to each other, filling in any spaces as necessary. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of water over the leaves, then cover with a lid or piece of foil. Slide the dish into an oven preheated to 350 degrees and cook for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
Cilantro and Onion Lavash Crackers – Approximately 4 dozen
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons dried onion flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried cilantro
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for brushing
1. Whisk together all of the dry ingredients, then add the oil and water. Use a wooden spoon to mix everything together until a ball of dough forms. Knead 4 or 5 times to combine well.
2. Once you have a smooth batch of dough, divide it into 3 even pieces. Roll one piece out to about 9″ x 3″ on top of parchment paper, then score the dough lightly with a knife to create approximately 16 squares.* Brush the top with more olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, if desired. Carefully lift the paper and dough and set on a baking sheet.
3. Bake in an oven preheated to 450 degrees for 8-11 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and the top of the cracker is dry in appearance. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Repeat this process with the remaining two pieces of dough.
*If you prefer the rustic look, roll out the dough and bake as is. Do not score the top. Once the cracker has cooled, you can break off pieces by hand.
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