Friday, October 31, 2014

When in Romania, Eat

Romania has an unfortunate association with foreboding castles, vampire legends, and the Numa Numa song. Okay, the latter one can at least be technically ascribed to Moldova, but the whole Dracula thing still gives off undeserved creepy vibes. That is why I chose Halloween as the perfect day to have a party of six and celebrate the non-scary side of the country through its food, with some downloaded Romanian folk music to set the mood.

First up, an essential soup for a Romanian meal: ciorba de perisoare, a pork meatball soup cooked in a sour beef and vegetable broth.

I added two each of chopped peeled and chopped medium parsnips and large carrots (one of the parsnips can also be replaced with a parsley root, if available), a sliced onion, a chopped bunch of Dutch parsley, and about 300g of stewing beef to 6 cups of boiling water (I used 5 cups of water and one of sauerkraut juice). Once the boil resumed, I let it simmer covered for about half an hour, using the time to make the meatballs.

I made the meatballs by mashing 300g of lean pork mince with about a cup of breadcrumbs, a chopped onion, 2 tbsp uncooked rice and a dash of warm water, adding a little salt and pepper. Bringing the soup back to a boil, I hand-molded small meatballs of the mash and lowered them into the soup one by one. After the boil resumed, I once again let it simmer for about half an hour, before stirring in 3 tbsp tomato paste.

I seasoned it with a little salt, adjusted the sourness with a little vinegar (one can use just vinegar for the sourness if one does not have sauerkraut juice), and garnished with a little chopped parsley before serving with sour cream on the side.

I started the dish by draining off the juices from about 750g sauerkraut (using some for my sour meatball soup), washing the sauerkraut, and then draining and squeezing it of any running juice. I then stirred it in a hot pan with 50g of melted butter until thoroughly coated, adding 2 tsp black pepper and 1.5 cups tomato sauce before bringing to boil.

I then simmered it for nearly an hour, stirring every now and then, and adding a couple pinches of salt, a tablespoon of paprika, and half a cup of white wine, before the last 15 minutes of simmering time. This dish, verza calita, went really well with the starch, especially moderated with a little sour cream.

I also made mititei, a sort of kebab or "skinless sausage". 800g ground beef mashed in with 2 tbsp each of olive oil and water, 4 chopped and crushed garlic cloves, a half teaspoon each of thyme, red pepper and paprika, and 2 tsp each of salt and ground black pepper. I also added a little breadcrumb and uncooked rice to help bind the mash and absorb excess moisture, respectively. I formed these into sausage shapes on a greased pan, and baked at 180C for about 20 minutes.

For the starch, I made mamaliga, a sort of polenta. It's a simple one to prepare: I gradually added a cup of coarse yellow cornmeal to boiling water into which I had melted 2 tbsp butter and added 2 tsp salt. I let it cook for about 45 minutes, whisking often, until I got a thick cornmeal slurry, into which I stirred half a bunch each of finely chopped dill and chives, and 2 tbsp feta cheese.

I may have let it sit warm for too long, so it lost a little more moisture than I would have liked. In any case, it had a rich, herbaceous taste, and the grainy, mashed-potato-like texture made it a good base for the other main dishes.

I served the mititei, mamaliga, and verza calita with a dollop of sour cream and roasted chilli pepper. A most excellent combination of tastes, textures and colors.

And for dessert, I made cozonac, a Romanian Easter cake. This was a bit more complex.

I first needed to get the yeast culture (top left) done, by stirring a mixture of 4 tbsp milk and a packet of yeast into 1.5 tbsp flour that had been whisked in hot milk, also 4 tbsp.

After allowing the culture to sit and bubble, I mixed it with 2 tbsp warm milk, 2 egg yolks, half a cup of caster sugar, 60g raisins, zest of a lemon, and 225g flour, kneading with some butter to get a standing dough. Finally, I added a tablespoon each of rum, vanilla extract, and vegetable oil, kneading again, and letting it rise for about an hour.

Finally, I brushed on the yolk of an egg, sprinkled on a handful of crushed walnuts, and baked at 180C for about 45 minutes.

It did not rise as much as I would have liked, but it was baked through properly, and served after cooling, was a delicious finale to our Romanian meal.

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