Wednesday, May 25, 2011

R is for Romania: More than a Rustic Romance

The Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania

It has been roughly 30 days since my last post, which is long a time. Why the hiatus?.... Simple, his name is Emil. 

This sprightly, handlebar mustache bearing man, with hair as dark as his humor has become one of my closest friends. The minute I met him I knew I wanted to be friends with him, whether he liked it or not. Fortunately, for the both of us he did, and ever since we have spent countless hours chatting, drinking, dancing, and debating (our claim to fame is a 45 minute argument over red cabbage salad).
Emil with a gorilla hat

Oh, and Emil is from Romania. So for "R" I wanted to tribute my special friend by learning about his native country and food. And if I was going to do Romania, and I wanted to do it right, and  the best way to learn about food is from the hand that feeds you. So, long story short, I haven't written in a few weeks because I was waiting to cook with his mom, and finally about two weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to be a food apprentice to his sweet and intelligent mother, Leni. It was fabulous.

So a quick 411 on Romania and her food. 

Romania is a country that is trying to rebuild its self from war and conquest. Its geopolitical location has made Romania a target to many invasions from its neighbors, which is greatly seen in the diversity of its cusine. As World Wars raved havoc through the land, Romania also had to deal with another calamity, the communist rule of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His rule basically destroyed the country's economy. Under his rule the people were also forced to live a rather low standard of life. Emil's mother also told me scary stories of how he would torture anyone who spoke out against him. For example, slowly exposing people to radiation so that they develop cancer and die. This man was dark and twisted. 

On a lighter note, the people are wonderful. I read online somewhere that Romanian's are known to be hospitable people and always eager to share stories. This could not be closer to truth, and what I experience at Emil's. His mother was very warm, and inviting. She  bought large amounts of food for us to cook, and was very intended on making everything perfect, right down from the plate we we ate off from. She even had a special sweet bread made for us. Leni, also shared countless of amazing stories and gave us a little history lesson on Romania. By the end of the night (and I mean it was like 1am) we were watching home videos of Romania, looking at baby pictures (Emil was such....a cute baby), and finally, embraced by her snug goodbye hugs. I never felt so comfortable and warm in someone's home that I only met hours ago. It was honestly magical, and, whether Emil feels it or not, I feel like I am a bit closer to him. There is something about going to ones home that creates bonds between people, and I love it.

Now back to food.

Like I quickly mentioned above, the many influences that have gone in and out of Romania have led it to create its is own unique gastronomy. I found a proverb that translates out to “The best vegetable is pork". While Emil believes that it might be a self mockery proverb because meat is expensive and he says Romanians tend to be poor. I believe they may just mean that they really like Pork because most main meal dishes contain pork, chicken or lamb.

Leni told me that a peasent's breakfast usually consist of a few swigs of plum liquor, potatoes, and mamaligaMamaliga, better known as polenta/grits, is a dish made of yellow maize and is historically a peasant food because it can be substituted for bread. Traditionally it’s cooked by boiling water, salt and cornmeal in a special-shaped cast iron pot called ceaun and served with sour cream and cheese on the side. Leni told us a story of how her grandmother would make batches of mamaliga in a huge pot. She would stir it with a special wooden instrument that she would stick in the middle of the mamaliga, to decipher if it was ready or not. 

The biggest meal of the day is lunch, which consist of five dishes......yes five dishes. 

One. Appetizers:
At Emil's house we had a beautiful display of sliced bread, olives, cheese, sliced red peppers, salami ( super delicious, legit, salami), and hard boiled egg slices. I put everything on top of the bread, and the combination sounds different to an American palate, but rest assure it is delicious. I actually took the same combination and made it into a sandwich during a late night study. Other things can include: șorici (boiled, grilled or fried pork skin), slăană (smoked pork ham), zacuscă (a mixture of vegetables boiled in a lot of oil and mashed, so that they can last for many months) and salată de vinete (mashed aubergine salad).

Two. Some mamaliga , this will be put into the next dish.

Three. Ciorbă. Ciorbă is a soup, soured by by lemon juice, sauerkraut juice, vinegar, or traditionally borş (fermented wheat bran). At Emil's we made ciorbă de perisoare, a sour meatball soup. We added the polenta and sour cream to soup, and vinegar, but only because we didn't have enough saukruat juice for the dish.

