Thursday, January 30, 2014

Age-old question ANSWERED!

I have found the answer to the very important, age-old question: How many monkeys does it take to change a light bulb?

I had never understood why that saying was so popular until recently.

A few months ago, the light bulb in our bathroom needed to be replaced. I tried to unscrew it but I quickly understood that this wasn't just a regular light bulb and it wasn't going to be as simple as I thought it would be. It was a complicated halogen one. After twisting and pulling that bulb for a while, I only managed to chip away the sides of it. It was time to bring in the big guns: our very fancy Ikea toolbox. 

I experimented with every piece in that box. Standing on the vanity, after more twisting, pulling and now, tapping the sides with a hammer, I chipped that bulb away until all that was left was the base. I then I understood that I had to twist the bulb a certain way to unlock it from its place and pull it out. Finally, my hard work paid off! I put the new bulb at its place and thanked the Light-bulb-Gods that halogen bulbs have a long lifespan and I would not have to change one for a while. (I don't think Mr. A knew that was how I changed the bulb. Hi, honey! No harm done! The light works perfectly!)

So, here we are, a few months later and faced with the "great challenge" of changing the light bulb in the kitchen. This time around, I was convinced that changing this bulb would be easy. Simply twist and pull, right? Wrong! As Mr. A twisted the bulb, the whole light twisted upon itself. I got on the step stool to try as well and was faced with the same problem. I told myself I couldn't do it because I needed a better view of the fixture (*sarcastic tone* yes... THAT was the problem). Since we did not have a higher step stool or ladder, I went to get the highest pair of heels I own. Many inches taller (and looking fabulous!), still no success. 

At this point, between sighs and exhales of frustration, I was telling myself we should have bought a home with easier light fixtures. As Mr. A and I took turns giving it a whirl, we had our own light-bulb-moment and decided we needed reinforcements. This time around, reinforcements came in the form of YouTube videos (not Ikea tools). After a few videos, we found the solution (and it's a lot simpler than we could have ever imagined): A SUCTION CUP! Simply pop the suction cup on the bulb, twist and pull! 

So, to sum up, besides a trial session with the bulb in the bathroom, it takes two monkeys, a step stool, a pair of fabulous high heel shoes, YouTube videos, a suction cup and a lot of patience to change a light bulb.

Monkeys like bananas... Banana Bread!

Banana Bread 
recipe from Ina Garten (with a giant seal of approval by The Prep Wife)
- 3 very ripe bananas, mashed
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 by 2-inch round or square cake pan.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the bananas, granulated sugar, and brown sugar on low speed until combined. With the mixer still on low, add the oil, eggs, sour cream, vanilla, and orange zest. Mix until smooth.

3. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients and mix just until combined. Stir in the chopped walnuts, if using. 

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, turn out onto a cooling rack, and cool completely.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Graceful" Moments

Mr. A and I hosted dinner last weekend. Nothing too fancy; just a nice dinner with a few friends. Every time we host, Mr. A challenges me to keep things simple. Every time we host, I find a way to ignore his challenges. I know the only reason he asks me to keep things simple is so that I don't tire myself out and don't find myself in a difficult situation.

A few days before a get-together at our house, I make my game plan, grab my apron and attack full force! I get so much satisfaction when I feed people so I sometimes get overly enthusiastic (and overly ambitious), decide to prepare more and more dishes and end up (happily) cooking for days for a meal that will disappear within an hour. 

I am not quite sure what happens to me when we are expecting guests. I suddenly get this urge to be the "Hostess with the Mostess" and picture myself as a 1950s housewife... a domestic Goddess who can tackle anything & everything with grace. Mamie used to tell me that watching me in the kitchen reminded her of watching a ballet performance (can't get more graceful than that!)

This said, take a look at the following video.

It's funny (is funny the right word?) that many people who saw this movie (Julie & Julia) thought of me during this meltdown scene. I wish I could say I don't know what they're talking about but... 

