Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Joy of Cooking

When I bought my apartment in New York a few years ago, the kitchen needed substantial renovation.  At the time, my friends suggested that I not bother and make it into a second bedroom instead given that I rarely cooked (“Heating something up does not count as cooking” one pointed out). 

I had plenty of excuses why I rarely cooked – working 60 or more hours a week doesn’t afford a lot of time; cooking for one person is more time consuming than it is worth; I had dozens of restaurants within easy walking distance (and I could eat at some for less than it would cost to make something myself); I could never walk into a supermarket and get inspired about what to buy, etc., etc.

While there are restaurants and cafes in most of the places I have visited in Armenia – even Solak had one at the edge of the village - not many Armenians outside Yerevan eat at them other than for a special occasion.  If you want a good meal, you prepare and eat it at home.

For the first six months that I lived here, I had host mothers who cooked for me three times a day.  Occasionally I would go out to eat but it was rare since I was trying to live within the means that Peace Corps provides me and the food I was getting was really good. 

When I first got my own apartment, I still resisted going out to eat but I was back to my habit of heating things up and making simple things.  We were provided with cookbooks during training (focusing on meals that can be cooked using ingredients widely available throughout the country) but I didn’t look at it much other than to learn a few basic things – such as the proportion of water to rice and how long to cook it.  Some ridicule how basic some of the cookbook entries are, but it’s different when you  buy rice from sacks in the market without Uncle Ben providing instructions.

After a while, I got tired of making potatoes, pasta and deep-frying chicken cutlets and I decided to branch out a bit, taking advantage of the time that I now have on my hands.  As I did so, I was embarrassed to learn how simple some things are and relatively uncomplicated others are.  So I am proud to say that my kitchen in New York will be getting more use when I get back next year. 

Cooking here has its challenges, particularly the way the appliances work (or don’t). 

My kitchen
Of the four burners on my stove, one doesn’t work at all, one is like a Bunsen burner, one only operates with a very high flame and the fourth is normal.  There is no pilot light, so I turn on the gas and then have to light it (I splurged on a long-stemmed lighter to avoid using matches and getting too close to the flame when it ignites).  If there is a breeze in the kitchen, it might blow the flame out and I get to run the risk of gas poisoning. 

The oven is also without a pilot light and has no temperature regulator so you choose off or on with varying degrees of flame height (similar to a stove).  Without a pilot light, you need to turn on the gas and then put a flame in to light it. While it is not quite as bad as this, the first time I lit it, the bottom door blew off.    

As a result I bought an electric oven that at least gives a sense of what temperature it is aiming for (while it does not seem very accurate based on an oven thermometer I have, it at least has a dial to use).

While the cookbook is good, until I got measuring cups and a scale it involved a bit of guesswork to follow a recipe which are a combination of cups, liters, kilograms and pounds (sometimes in the same recipe).  Converting cups to milliliters and then using a jar to approximate how much I needed of something was easy enough, but weight was guesstimated by setting up a rough scale on the table and weighing against a marked package (a pound of lentils balanced against a half-kilo package of rice, for example).  

Another challenge is finding the ingredients.  Since I live in a city, it is easier for me than for most but I still trip over some of the Armenian names for things.  Luckily, early on in my stay here I met one of the spice vendors in the market and she either has what I need, can tell me where else to get it or has it made for me (“Corn flour?  Potato starch? No problem – come back in two days.”)

Anahit - my spice girl
You also need to deal with seasonality and the prices fluctuate quite a bit as a result.  As harvesting time gets closer for various items, the prices drop drastically while in winter the prices for out-of-season things are relatively exorbitant if they are available at all.  Since cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage and potatoes are staples on Armenian tables, you can find them year-round but apples and oranges are subject to seasonal fluctuations and you need to keep your eyes out for lettuce and spinach.  The payoff is that most everything is extremely fresh when you can get it.

