Gasia Mikaelian shares recipe for favorite Armenian-American meal

Gasia Mikaelian shares her family's forgiving recipe for shish kebabs.

I learned to cook from the best of the best: my mother.

I was lucky to grow up in a family where dinnertime was an event every evening. My sister and I would fight over who had to set the table. As soon as my dad came home from work we’d all sit down for a family meal.

My siblings and I grew up eating almost exclusively homemade Armenian food. These were things that were considered “exotic” in Livermore back in the 80s. Sarma (stuffed grape leaves), shish kebab and pita bread were (and are) some of my favorites. I especially liked scooping up tabbouleh with potato chips when Mom wasn’t looking.

I learned everything I know about cooking from observing and helping my mom, and it is because of her that cooking to feed my own little family is now one of my greatest joys.

I try to make Armenian food at least once a week. Sometimes it’s just hummus and pita bread. Other times, it’s what I call “Armenian feast:” shish kebab, pickled turnips, tabbouleh, and roasted vegetables.

Usually, it’s something in between: these pictures show the most “Armenian-American” meal I can think of – shish kebab and apple pie. My boys love both, and I do too.

This isn’t a quick meal, but I’ve found it’s more than worth the time, if you have it. If you are able to involve the help of your little ones, it may take a little longer to get dinner on the table but you will be encouraging the next generation of home cooks, and sharing your love of nourishing, delicious food as well.

The recipe for shish kebab is (of course) my mom’s. This is what we grew up with, and what my dad would grill in our backyard while we all played and fought over who had to set the table.

To this day, when we have a family gathering, this is usually the centerpiece of the meal. My brother has now taken the lead in helping to make and shape the shish kebab and often tends to the grill while my parents play with their grandchildren. The rest of us set the table without fighting.

When I asked my Mom for her recipe several years ago she said she just did it by sight, feel and taste. I am glad I pressed her for some specifics. Too many people I know say they never thought to ask their mom or dad to write down a “family recipe” until it was too late. Of course, my mom’s shish kebab tastes better than anything I’ve ever made and always will.

The recipe is very forgiving – I’ve used minced red, yellow, white or green onions depending on what I have at home, and have even substituted ketchup for the tomato paste. I am sure purists would shudder at those swaps, but I find them perfectly acceptable. I encourage you to tinker with the recipe, to find your preferred balance of flavors and to accommodate whatever you have in your fridge or pantry.

Gasia Mikaelian makes an apple pie, a cornerstone of a popular Armenian-American meal in her family.

As for the apple pie, I am truly my mother’s daughter in saying: I don’t use a recipe. I use whatever apples I have on hand, lots of fresh lemon juice, and I eyeball the sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon, plus a pinch of salt for the filling.

I always do an all-butter crust, and my boys like to “help” whenever they can. Now that we are all together all the time, they’re joining me in the kitchen more often than before, and I hope that continues even when they have more options to fill the seemingly endless afternoon hours. I am hoping to give them the ability to make Armenian-American meals when they’re on their own. Already, I can report they’re carrying on the tradition of fighting over who has to set the dinner table.

We always say “anoush ellah” before we eat – which means “let it be sweet” in Armenian. I hope you are having lots of delicious meals with your loved ones and that the trend continues, long after these difficult times are over. Anoush ellah!

Gasia’s Mother’s Recipe for Shish Kebab

per pound of ground beef or lamb add:

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes (you can find this in spice shops and some markets --  ¼ teaspoon or so of “pizza topping” pepper flakes would work, as would a hefty pinch of cayenne)
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • pinch of cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon minced onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley

Mix by hand as gently as possible.

Shape on skewers (the “shish” in shish kebab means the metal skewer that is traditionally used in Armenian cooking).

I’ve also cooked these as patties on the stove, or under the broiler – you can cook them as you would a hamburger

Enjoy with pita bread, roasted vegetables, hummus, pickled turnips… and apple pie