To be fair, my meltdowns are not as dramatic. And I would not say I have meltdowns; I have "moments". I call them I-can't-do-this/I-have-no-time/my-game-plan-failed/why-did-I-get-too-ambitious/should-have-ordered-pizza stressful moments. During those times, I am ashamed to say, I am as graceful as a drunk lumberjack or a sweaty sumo fighter.

With great efforts to self-improve & become a better version of myself (we can all improve!), I have been trying very hard to avoid these "moments" & stay as graceful as possible. The trick is to respect your limits. 

“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” 
                                             - Albert Einstein

I am very proud to say that the last get-together preparations were stress-free and filled with only beautiful and happy moments. I made "Manteh", a delicious traditional Armenian dish that is similar to ravioli. They are small, crispy meat "dumplings" that you serve with yogurt, broth and spices.
*Note: Fill your plate because they disappear very quickly!

yield: 6-8 people

- 8 cups flour
- 4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- enough water to form a ball of dough (about 3 cups)

Meat Mixture
- 1 kg ground beef
- 4 small onions (very finely chopped)
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 2 tsp ground red pepper (or paprika)
- 2 tsp all-spice

- Chicken broth
- Labneh (thick yogurt)
- Spices: Sumac, dried mint, Armenian pepper (or paprika)

1. For the dough: Mix flour and salt together. Add the olive oil and gradually add water half a cup at a time until you have a ball of dough. Add more water if needed. Knead the dough for a few minutes, place in a bowl, cover with a tea towel and let it rest approximately 30 minutes.

2. For the meat mixture: Chop onions very finely and mix all the ingredients together.

3. Roll out the dough and cut into 1 inch squares. Top each square with a little piece of meat and pinch two side together to form a little boat-like shape. Place on a greased baking sheet.

4. Bake for about 30-45 minutes in a 350F oven (until the top and bottom are slightly golden).

5. To make your plate: Put Manteh in a bowl, top with hot chicken broth, labneh and spices. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Fiasco

In our culture, after the passing of someone, it is a tradition to prepare a "Hokedjash" (roughly translated to "dinner for the soul"). Often, a typical Hokedjash dish is a soup that we call "djidabour". It is a delicious porridge-like dish prepared with onions, coarsely ground wheat and shredded meat. You then top each serving with melted butter, ground cumin and paprika. It is perhaps one of the most time consuming dishes I have come across but it is definitely well worth the time.

With efforts of continuing our Armenian tradition, we decided to prepare Djidabour to honor the life of our Mamie. On the evening of her funeral, we invited friends and family to my father's house to join us in remembering her over a few bowls of this soup. The invitation was for 7:00pm on a Wednesday night.

Like I said, making this soup is very time consuming so, knowing that we would not be home for most of the day on that particular Wednesday, we decided to prepare the dish the night before to avoid stress. The process involves a few steps. The first step is finding the recipe. I thought this step would be easy but oh, how I was wrong. As I shuffled through my cookbooks and the internet, the variations of the recipes I found confused me. Each recipe suggested a different kind of dark meat. Finally, through popular demand, we settled for Veal Shanks.

On Tuesday evening, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work!
(Many people associate "time consuming" with difficult. There is nothing difficult about this recipe so it is definitely worth a try!)

Step 1 - Cube and clean the meat (1.5kg dark meat preferably veal shank)
This step seemed simple enough at first; however it did not take long to realize that the pieces of meat we had purchased probably belonged to Olympian cows! With the help of 4 different knives, 2 pairs of scissors, and a lot of mental and physical strength, Step 1 was done.

Step 2 - Boil the meat
Easy! Boil the meat until it is very tender so you can pull it apart.

Step 3 - Shred the meat
Time consuming but easy, we gathered around the round kitchen table, told stories, pulled the pieces of meat apart and discovered the hidden meat-shredding talent of my vegetarian little sister (exceptional talent!)

Step 4 - Rinse the wheat (1.5kg. this wheat is called "gorgod" and can be found at the Middle Eastern supermarket)
Simply rinse the coarsely ground wheat with cold water.