Eggs are available all the time (although there was a shortage and prices doubled at the end of last year due to soaring demand just before New Year) and you can choose from processor-delivered or the people in the market who come into town from their farms. 

As a result of the freshness, I learned that some things actually have flavor to them.  Up until last year, I thought parsley was purely decorational but here people eat it straight off of a plate as part of a meal. 
And some things that I am used to look different here.  Basil is plentiful during the summer but it is purple (and again eaten by itself).  But when made into pesto, it assumes the green color that I know and love.     

So what have I made so far?  Here is a list (all from scratch): 
  • Lentil soup – I never knew I would like lentils so much.
  • Cream of tomato soup – the recipe says that peeling the tomatoes is optional.  Next time I will opt to do so.
Lentil and Tomato Soups

  • Chicken Soup – the chicken parts in the market can be a little off-putting but simple to make.
  • Corn soup
  • Onion soup – Green onions work fine.
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Oatmeal cookies – need to try these again as they didn't quite work the first time.
  • Brownies
  • Chocolate cake – a little dry but not too bad for a first attempt.
  • Lemon bars – very tasty and I now have a better recipe from one of my former sitemates to try.
  • Peanut butter – roast peanuts and blend.  Add salt.  Simple.

  • Granola – using aforementioned peanut butter (thanks Greg).

  • Applesauce – put apples on the stove for an hour with a cup of water and mash.  Sugar optional. Simple.

  • Pizza dough – beer, flour and baking soda.  Results were ugly but tasty.
  • Chicken fried rice
  • Stir fry chicken and vegetables
  • Pesto – With which I blew through a huge container of Parmesan cheese my sister mailed me.
    Purple basil
Green pesto
  • Hot cocoa mix – so-so results.  Next time I will use better quality cocoa powder.
  • Pancakes – my current Saturday morning staple.  With my applesauce mixed in, even better.
I am not the most adventurous in our group (for July 4 weekend I spent a few days with some other volunteers who hand-made sausages; another volunteer made her own pasta) and I am unlikely to tackle some of the more complicated Armenian things like “gata”. But I am experimenting more and have built up a war chest of spices and things thanks to care packages and departing fellow volunteers.

And now that I have gotten into the swing of things, I intend to branch out more.  Forthwith a list of what I intend to tackle in the near future:
  • Chicken and/or vegetable stock
  • Gazpacho
  • Refried beans
  • Hummus
  • Pie
  • Gnocchi
  • Doughnuts
I do have to be cautious about overdoing it, though.  I went soup-crazy one weekend but wound up throwing some out because I couldn’t eat it all fast enough.  Between the lack of preservatives and the frequent power failures that shut my refrigerator off, food doesn’t keep too long.  

The obvious answer to that and the seasonality issue is to can and preserve things.  This time of year, the markets are full of jars and lids and people carrying multiple kilos of fruits and vegetables home as women everywhere go through the process of making jams, preserves, juices and “jash” (a combination of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) to last through the winter.  

While I am curious to try it (and would be pretty proud of myself if I pulled it off) I am also kinda scared about the food-poisoning potential if it is not done properly.  Coupled with that, I have several jars of homemade jams (cherry, walnut and blackberry) and a few jars of jash that I am only slowly working through so I don’t really need any more.  And while making applesauce will be more expensive in the winter, I remember how my apartment smelled when I was cooking my first batch on a cold night last winter and want that again. 

Having said that, I have been stockpiling raspberries and blackberries and freezing them to make smoothies.  They won’t last me too much longer but the blackberry juice I made (condensed – not using a juicer) can last in my freezer for a bit.  But there will be other fruits available in the winter to use (I wonder how a pomegranate smoothie would taste…).

So while I am not a gourmet cook I have to say I am pretty proud of myself so far.  When I do get home, I will have a new appreciation for the farmers’ markets in Manhattan and actually use the cookbooks that gathered dust in my kitchen. 

Until then, it is back to the market every day to see what’s here and get some inspiration.