Meal 146: North Macedonia

Another birthday meal, another out-of-order meal thanks to a name change! (Last year’s was eSwatini.) Until earlier this year, this southern Balkan country was known to the United Nations by the beastly name of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with the equally beastly acronym FYROM, and inexplicably alphabetized not under F or R or M, but rather T, for The. For over two decades, this nation went by this ungainly name because Greece asserts that the historical region of Macedonia is mostly within its borders, and Greece also threatened to block any admission to other international organizations such as the EU until the issue was resolved. Finally, 27 years after Yugoslavia dissolved, both sides begrudgingly agreed that North Macedonia would be acceptable, and the most pusillanimous name in the UN was finally gone. With this jump from T to N, we had to do the meal posthaste!

And how fortunate we were to celebrate this country’s food with a birthday crowd. It’s a really great cuisine, featuring the fresher, Ottoman-influenced side of Slavic food, with just enough sour cream and pork to make it sing. And to top it off, it’s a country with a lot of great wine.

So many good friends at this one! Melia, Liz, Breesa, Jason, Ezra, Laura H, Patrick, Katia, Annie, Laura K, Jen, Chad, Levi, Julie, Deena, Denise, Jeff, Scott, Jen, Craig, and Mike all made it a rollicking good time.

 

Slatko | Thin jam | Recipe

There’s a very specific hospitality tradition in Macedonia: upon arrival, you’re offered a spoon, a bowl of jam, and a glass of water. You take exactly one bite of jam, sip the water, and put the spoon in the water glass.

While there’s a number of appropriate fruits for making this jam, it was the height of cherry season. One stand at the farmers markets had two different sour cherry varieties, so instead of the very French Montmorency, I chose the one with the Eastern European-sounding name, and indeed the Balaton cherry is from Hungary. The only hard part was pitting all those damn little cherries; after that it was just a matter of making a syrup, dunking the fruit in, and putting it in jars.

And it turned out well! The tradition was fun, and the jam was so tasty that it was a struggle not to double-dip. I made too much syrup relative to the volume of cherries, but no worries, since the remaining syrup is now awesome in other things — in fact, I’m gonna try making a Shirley Temple with it.

 

Shopska salata | Country salad | Recipe

With a variation here or there, this is the salad of this whole region. It’s so simple, and so hard to improve upon; its success rests entirely on the quality of the ingredients. Unfortunately this year hasn’t been great for tomatoes so we didn’t get quite the intensity from them that really good ones would have offered, but the excellent Bulgarian feta sure did help.

 

Pogača | Soft dinner bread | Recipe

Pretend you’re saying this word after having mouth surgery and you’ll see it actually comes from “focaccia!” While they are different shapes, what they have in common is a rich, oily dough that makes for a softer crumb. This recipe has sour cream, butter, milk, oil, and egg, so it’s a very rich dough. Counterintuitively, all those ingredients make it really easy to work with, just a single short rise. The bread turned out pretty nicely, especially accompanied with the spreads which, amazingly, were imported from Macedonia! (No, I didn’t make them myself, I couldn’t bring myself to buy $4/pound bell peppers to roast and cook down.)

 

Tavče gravče | Baked beans | Recipe

This modest casserole is widely acknowledged as the national dish. The outline is super simple: soak and cook big white beans until firm-tender, separately sauté onions, mix and add paprika, and bake. So with such a simple recipe, as with the salad, quality ingredients matter, which is why I was so bummed when the lima beans practically crumbled apart when I soaked them. Thankfully, I had planned to make the beans a day early, so I had one more chance to find better beans — and I practically squealed when I found artisan giant Greek beans at World Foods.

I picked and chose a few bits of flair from other recipes, in particular throwing in some mint sprigs, which turned out to really make the dish sing. Make sure you have good, fresh, flavorful paprika, because that’s the predominant flavor of the dish. In the end, these quality expensive ($9 for a 14 oz bag!) beans plumped up beautifully, and the dish had lovely subtle flavors throughout.

 

Pastrmka | Trout | Recipe

Although it’s landlocked, North Macedonia has a strong fish tradition thanks to its lakes. In particular, the trout of Lake Ohrid is prized, and while it’s prepared in several ways, this one felt pretty distinctive. I was pretty excited to see what would happen if you stuffed a salmonid with both farmers cheese and sour cream, and you know what, it turned out pretty darn well. The foil was useful for holding in the filling during poaching, and then flesh flaked straight off the bones. A novel way to prepare fish!

