Video: Armenian Salad: A Tomato Story, featuring Balakian Farms
August 7, 2020
A simple salad, bursting with summer flavor, reveals a deep story of farming, family, and heritage. In this new video, fourth-generation farmer Amber Balakian takes us behind the scenes and into the fields to meet the people behind Balakian Farms. She then meets with Kate Leahy, coauthor of the cookbook Lavash, who shares how to make a traditional Armenian salad, using a rainbow of the Balakians’ vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes.
Amber’s great-grandparents were immigrants who fled the Armenian Genocide a century ago and settled in Reedley, California, where they planted vineyards. Her grandfather, John Balakian, was born and raised on the farm and continued the legacy, adding tree fruit and other crops. In the 1990s, Amber’s mother, Ginger, transitioned the farm to organic practices, and began growing heirloom tomatoes to expand their offerings at farmers markets. The farm now grows up to 80 tomato varieties, with their season peaking in July and August.
Amber now manages the farm with her parents, Ginger and Clarence, and grandmother, Stella, along with several full- and part-time workers. The Balakians are committed to the farm not just as an occupation but also as a way of life.
While tomato season lasts, you can support Balakian Farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco on Saturdays! Thank you to Kate Leahy, John Lee, Ara Zada, and the Balakians for their partnership in producing this video.
Armenian Summer Salad
Source: Kate Leahy, John Lee, and Ara Zada, Lavash
This recipe is a hybrid from our book and what we learned by talking with Amber Balakian from Balakian Farms (watch the video). Tomatoes and cucumbers are easy to find year-round in Armenia, where they’re often eaten plain, simply sliced up and eaten like pieces of fruit. The Balakians use Armenian cucumbers in their version of the salad, a variety that actually comes from the melon family. It isn’t as juicy as other cucumbers, so it balances out the ripe heirloom tomatoes. Other keys when making this salad: use fresh herbs (cilantro and dill or parsley and opal basil are common combinations), a little onion, and a fresh green pepper. Armenians in California dress their version with a little vinegar or lemon juice and olive oil, but Armenians in Armenia go lighter on the acidity and use sunflower oil. For an extra treat, have bread alongside to soak up the juices left in the salad bowl
Serves 4 to 6
4 to 5 large tomatoes, cut into chunks (about 4 cups)
1 large Armenian cucumber or 4 Persian cucumbers, skin-on, cut into chunks roughly the same size as the tomatoes (about 4 cups)
¼ red or yellow onion, thinly sliced (if it is very strong, rinse the onion with water)
1 Anaheim pepper or other mild fresh pepper, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced crosswise
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped dill
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
A pinch of red pepper flakes or ground black pepper
In a large bowl, mix together the tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, Anaheim pepper, cilantro, and dill. Drizzle the vinegar and oil over the salad and season with salt and pepper. Mix everything together thoroughly. Taste, adding more salt, pepper, or vinegar if needed. The salad keeps for a couple of days in the refrigerator.
Photo by Kate Leahy.