Carrie Nahabedian

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Los Angeles Times
December 8, 1999, Wednesday
Food; Part H; Page 1

SOMETHING ABOUT CARRIE; AN EXECUTIVE CHEF'S SECRET PASSION: ARMENIAN FEASTS by BARBARA HANSEN, TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Carrie Nahabedian's mid-Wilshire townhouse, a broad coffee table is covered with mezze. One plate holds yalanchi, rice-stuffed grape leaves sprinkled with fresh mint leaves. Another contains the garbanzo bean dip hummus, streaked with rivulets of golden olive oil. Crackers and grilled triangles of pita bread go with the dip. String cheese, Greek olives and thin slices of basturma (seasoned dried beef) share a platter, and a shallow bowl contains huge, glistening red prunes, pistachios, cashews, raisins and large Medjool dates.

Enough, right?

Not for Nahabedian. She brings out cheese boeregs, which are pastries stuffed with feta, cottage and Kefalotiri cheeses. Just out of the oven and made with fresh filo dough, they're unbelievably light and flaky.

Crowding the dining room table are platters of lamb kebabs, grilled peppers and onions, a bowl of pilaf that combines rice and fine noodles, a giant bowl of tabbouleh salad and a plate of cucumber sticks. There is also choereg, a slightly sweet Armenian bread seasoned with a spice called mahleb.

And the final platter holds baklava so thick with nuts that it makes other renditions of this Middle Eastern dessert look paltry.

"It's a very simple meal," says Nahabedian.

She can turn out a spread like this with no struggle for two reasons. First, Nahabedian is Armenian, from a family of gifted cooks and generous hosts. Abundance is second nature in that milieu. "A big thing in an Armenian household is always to have more food than you could possibly eat," she says.

Second, she is executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, a post that demands such a high level of expertise that a meal like this could seem easy.

On the job, Nahabedian concentrates on Mediterranean-Californian food. But this day, she is at home, cooking the foods she grew up with. This is because her parents, Helen and Mark Nahabedian, are visiting from Florida. The weekend before, she orchestrated a dinner in Las Vegas for 55 relatives and close friends to celebrate her parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

"I don't think you have enough food," warns Helen Nahabedian, who is helping with the pilaf and contributed the choereg.

Carrie Nahabedian is out on the patio of her sunny townhouse, grilling the lamb. But there is only meat on the skewers. Where are the usual squares of bell pepper and onion? "I don't like that." she says firmly. "That's a real American version." Nahabedian marinates the lamb with red wine, oregano, onion and olive oil. "You keep it as simple as possible," she says.

Lamb is often the main dish when Nahabedian entertains. "I think I've cooked lamb just about every possible way you could cook lamb. I love lamb. I make a joke: Being Armenian, you're part lamb and part bread." She likes chicken too, and fish, but borrows from Greek cuisine for fish recipes. "Armenians don't cook it that much," she explains.

Nahabedian's father walks over to the grill and says, "We all boast about our children, but this one's something special." He talks about how she's self-taught, never went to culinary school, never needed to.

Born in Chicago, where her parents lived before retirement, Nahabedian did not cook until she was 15, when her mother was sidelined from the kitchen by surgery. "Those two months really defined my life," she says.

Weary of eating in restaurants, Nahabedian told her father, "Cooking can't be that difficult. Mom cooks every day." And so she plunged in, not at the beginning but with a cheese souffle. The recipe came from the Time-Life book "The Cooking of Provincial France."

"I cooked the entire book in two months," she says. "I was like this big sponge. I was soaking up everything you could possibly think of." Rather than hamburgers and spaghetti, she was making chicken with artichoke hearts and tournedos Rossini.

And not just by the book. "I learned very early on how to take creative liberties," she says.

At 17, Nahabedian went to work part-time at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago. From room service, she progressed almost immediately to the kitchen and within six months was cooking for the fine dining restaurant, working all stations. "It really comes naturally for me," she says.

You could say it's in her genes. "My mother cooks so tremendously," she says. "And my grandmother, Rose Nahabedian, was known in Chicago as the queen of Armenian cooking." Carrie learned pilaf, yalanchi and other dishes from Rose, and she has clipped recipes from both women to the back of her favorite Armenian cookbook ("Armenian Cooking Today" by Alice Antreassin St. Vartan's Press, 1989 ).

Nahabedian went on to cook at such illustrious Chicago-area restaurants as Le Perroquet, and Le Francais in suburban Wheeling, Ill. She transferred to Los Angeles after three years as executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Santa Barbara.

Los Angeles reminds her of Greece and the French and Italian rivieras, and she cooks for the hotel in that vein. An occasional Armenian touch might slip in, especially at Easter, the season for cooking lamb. In August, she taught a class in Middle Eastern cooking at the hotel. And occasionally, a guest will request a Middle Eastern meal. "Armenian cooking is a melting pot of the Middle East," she points out.

A hearty, exuberant woman, Nahabedian is addicted to golf and collecting Limoges boxes. Her townhouse is filled with colorful items she has found on her travels. "I entertain so much that I pick up things from all over. I just like good-looking things," she says of her bright collection of napkins, table covers and accessories.

