Monday, December 10, 2012

Week 47: A Journey to Romania

When I glanced at the calendar and saw that this week’s culinary journey was taking me to Romania, I wondered why I had selected it for the project.  I couldn’t even name a Romanian dish if my life depended on it.  While my original intentions may have been lost, I immediately realized that my inclusion of this cuisine must have been intentional as I was immediately intrigued with Romania’s dishes and culinary history when I began my research.  Because of its history as part of the Ottoman Empire, Romanian cuisine includes Turkish dishes, and the dishes from its Western regions tend to be spicier due to influence of bordering Germany and Hungary.  Despite their rich heritage and numerous influences, Romanians actually do have several native dishes that differentiate them from their neighbors with the most famous category being ciorbă, sour soups flavored with vinegar, sauerkraut juice, or lemons.  Romanian cuisine is hearty.  Most meals center around meat, and the most common meal is mamaliga, a type of polenta, served on its own or as a side dish.  For this week’s menus, I focused on distinctively Romanian dishes and often found myself pleasantly surprised at the flavor profiles.

mititei (sausages) and ciorbă de perişoare (sour soup with meatballs)
Mititei are small sausages made from a mixture of beef, lamb, and/or pork.  Folklore holds that they were invented in the mid-nineteenth century when the chef at an inn famous for its sausage ran out of casings and improvised a dish by forming his regular sausage mixture into small patties.  The customers commented on how much they loved the mititei, which translates to “wee ones,” and the dish became infamous throughout Romania.  The spices used to flavor these little sausages varied in the recipes I reviewed, and I am sure that those variances reflect a cook’s geographic influences.  For instance, the recipe I used included seasonings prominent in German and Hungarian cuisine, such as garlic, thyme, hot red pepper, hot Hungarian paprika, caraway seeds, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.  I used lamb in my mititei, because I was only making a small batch and had about half a pound in the freezer leftover from another week’s project.  (Pork is the more traditional choice, but lamb, beef, and a combination of meats may also be used.)  I served the mititei with paprika-dusted sour cream.  The combination of the spicy meat with cool creamy sour cream was quite nice.  I would definitely make this dish again.  I read that the leftover sausages are often eaten cold in a sandwich, which sounds like a great idea, but there were no leftovers at my house.

Ciorbă is such a distinctive dish that Romanians actually refer to it separately from regular soup.  (In Romanian cuisine, supă refers to a broth, usually clear, made with vegetables and/or meat.  This broth is served with dumplings or noodles.)  Ciorbă refers to a sour broth, and the dish is served with many different meats and ingredients including tripe, meatballs, or leeks.  The broth is tomato-based and traditionally includes lovage.  Unfortunately, I did not plan ahead for lovage, so I substituted celery leaves which are offered as a decent substitution.  To make the broth, I stewed onions, celery leaves, parsley, parsnips, carrots, and beef bones in water until the vegetables became tender.  Then, I added pork meatballs (made with rice, onion, and bread crumbs) to the soup for another hour.  Just before serving, I added tomato paste and vinegar to the broth.  In all honesty, I never expected to be wowed by this dish, but it was actually my favorite Romanian dish of the week.  The complex flavor of the broth completely surprised me.  I liked it so much that I would’ve traded my meatballs for more broth….and I love meatballs.  After trying it, I understand why ciorbă is in a category of its own.  It doesn’t matter what you add to it…it’s all about the broth.

sarmale (cabbage rolls), mamaliga (polenta), and cozonac (sweet bread)
sarmale and mamaliga
A quick search on the internet for “Romanian Cuisine” results in a number of reminiscing Romanians sharing their memories of holiday dinners that include sarmale, mamaliga, and cozonac.  Sarmale is the dish that everyone’s grandmother made for special occasions and even casual family gatherings, and I found it interesting that most accounts regarding sarmale adamantly state that these cabbage rolls are nothing like Polish-style cabbage rolls.  After a little research, I discovered a few differences. The most significant difference is the Romanians’ use of sour cabbage leaves, instead of fresh cabbage leaves.  Romanians also primarily stuff their cabbage rolls only with ground pork whereas most recipes for Polish cabbage rolls use beef or beef with a combination of other meats.  In addition, Romanians layer smoked pork (fat, ribs, or sausage) between the cabbage rolls for added flavor in the dish and generally include dill, dried or fresh, in the bottom of the pot.  I did not find any full heads of sour cabbage to make my sarmale, so I followed the recommendations of several Romanian-Americans who note in their recipes that layering sauerkraut between the cabbage rolls made with fresh leaves incorporates the sour flavor into the rolls.  For the filling, I sautéed onions, celery, bacon, salt, pepper, paprika, and parsley together and mixed it with ground pork and rice after it cooled.  To cook the rolls, I placed a layer of fresh dill in the bottom of a dutch oven.  I layered the cabbage rolls with sauerkraut and thin slices of salt pork, and then I poured tomato sauce over the rolls and filled the pot with just enough water to cover them.  After bringing the stock to a boil, I reduced the heat and simmered the rolls a little over two hours.  I served them with sour cream and mamaliga, which is just yellow cornmeal and water.  They were delicious, but I must admit that while I tasted the sourness and the smokiness, I didn’t think that it changed the flavors that significantly from the Polish cabbage rolls I’d previously eaten without those elements.  Had I grown eating cabbage rolls as part of my normal diet, I’m sure my opinion would be different.  (I’m guessing that someone from Romania might find my strong opinions about barbecue to be a bit overstated, as well.)  Opinions aside, these cabbage rolls were great.

Cozonac is a popular sweet bread served during the holidays.  (Cozonac is the name for Romania’s version.  In Bulgaria, it is called kozunak. Both breads are basically the same as Italian panettone.)  This sweet yeast bread is made with milk, sugar, eggs, butter, and raisins in its most basic presentation.  Variations exist throughout the country depending on regional preferences and can include the addition of Turkish delight, orange zest, lemon zest, walnuts, hazelnuts, vanilla, and rum.  Sometimes, the bread is filled with a mixture of ground walnuts, poppy seeds, cocoa powder, rum, and raisins.  During the Easter holiday, the bread is filled with farmer’s cheese and called pasca.  I made a version which included golden raisins, lemon zest, rum, and vanilla.  The dough is extremely sticky, which makes it a little difficult to work with, but other than that, it is a simple yeast bread that even a novice baker could easily make with successful results. By all means, this is more a bread than a dessert, but it is just sweet enough that it makes a nice dessert with coffee.  Even better than dessert, I made French toast with it the next morning.

While I may have begun this journey questioning my decision to plan a week of Romanian cuisine, I certainly ended the week with a serious respect for Romania’s dishes.  I’m still telling people about the flavor of the broth in the ciorbă, and I suspect I will continue to do so.  This is one of those weeks that speaks to the heart of this project as I truly discovered new flavors and dishes previously foreign to me and now a cherished part of my culinary journey. 

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