Four. Meat. Popular dishes include: ocaniţă  or tochitură  (meat stew seasoned with onions and/ or spices), ghiveci  (over 20 vegetables cooked in oil), sarmale  (pickled cabbage leaves stuffed with a mix of minced meats, rice and spices) and mititei (The "Wee Ones" - small skinless grilled sausages). For our meat dish we made a baked lamb dish with vegetables in a light broth, which I have no idea what the name is because Emil didn't translate it for me (Leni, if you read this, please yell at your son for this).  

Five. Dessert. We had this delicous sweet bread with jelly Turkey delight
candies in them. I think it was called cozonac... and I am actually eating some as I write. 

Lastly, there was the ţuică, a traditional plum brandy, that we actually had at the begining of the meal with the appetizers. 

Speaking of alcohol, to my surprise Romania is currently the world's 9th largest wine producer, which actually makes very good sense, because their climate is ideal for grapes, and plums. I also learned that Romania is the world's second largest plum producer (Emil doesn't really like plums, what a waste, I love plums!). Most of the plums produced, about 75%, is then processed to make ţuică (which is very strong, but has a good, berry after taste...and it warms your entire body).

Tunica with traditional shot glasses

I am going to end with another Romanian proverb, and I think i will make it my new motto.

"Dragostea trece prin stomac"

"Love passes through the stomach"

Emil explains that this could also mean something like "if you love me you will cook for me".  People show love in many different ways, and cooking is like my poetry. I am not good with words, or showing emotions, but I put a lot of love into cooking for people. Love is what makes food especially delicious, and between you and me, it is always my secret ingredient 


Emil reading from the
Romanian cookbook
Both these meals were translated from Romanian, and weren't made exactly as the recipe called (missing ingredients, time, etc.) and I am going to write them out exactly how Emil gave it to me, mostly because I find it a little funny and cute. I do have to share, that I was very jealous of the Romanian cookbook that we used. It has all sorts of funny inside jokes, history, and cultural points that I couldn't understand because it was in Romanian, and there is no translated English version. I got the second recipe online from a gourmet Romanian website, because as Emil was translating the recipe via facebook chat he didn't give me any of the measurements, but it is basically the exact same recipe we made with his mom. Both dishes were super hearty, and made you just feel warm and happy inside. They also make for delicious leftovers!

taking shots before the meal

Veal Dish (Romanian Name Unknown to Me)

  • 1kg. pork of veil muscle
  • 2 carrots 
  • 1 kg potatoes
  • One tbsp butter
  • One garlic head
  • Two onions 
  • Two bell peppers 
  • One glass of dry red wine
  • Two tablespoons of tomato paste
  • salt, pepper, bay leaves
  1. Cut the onion into “little fish” or slices, and ripen them in oil.
  2. When the onion has become hot and its looks have become fixed and glassy, put in the meat, which is cut into little chunks, to brown along with it. 
  3. The potatoes are to be pealed, cut into quarters, and grilled lightly. 
  4. Carrots, tomatoes, and peppers are to be cut into little slices and slightly warmed up so that they loose their moisture. 
  5. The garlic is to be cut into thin slices. 
  6. Veggies and meat are to be arranged in layers, condiments and herbs are to be added, warm soup is to be added such that the mixture is bathed but not drowned.
  7. After the meat becomes a little soft, one adds wine and garlic. 
  8. (I think Emil forgot this part) Then place in  350 degree oven for about 40 minutes or until meat is cooked. 

ciorbă de perisoare (Sour meatball soup)

  • 650g minced pork 
  • 100g rice 
  • 2 tablespoons oil 
  • 1 raw egg 
  • Salt to taste 
  • 500ml tomato sauce 
  • Approximately 3 liters water 
  • 1 carrot 
  • 1 parsnip 
  • 130g celery 
  • 1 onion 
  • 3 cups of sauerkraut juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste 
  • Oil 
  1. Cut all vegetables into small cubes.
  2. Add rice, egg, and oil to the minced meat in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Form the meat into meatballs the size of walnuts.
  4. In a pot, heat oil and add vegetables, minus the onions, and cook for about 3 minutes.
  5. Add onions, tomato sauce, water  and heat to a boil.
  6. Reduce heat and add meatballs, and cook for about 40 minutes or until the meatballs are ready.
  7. Add sauerkraut juice and simmer for another 2-3 minutes.
  8. Remove from heat and enjoy with sour cream and mamaliga.
**if you want a more bitter taste, add vinegar


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