She is especially fond of the framed cream-colored silk scarf printed with the letters of the Armenian Alphabet that hangs above the mantel. It belonged to her grandmother Rose.

Nahabedian's parents were born in the United States, but both sets of grandparents came from Sivas in what is now eastern Turkey.

And she carefully observes such old traditions as placing an Armenian communion wafer in a container of bulgur wheat. "It's a blessed wafer. It blesses your food," she says.

Nahabedian works 10- to 12-hour days at the hotel but perhaps once a week gets home early enough to stage an impromptu dinner. "If I plan it, it generally doesn't happen," she says. She shops at markets near her home, including the original Farmers Market. "Whatever is there, I buy," she says.

But she is careful to follow family dictates. Pilaf must always be made with Uncle Ben's "Original" converted rice. Riceland rice must be used for stuffing grape leaves. And the canned chicken broth must be College Inn brand.

"I tend to cook at home what I don't cook at the hotel," she says. Once, she did an all-Tuscan menu for a departing hotel general manager, but that was an exception.

"I always seem to revert to cooking Armenian," she says. "Those flavors stand in my mind very vividly."

Stuffed Grape Leaves With Oil (Yalanchi)

Active Work Time: 1 hour 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 3 hours 30 minutes plus 8 hours chilling

"This is my grandmother Rose Nahabedian's recipe, which she taught me how to make," says Carrie Nahabedian. She prefers to use Riceland brand medium-grain rice.

2 cups medium-grain rice, rinsed in hot water

1 tablespoon salt plus 1 teaspoon

8 cups water

5 onions, chopped

1/4 to 1/2 cup oil

1/2 tablespoon dried dill

1 teaspoon dried mint

2 pounds canned grape leaves

1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup olive oil

Torn fresh mint leaves

Lemon wedges, optional

  • Place rice in medium saucepan and add 1 tablespoon salt and 4 cups water.

Cover and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

  • Saute onions in oil in large skillet over medium heat until transparent,

12 to 15 minutes. Mix in with rice, add dill and dried mint, and cool to room temperature, 30 minutes.

  • Place grape leaves on work surface shiny side down and stems pointing to

bottom. Place tablespoonful of cooked rice mixture in center. Fold leaf over at both sides and roll from bottom to top, forming cigar shape. Continue until all rice mixture is used; you'll have used about 1 1/2 pounds grape leaves.

  • Blanch remaining grape leaves in boiling water 1 minute, then strain. Line

heavy pot with blanched grape leaves. This prevents stuffed leaves from sticking to pot. Arrange layer of stuffed leaves seam-side down in circle in pot. Top with additional circular layers of stuffed leaves until all are in pot. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and cover with 4 cups water. Place layer of grape leaves on top to form seal, then place heavy plate on top of everything to hold stuffed leaves in place while they cook. Pour lemon juice on top. Cover and bring to boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook 1 hour. Cool in pot 1 hour, then remove plate.

  • Refrigerate stuffed leaves at least 8 hours or preferably overnight. To

serve, remove from pot and place on platter. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with mint leaves. Serve cold or at room temperate with lemon wedges on side, if desired.

About 60. Each serving: 54 calories; 79 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.10 gram fiber.

Cheese Boeregs

Active Work Time: 1 hour * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Carrie Nahabedian says that the boeregs can also be stuffed with spinach and that herbs can be added for additional flavor. The pastries can be prepared in advance, frozen and then baked. Allow an extra five minutes for baking. Look for Kefalotiri cheese at Middle Eastern markets and delis.

3/4 pound feta cheese (about 2 cups)

1 pound cottage cheese (not low-fat)

4 eggs, beaten

Salt

White pepper

1/4 pound Kefalotiri cheese, grated

1 pound filo dough, thawed if frozen

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted

  • Break feta into small pieces. Add cottage cheese and mix together. Add

eggs and mix thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper, taking care not to over-salt. Add Kefalotiri cheese.

  • Open filo dough box, remove dough and cover with damp towel. Cut each

sheet into 4 (2x2 1/2-inch) strips. Brush each strip with butter. Put 1 teaspoon filling at bottom of each strip and fold corner to corner, end over end, into triangle. Repeat until all strips are used.

  • Place in 2 nonstick 13x9-inch baking pans, seam side down. Brush tops with

a little melted butter to prevent drying out. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot.

4 dozen. Each boereg: 100 calories; 163 mg sodium; 34 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Armenian Lamb Shish Kebabs

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes plus 4 hours marinating

When removing the kebabs from the grill, place them in a deep pan in order to reserve the delicious natural juices from the meat. Serve this with roasted or grilled bell peppers and onions, if desired.

1 (4- to 5-pound) leg of lamb, boned

2 onions, sliced

1 cup red wine

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup fresh oregano

1 tablespoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

  • Have butcher bone leg of lamb and remove all visible outside fat. Cut into

2-inch cubes, removing all fat and gristle. Use only lean solid meat for kebabs. (Excess meat can be used for other dishes or to make lamb stock.)