Step 5 - Mix shredded meat with chopped onions and black pepper (5 onions & a tbsp of pepper, a tbsp. of salt)
Another very simple step. Chop onions very finely, add the shredded meat, salt and black pepper. Mix together.

Step 6 - Add meat, onion and wheat to a pot, top with stock, cook on Medium-Low heat and stir
I am warning you, this step is demanding. You will likely be stirring for a few hours and because the soup is so thick, you will discover muscles in your arms that you did not know you had.

Finally, around midnight, after bending a few mixing spoons that were clearly not strong enough to stand up to our djidabour, we were done! Seeing as we were making this soup in what seemed to be industrial quantities, we ended up with two giant pot-fulls.

The next morning, in order to keep the soup warm, the pots were placed over indirect heat on the stovetop on very low heat. (This is where we went wrong).

In the evening, on our way to my father's home, I started to worry. What if the soup was burnt? At 6:30pm, Mr. A and I were the first ones to arrive. I quickly ran inside expecting a nightmare in the kitchen but making an effort to stay optimistic. As I opened the door, there was no smoke and the house did not smell like burnt food. I was delighted! I ran to the stovetop and removed the lids off the gigantic pots. Suddenly, the delight I felt a few short seconds ago quickly turned into confusion. It did not smell the way I remembered it. I tasted it and was not quite sure what to think. It wasn't bad... it wasn't good. I frantically grabbed another spoon and made Mr. A taste it while I called my father to tell him that things were not going according to plan. "Dad, it doesn't taste or smell the way it should!" "What does it taste and smell like?" "It smells like... yogurt? And it tastes it tastes like... Mr. A, what does it taste like?" "Hummus!" "Hummus, Dad! The soup tastes like hummus!!" I bet my father had the same clueless look on his face as I did. 

Within minutes, he was home. We all gathered around the two huge tubs of hummus-like-soup and just stared. We probably looked like a group of (good) witches around a cauldron. My father went to get a spoon so he can taste whatever that substance was. Suddenly, I felt like everything was moving in slow motion. I could not hear anything nor see anything besides that silver spoon my father was holding. My eyes were stuck to that spoon like a magnet sticks to a fridge. As it came out of the drawer, dipped into the soup and made its way to my father's mouth, I watched it. Then, as he took the spoon out of his mouth, I watched my father's facial expression go from perplexed to a mix between disappointment and understanding. With the *klink* of the spoon hitting the inside of the sink, I was back in touch with reality: "Garbage! It's fermented!" 

So there we were, less than 10 minutes before 25+ hungry people were to arrive and no food! Remember when I said we had decided to prepare the soup the night before to avoid stress? 

As we all frantically bounced ideas off one another, inevitably, the doorbell started ringing. One after the other, friends and family arrived with the sympathetic face that is usually accompanied by condolences and a warm hug. And there I was, on the other side of these compassionate faces with a smile on my face and laughing at the fiasco we were in. Adding to our grief, we were facing a difficult situation that could be solved by laughter or despair... We chose laughter. 

Back in the kitchen, we were still not quite sure what to serve the people who were coming. I called a nearby store that sells Lahmajoun (Armenian pizza). As I ordered 6 dozens, the girl paused and asked me when I needed it for. When I said that I needed it right away, with a failed attempt to hold back a small chuckle, she said "Ma'am, we close in less than an hour. We do not have that much food!"

Finally, with most of the guests already sitting down in the other room, we ordered kebab. Mr. A and Mr. L (my younger sister's fiancé) ran out to pick it up. About an hour later, with a house full of people who probably secretly wished they had had a snack before coming, Mr. A and Mr. L arrived like two handsome heroes ready to save the day! We created a human chain starting from the snowy steps outside of the house, to the kitchen, then to the dining room. As many of us moved liked machines, the table was set within minutes. 

The fiasco came to an end. Relieved and ready to eat, we all toasted to health, to love, to life, to the loved ones present in body and to the loved ones who will eternally be present in spirit and in our hearts.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Eternally Mamie

Hello readers. I apologize for not having written for a few weeks. This post was particularly difficult to write and I could not muster the strength to put my thoughts into words. You will soon understand why.

