When Noah finaly stepped from the ark onto the dry peak of Mount Ararat, high in the Caucasus Mountains, he craved green vegetables. He planted the quick-sprouting grapevine and soon his family sat down to a meal of fresh grape leaves.Settling then in Nakhichevan, or "first stop, which claims the oldest vineyards in the world, Noah set about learning to make wine.
So goes an Armenian amplification of the biblical account that traces Armenia's healthy back-to-basics cruisine to Noah's postdiluvian feast. Indeed, grape leaves are still one of the festive foods eaten at Armenian celebrations. Yalanchi, an onion sweet-tasting stuffed grape leaf with rice, pine nuts, currants and parsley, is served at every Armenian wedding or feast day. Dolma, or vegetables stuffed with meat and rice, are simmered briefly in grape-leaf-lined casseroles.
The Armenians' garden of Eden cuisine, with its limited use of meat, sounds like a reading of recommended food set out in the National Academy of Science's recent report on diet, nutrition and cancer. Grape leaves, mint, parsley, garlic, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini and fresh fruits such as apricots, pomegranates, lemons, grapes, melons and quinces form the roots of this cuisine, which dates back almost 4,000 years. Armenians use unsaturated vegetable fats, little animal fat, homemade unfatty cheeses, cracked wheat for fiber and lots of yogurt.
Yogurt, in fact, is an Armenian panacea. While many Americans cure stomach ailments with Alka-Seltzer, Armenians swear by a pint of yogurt a day. When many Americans reach for sugary colas to quency their thirsts, Armenians quaff tahn, a cooling combination of water and yogurt. Armenians turn to a yogurt side dish with fresh mint, rather than their Russian neighbors' cholesterol-rich sour cream, to help wash down meat dishes, and yogurt is the first food to which their breast-fed babies graduate.
It is sometimes difficult to isolate pure Armenian cooking since the Armenian culture has been at the crossroads of the East and West for thousands of yers. Documented Armenian history dates from the sixth century B.C. In 301 A.D. independent Armenia, located between the Caspian and Black Seas, in parts of present-day Iran, Turkey, and the Soviet Union, was the first nation to adopt Christianity. The country remained independent until 1375 when it was conquered by the Mamelukes; except for the brief period between 1918 and 1920 there has been no independent nation since that time.
Despite disperals, certain healthy food traditions stand firm for the Aarmenians, 5,000 in the Washington area alone. The four food groups -- meats, cereals, green vegetables and fruits -- are often combined in one dish. Simmering is often preferred to frying. And perhaps following Noah's example as he left the ark, there is a distinct leaning to the fresh rather than the cooked, especially in desserts. You might tape this tempting Armenian adage to your refrigerator. "When the apricot's ripe, the mouth will be open." Rose Sanasarian's Yalanchi Sarma [Stuffed grape leaves] Makes about 70 6 cups diced onion 1/3 cup pignoli (pine nuts) 1/3 cup currants 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil 3/4 cup chopped parsley 1/4 cup snipped fresh dill 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 cup uncooked rice 1 tablespoon sugar 1 cup stewed tomatoes 1 lemon 80 grape leaves, fresh or bottled
Saute the onions, pignoLli and currants in oil until the onions are soft; add the parsley, dill, cinnamon, salt and pepper, rice, sugar and tomatoes and simmer, covered, 15 minutes until the rise is half-cooked. Uncover, squeeze with half of the lemon, and continue cooking 5 more minutes. Chill.
Squeeze the water from some grape leaves (fresh having been simmered a few minutes first; bottled, merely soaked). Take off the stems and line the bottom of a heavy pot with the leaves, dull side up. Place another leaf, dull side up with stem removed, on a flat surface with the stem away from you. Place 1 tablespoon of filling on the leaft near the stem end; flatten filling to the width of the leaf; then fold the stem end over the filling. Press the filling firmly underneath the leaf; fold the sides in and roll from the top toward you.
Place the stuffed grape leaves in 2 rows in the lined pot. Add 1 cup water. Place a small plate in the pot to keep the stuffed leaves down, then cover the kettle. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the cover and squeeze the remaining lemon over the leaves; simmer, covered, 10 minutes more. Allow to cool in the pot and then chill.
Serve cold as an appetizer. Yalanchi will keep two weeks in the refrigerator. Eggplant Appetizer Serves 6 1 large onion, quartered 1/3 cup vegetable oil 6 dwarf eggplants 12 cloves garlic 1 green pepper, cut into rings 1 large sliced tomato 1/2 cup chopped parsley Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 tablespon tomato paste 1/2 cup water
Using a heavy frying pan with a cover, saute the onion in the oil until soft.
Make 4 vertical slashes in each washed eggplant, inserting one half a garlic clove in each slit.
Place the eggplants on top of the onions and brown on all sides.
Add the pepper rings, tomato slices, the remaining garlic cloves, parsley and salt and pepper to taste.
Dilute the tomato paste in the water and add to the mixture. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, 30 minutes or until the eggplants are soft and the juice has become a sauce.
Cool overnight and serve as an appetizer or side dish sprinkled with more parsley and squeezed lemon. Zucchini Dolma Serves 6 to 8 3/4 pound ground lamb or beef 1/2 cup uncooked rice 1 1/2 cups homemakde tomato sauce 1/2 cup chopped parsley 1 medium diced onion Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 3 pounds young six-inch zucchini 6 to 8 fresh grape leaves 1 cup water 1 lemon
Combine the meat, rice, 1 cup of the tomato sauce, parsley, onion and salt and pepper.
Remove the ends of the zucchini and with an apple or long Middle Eastern vegetable corer scoop out the interior of the zucchini, leaving a 1/8-inch shell. Stuff the filling in the zucchini, leaving about 1/4 inch open at the end.
Line a large heavy casserole with grape leaves. Fill with the stuffed vegetables. Then combine the water and remaining tomato sauce and pour over. If needed, add more water and tomato sauce to come half way up the vegetables. Squeze lemon juice over all. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 30 minutes or until the rice is cooked. Serve warm with yogurt and mint.
Variations: Other vegetables can also be used: eggplant, tomatoes, onion, green peppers, cabbage, grape leaves and melon.