 

Pastrmajlija | “Pizza” | Recipe

As far as I can tell, it’s coincidence that this dish’s name is so similar to the prior. In fact, it comes from the same word as “pastrami,” because this flatbread was originally studded with preserved sheep meat. Now it’s done with paprika-marinated pork, and it’s just as simple and delicious as it looks. Well, I lied, there’s a secret ingredient: lard, painted all over the dough, giving it a gloss and porkiness in every bite. Since none of us could figure out how to pronounce it, we ended up calling it “meatza,” and except for the one slice that our dog Reba ate off the floor, we polished it off.

 

Ravanija | Syrup-soaked semolina cake | Recipe

With several dishes above that sing with simplicity, I was hoping that a similarly straightforward ingredient list would yield some magic. Alas, this really ended up tasting like a fairly bland cake soaked with sugar syrup. I put a bit of cinnamon in the syrup and even that didn’t come through. Oh well!

Meal 145: St. Kitts and Nevis

Six months and one baby (!!!) later, we picked back up noshing at the top of the S’s. We were delighted to welcome our daughter Josephine (seen here in the arms of our guest Brenda) to a family tradition eight years and counting.

This first one is the very smallest independent country in the Western Hemisphere with just 55,000 people, yet with one of the oldest European histories with colonization beginning in the 1620s. St. Kitts and Nevis is one of three Lesser Antilles Caribbean island nations in an alphabetical row — the other two being St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines — with pretty similar cuisines, heavy on saltfish, coconut, breadfruit, and bananas. So I researched all three of them to suss out what small differences I could exaggerate to make for three distinct meals.

Upon reflection, a menu of seafood fritters, goat stew, rice pilaf and sugary coconut dessert feels like it could live on the menu in any of several dozen countries, which is a fitting reflection of how Caribbean cuisine is a synthesis of several continents’ ways of growing and cooking food.

Our guests included Suja, Melissa, Leo, Kelsey, Ashley, Cara, Brenda, Breesa, and Kristin. Most of them happened to learn about us through a Facebook group called Girls Love Travel.

 

Killer bee cocktail | Recipe

Several sites mention the Killer Bee, from Sunshine’s Beach Bar on Nevis, as the most distinctive drink from this diminutive country. It’s a pretty darn memorable one: when’s the last time you had black pepper in a cocktail?

There’s quite a complex flavor considering there’s no other liquor besides rum. I quite liked it, even though I think I messed up by using raw honey that sunk to the bottom of the glass rather than dissolving, so I recommend sticking to the cheap stuff for this recipe.

Were I to make it again, I would modify it by reducing the orange juice and upping the lime, to make it a bit less cloying and a bit more tart. But then it wouldn’t be a Killer Bee, I suppose!

 

Conch fritters | Recipe

It’s pronounced “conk,” like, “It hurts when you get conked on the head with a conch shell.” Indeed, this mollusk comes in that classically spiral shell. While it’s super common in the Caribbean, it’s a tough one to find even frozen far away, but I did find frozen periwinkle, which is also a sea snail, and I figured that since we were grinding it up to make fritters it wasn’t worth sweating too much.

I think I was right. Not having tasted a conch fritter for over a decade since I was in the Virgin Islands, I can’t say for sure, but I feel like it was right on with the sorta toothy texture and the flavor that lingered in the background so the aromatics and the crispiness took over.

 

Goat water | Recipe

Not a terribly appealing name — especially if you consider that some people refer to the dumplings as “droppings!” — but a tasty dish nonetheless and one found on home menus around the tiny country.

A few sources mention that this “used to be the national dish” until it was decided that it was too old-fashioned; a contest determined that stewed saltfish served with spicy plantains, coconut dumplings and seasoned breadfruit would be the replacement. Truth be told, this felt too gimmicky to me, and plus we’ll have saltfish, plantains, and breadfruit for adjacent islands’ meals.

As with most traditional (ahem!) recipes, the ingredients differ between households, so when I couldn’t easily find the breadfruit called for here, I subbed in some sweet potatoes plus some extra green papaya. Note also the gravy browning in the recipe — that’s essentially bottled thin caramel that adds some instant depth. The stew came out quite tasty, the only problem was that my estimate of how to do the dumplings (mix flour and water, drop ‘em in) was probably wrong because they were dense and gummy; I probably should have added some fat too.