As the year narrowed down, as festive lights went up throughout the streets of our snowy (and freezing!) city, as bottles of bubbly got popped and as the clock striked twelve on December 31st, many of us jumped on the opportunity to press the "reset" button on life's cycle and decided to start the 2014 chapter of our lives positively. New year, new chapter, new changes...

There is a substantial change for me and my family. You see, life took one of its sharp turns recently. As we welcomed the New Year, my dear, sweet grandmother who we lovingly called Mamie did not welcome it with us. She earned her wings a few weeks ago.

As I come to terms with reality, I take comfort in the fact that she lived a full life constantly surrounded by people who love her.

Mamie would always enchant us with stories. As she strolled down memory lane, she told stories of how she grew up on her father's white-as-snow cotton fields in Egypt; she proudly said how she was the most talented gymnast of her class and was always asked to stand in the front so the others could follow her steps; how she met a young, handsome boy at school who, love-struck and infatuated, had decided to become the school's photographer so he could get a chance to get to know her and take her picture; how, once graduated from school, despite the many invitations she received from other young men, she waited for this same boy who she soon married. Oh, how she loved to tell stories! She had hundreds of them and would tell them with such enthusiasm and such joy, you could not help but smile and share her excitement. 

As I stroll down my own memory lane and reminisce, almost all of my childhood memories include her. She would often walk me and my sisters to a nearby park. There, we would joyfully pick flowers from magnificent rose bushes with which she later made jam. Clear bottles filled with an alluringly bright pink delight would stand like soldiers on the kitchen counter once she was done. All you needed was a spoon.

On school-day mornings, she would take the time to cut bite-size bagel pieces and topped each piece with feta cheese that she pressed down firmly with her thumb. She would carefully circle the plate with the bagel bites, starting from outside and working her way in. She often did not get a chance to make a full circle because we would eat faster than she could prepare.

We would walk to the nearby convenience store together (it was called Maisonnée at the time). During these walks, she would protect us from the lion statues that some neighbors had at the top or bottom of their stairs. I remember being very scared of them as a child. We would leave Maisonnée with a bag of treats (usually Mr. Big, Oh Henry and Coffee Crisp chocolate bars, sesame snaps, Werther's Original candy and many packs of gum). She would keep all these treats in her top drawer. Thank goodness that drawer was out of reach for me and my sisters or else we would have likely emptied its contents within a few days. Mamie would give us a piece of chocolate on Friday nights while we watched the TGIF specials on TV and stayed up late (until 10pm!)

I can write books filled with the beautiful memories I have of her. 

As my sisters and I grew up, she inevitably grew older. She would often say  "Je suis tombée en enfance" (translated word-by-word to "I fell into childhood") and would smile at the irony of being taken care of by the ones she cared for. Even though she could no longer spoil us with chocolate bars or bagel bites, she never stopped spoiling us with her love and her delightful stories.

Although she does not have the chance to start her new chapter and can no longer "write" in her own book, I believe nobody's book ever ends; it is simply intertwined into the books of others. So, here we are. We have opened a new chapter in our books where Mamie will live forever through everything she has taught us, through the many life lessons we have learned thanks to her and through the precious memories that will forever be woven in our heart and soul. 

She has enriched my book, my life and will continue to enrich it. I would not have been who I am today if it weren't for her. She has taught me a lot about patience, humility and humbleness and has made of me a stronger and more caring person. She taught me to speak my mind and to be honest. As my father said "Everything she had on her mind and in her heart, she also had at the tip of her tongue." She always told me to make sure nobody takes advantage of me and always reminded me that God has given me all the blessings I need... she also taught me how to roll vine leaves.

For all of those and for much, much more, Thank you Mamie. I miss you and I love you dearly. You will stay with us eternally.

Marie Tchalekian-Balassanian
June 30, 1923 - December 15, 2013