  • Place lamb meat and onions in large bowl. Add wine, olive oil, oregano,

salt and pepper to taste; mix well and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

  • Before grilling, soak wooden skewers 20 minutes in cold water to prevent

burning. Remove meat from marinade and thread onto skewers. Grill over medium-high heat, turning frequently to cook evenly, about 15 minutes for medium-rare and 25 minutes for medium.

8 servings. Each serving: 601 calories; 991 mg sodium; 121 mg cholesterol; 49 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 0.23 gram fiber.

Armenian Rice Pilaf

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 35 minutes

"This is the recipe that my grandmother Rose Nahabedian taught her daughters and daughters-in-law and my mom in turn taught my two sisters and myself," Carrie Nahabedian says. Cooking time varies depending on whether your stove is gas or electric. Nahabedian recommends College Inn broth, but if you can't find it, use another brand as long as it's not fat-reduced. You may also use less broth and make up the difference with water.

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) salted butter

1/4 pound vermicelli, broken into 1 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup converted rice

2 1/2 cups chicken broth

Salt, pepper

  • Melt butter in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Immediately add vermicelli

and, with wooden spoon, toss with butter until rich golden brown, 6 minutes. Add rice and mix, making sure rice, noodles and butter are well combined. Add broth and bring to boil over medium-high heat, 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered until broth is absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes (check rice after 20 minutes). Turn off heat and let stand 10 minutes.

  • If rice is not being served immediately, remove lid, lay kitchen towel

over pot and replace lid. This keeps pilaf moist and flavorful. Stir before serving and season to taste with salt and pepper.

4 servings. Each serving: 321 calories; 735 mg sodium; 47 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

My Grandma's Baklava

Active Work Time: 45 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes plus 30 minutes cooling

"My grandmother, Rose Nahabedian, was the finest Armenian cook in our family," says Carrie Nahabedian. "She prepared everything with love and a genuine appreciation for food. She loved to feed our large family and hear us all admire her delicious food. She made the most buttery and rich breads, unbelievable soups and savories and to-die-for rice pilaf, but it was her baklava that I loved the most. Here is her recipe in full; you just need to add years of experience and love to make it." Filo sheets for baklava must be perfect, so Nahabedian suggests buying an extra box with which to replace any torn or damaged sheets.

SUGAR SYRUP

2 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups water

1/4 lemon, juice and peel

  • Combine sugar and water in medium saucepan and bring to boil over low

heat, 10 minutes. Remove from heat, squeeze in lemon juice and add peel (in one piece). Set aside to cool.

NUT MIXTURE

2 1/2 cups walnuts, finely chopped

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Dash nutmeg

1 1/4 cups sugar

  • Combine walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar and set aside.

ASSEMBLY

2 cups (4 sticks) butter

3 tablespoons shortening

2 (1-pound) boxes filo dough, thawed if frozen

  • Melt together butter and shortening. Brush bottom and sides of glass,

ceramic or stainless steel 13x9-inch baking pan with some of butter mixture.

  • Open box of filo dough. Cut dough in half so you have 2 piles of 13x9-inch

sheets. Cover dough with slightly damp towel to keep from becoming dry and brittle. Lay 1 sheet filo in pan and brush all over with butter mixture. Continue layering and buttering until 4 sheets are in pan. Trim edges to fit neatly in bottom of pan and scatter trimmings in center. Sprinkle top layer with about 1/4 cup Nut Mixture.

  • Add 2 sheets filo at a time, brushing each double layer with butter.

Continue making layers, and sprinkle every 4th double layer filo with 1/4 cup nuts; you may have nuts left over. Continue until pan is filled. Top with 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter mixture; reserve remaining butter mixture.

  • Refrigerate Baklava 30 minutes. Remove pan from refrigerator and with

sharp knife cut pastry into 1 1/4x1 1/2-inch diamonds. Do so by cutting center diagonal first. Follow with vertical lines to make diamond shape. Sprinkle a little reserved butter mixture on top after cutting.

  • Bake at 400 degrees 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until

golden brown, 35 minutes longer. Half-way through baking, drizzle more butter mixture on top. Reserve any remaining butter mixture for another use. If Baklava browns too quickly, lower temperature to 300 degrees and cover pan loosely with foil. Remove from oven, cool 10 minutes and then spoon cooled Sugar Syrup over each diamond. Repeat until most of syrup is used. Reserve remaining syrup to serve with Baklava, if desired. (Baklava may be completely baked in advance. In this case, do not add Sugar Syrup. At serving time, reheat in 250-degree oven 5 to 6 minutes, remove and pour cooled syrup over each diamond.)

36 servings. Each serving: 332 calories; 227 mg sodium; 28 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 44 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.38 gram fiber.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: (2 Photos), Carrie Nahabedian, standing, starts the party, above. Right, from left: cheese boeregs, hummus, nuts and fruits, stuffed grape leaves and a platter of cheese, olives and basturma. They're just the appetizers. PHOTOGRAPHER: GARY FRIEDMAN / Los Angeles Times


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