Let’s Eat — A Writer’s Guide to Cooking
One Thanksgiving Day about thirty-five years ago, our family gathered in the indoor patio at the home of my grandparents for an enormous afternoon meal. My father’s sister was there, with her husband and two sons. This was good news for my brothers, because it meant I would be playing with my cousins instead of pestering them. World-wise young men soon to embark on college careers, they were bored by my need to race through the house and yard and lift the lid on every pan on the stove to see what was inside. My cousins, however, had their priorities well in order. Within five minutes of greeting each other, we had shredded the entire house and gone outside to look for bugs.
In typical holiday fashion, the long table resting on the tile floor was heavily laden with food. There were platters of turkey and rice pilaf made with turkey broth; dolma, which consisted of meat-stuffed grape leaves, cabbage, peppers, and squash; candied yams; string beans cooked with lamb, tomatoes, garlic, basil, and onions; mountains of bread; pomegranates, grapes, and persimmons; homemade baklava; and a huge salad drenched in vinegar and oil, a long-standing favorite of my grandmother.
As always, the adult conversation during the meal drifted to talk of the old days. This included, among other things, the Great Depression, the war, my parents’ childhood, my grandparents’ childhood, their lives in the old country, and stories about various relatives, some of them no longer living. My brothers and cousins and I ate and listened. There was no television on, no football game going in the background, no telephone ringing, no one in the other room eating alone while surfing the Internet, and no one in a hurry for the day to be over. There was only the sound of familiar voices, the smell of good food, and the sure feeling that everyone belonged.
String Beans Armenian-style
Ingredients: about two pounds of tender string beans (if you can’t find them fresh, whole frozen beans will work); a couple of medium-sized yellow onions; five or six cloves of garlic; five or six fully ripe tomatoes; a handful of parsley; salt, pepper, and dried purple or green basil; lamb stew meat or lamb neck with bone; extra virgin olive oil.
In a large pan, start out with three or four tablespoons of olive oil. Dip both sides of the meat in the oil, add a layer of salt and pepper, add enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, and then place on very low heat with the lid on.
While the meat is steaming, chop the garlic (fairly fine) and put it in the pan. Then slice the onion (not too thinly). Spread the onion evenly in the pan and add another layer of salt and pepper. Next, chop the tomatoes. I don’t peel them, but if the skins are exceptionally tough you might want to. (The skin comes off easily if you dip the tomatoes for several seconds in hot water.) Put the chopped tomatoes into the pan. This time, add plenty of salt and pepper, and throw in a good dose of basil. Chop and add the parsley, then put the lid back on the pan.
While things are simmering, trim the beans and cut them into one-inch lengths or a little longer. About halfway through, take a break and stir the simmering tomatoes, making sure the garlic and onions are evenly distributed throughout. Add a little more salt, pepper, and basil. Your sense of smell should tell you when to stop. Better a little too much salt than not enough.
By the time you’ve finished trimming the beans, the stuff in the pan should have cooked down nicely. Dump in the beans and work them into the juice. There should be enough juice to almost cover the beans. Cook on low heat with the lid on at an angle until the beans are tender. You’ll need to stir the beans only two or three times during cooking. Make sure the beans on top spend some time in the simmering juice down below. If you like, about fifteen minutes before the beans are done, add a little more olive oil.
When the beans are done, turn off the heat and put the lid on the pan. For an evening meal, I like to make the beans in the morning. Sitting a few hours (the beans, not the cook) helps bring out the flavor.
Also by William Michaelian
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