 

Cook-up rice (aka Pelau) | Recipe

Sauté veggies, throw in meat, add rice and water, cook until done — depending on where you are in the world, that’s a pilaf, or pilau, or polo, or plov, or as it’s called here, a pelau. This recipe has a nice variety of types of vegetables, while the meaty bits are definitely a product of economy: chicken backs and salted pig tails. The pigeon peas are a distinctive touch that give some nuttiness and protein (given that there’s very little actual meat on those bones!). Unfortunately, the recipe calls for too much water, and the dish ended up pretty soft and without nearly as much flavor as the variety of ingredients would suggest. Darn!

 

Coconut sugar cake | Recipe

In contract to the complex yet disappointingly mild cook-up rice, this dessert was entirely unsubtle, down to the completely gratuitous red food coloring.

The recipe ingredients leave out an important ingredient, “mixed essence,” which is essentially (ha!) vanilla plus other flavors. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find it at the Caribbean market, so I substituted vanilla extract, almond extract, and orange blossom water to make a sort of approximation. And were I to make this again, I’d double the ginger and bay leaf, as the flavor really didn’t come through to the end and it would have been fun to have that savory balance. But no matter really, if you like coconut and intensely sweet things you’ll love thse. If you don’t, well, the name probably turned you off to ‘em already.

Meal 144: Rwanda

Just about any broad-sweeping article about this small East African country begins with a reference to the genocide of the 90s and subsequent transformation into a harmonious nation that’s on the right track by many metrics. While both the highs and the lows distinguish Rwanda quite a bit from its neighbors, it’s food doesn’t so much: with a few small variations it’s a lot like the meals we’ve cooked for its neighbors Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Well, with one important exception: Akabanga chili oil, which I ordered from Amazon to make the meal a bit more accurate. Meg, who volunteered with Peace Corps in the tea-plantation highlands, told us that inn Kinyarwanda “akabanga” means “little secret,” but the little droppers of this pungent and distinctively flavored stuff are apparently everywhere.

In addition to Meg, we had another guest, Robin, who lived in Kigali. Also on hand were Chitra, Marcia, Jeff, Melia, Marissa, Albert, and their guests.

 

Matoke | Steamed bananas | Recipe

Jeff, my buddy who’s taken many trips to central Africa with Mercy Corps, reports that “my personal experience is that the Ugandan version is far superior to the Rwandan.” Apparently the former is pounded and accompanied with a stew kinda like mashed potatoes, whereas the latter is as the photo shows: purely steamed bananas straight out of the banana leaves in which they were wrapped.

Apparently there is a particular type of green banana that is wildly common in this part of the world — in fact, Rwanda is said to have the highest per-capita banana consumption in the world — but it’s entirely unavailable here. I can’t even reliably find green cooking bananas like I could in New York. So I used green plantains, and I don’t know if that would have made it any more or less palatable to Jeff. In any event, it was kinda dry and crumbly and mildly sweet.

 

Ibiharage | Fried white beans | Recipe

Exactly what it looks like: oniony beans with a bit of oil. Pretty bland unless you go for a few drops of the Akabanga. The firm texture does play nicely with the soft gumminess of the ugali mush (which is so common in African countries that I’ve stopped giving it its own line in my meal writeups!).

 

Isombe | Cassava leaves with eggplant and spinach | Recipe

This is the fifth time I’ve cooked cassava leaves (Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, and Madagascar being the previous), and even with the addition of other vegetables, I still didn’t like it.

I had assumed that the leaves were more fibrous, dry, and bitter from being frozen into a rock-solid ball, wrapped in a few layers of what seems like Saran wrap, and shipped for who knows how many weeks from Africa. But according to Robin, not only is this really kinda how the fresh version tastes, but I actually made it more interesting with the addition of other vegetables. Unlike previous times, when the substantial remaining stew ended up in the compost, Robin eagerly took a few quarts of the leftovers.

For the Mozambique meal, I used kale instead of cassava leaves for a recipe, and liked it quite a bit more. Going forward, I just might do this again. I’m all for going for authentic ingredients and flavors when possible, even if it’s not to my liking, but after five times and pounds of uneaten leftovers, I think I’ll just use other dark leafy greens.

Brochettes | Barbecued meat skewers

Without question, the most popular dish of the meal was the barbecued goat. This isn’t an at-home food, but rather a snack at a bar or part of a holiday meal.

With the simplest of preparations — just a bit of salt and pepper — the flavors came entirely from the fatty meat and the woody smoke. We served it with sliced onions and mayonnaise, which are apparently common accompaniments.

 

Icyayi | Milk tea | Recipe

Milk is really important both culturally and nutritionally in Rwanda, and the country has a phenomenon found nowhere else in the region: milk bars. They are exactly what they sound like: casual establishments serving milk in various preparations. This thorough article covers their important role in Kigali life, providing inexpensive food and drink, and an alcohol-free place to socialize.

My fear of spontaneous fermentation on dairy prevented me from making the thick, sour ikivuguto. Apparently the way it works is when you order milk you can either drink it straight or add things to it, so I went with a sweet ginger tea brewed directly into hot milk. It was great, a warm, rich, and satisfying end to the meal.

Meal 143: Russian Federation

This meal was both easy and hard to figure out. Easy, because my close friend Deena co-wrote the best Russian cookbook to come out in English in decades, with Bonnie Frumkin Morales, chef of perhaps the best Russian restaurant in the US, Kachka, so I had an expert and a full book of recipes. But also hard, because I didn’t want to just go the easy way, I wanted to force myself to do some research and learn. Alas, it turns out that Deena and Bonnie really did it right, because frankly what I came up with didn’t differ much from theirs; in fact, all I really had to do was remind Deena that we were keeping it homestyle, and maybe something rustic like kasha would be better than elaborate tsarist confections.

One thing I really did come to learn is the distinction between Russian and Soviet cuisine. Of course there’s a lot of overlap, but just as it did for many other parts of life, the Communist system made a lot of very intentional changes to the way a whole country ate. There was one core cookbook that was the universal reference book, and state cafeterias generally served from the same array of foods, which interestingly did borrow from some of the non-Russian parts of the USSR, particularly the Caucasus. This meal is kind of a combination; the salat Olivier is a pre-Communism dish that evolved through central planning, the kotlety is pure Soviet but has persisted into present day, and shchi has been a soup of the people for about as long as there have been people making soup in that part of the world. Fermented vegetables, too: Deena shared a quote she gathered from a professor once that if you have Eastern European heritage, you would not exist today if it weren’t for sauerkraut, because that was essentially the only way to get Vitamin C during those long winters.

It was a merry crew for this meal: Marisa, Sebastian, Chelsea, Levi, Julie, Marcia, Eileen, Kaz, Susan, Emily, and Sofia. And, of course, Deena, to whom I owe a ton of thanks for all the advice, the trip to the Russian market, and hours of help in the kitchen!

Zakuski | Appetizers

The food at a Russian dinner party starts as soon as you arrive. The table is laden with all sorts of nibbles to get you going. The sprats, mushrooms, and salad below form a part of it, as did sauerkraut and pickled green tomatoes that I made, plus smoked fish and a seriously good kosher salami from the Russian deli.

Nastoyka iz khrena | Horseradish vodka | Recipe

Russians infuse a tremendous variety of things in vodka. Fruits, spices, and herbs are soaked, individually or in combination, for days, weeks, or months, then decanted, shoved in the freezer (or a snowbank), and pulled out whenever a dinner, a visitor, or an illness calls for it. They can be sweet, woodsy, summery, delicate, all sorts of things, but a horseradish vodka is none of these. It’s a punch to your nose, a shock to your mouth, and a bear-hug to your esophagus, all in a matter of seconds, and by the time you’ve recombobulated, you’re ready for some of the strongly flavored nibbles sitting before you.

The Kachka recipe—which is so popular it’s sold by the bottle in Oregon state liquor stores—calls for chunks that are gently infused over the course of a week or two. Since I started in on the preparation fewer than 72 hours before the meal, I used the NY Times’ fast-and-furious method, shaving a stub of horseradish to smithereens with a vegetable peeler and making the whole house smell like Passover. Unlike Kachka’s version, which is famously smooth yet still packs plenty of horseradish perk, the quick extraction afforded by all the surface area, plus some peppercorns, made my version a fair bit harsher, even after I mixed in a bit of honey on Deena’s suggestion. But it’s way better to have hurry-up horseradish vodka than none at all!

Borodinskiy chleb | Dark sourdough rye bread | Recipe

This is the holy grail of sourdough breads to me. It’s got a really complex flavor, a bit sweet from malt and molasses, yet deeply savory from that earthy rye, the tang from long fermentation, and a hint of coriander. Yet it goes with just about everything, from butter and jam to fish and mayonnaise and meaty stews.

The process of making this bread wasn’t the easiest. First, I needed a good malt—that is, sprouted and toasted grains. Rye malt, not surprisingly, is preferred, but nearly impossible to find; but Annie, our friend who runs a bakery, just so happened to have made her own malt (!!) a few days prior and generously lent me some. You really oughtn’t make this without malt, as you need the enzymes to properly develop the sugars that the sourdough feeds on. Speaking of, Annie also gave me a rye sourdough, which saved me the hassle of transitioning over my wheat starter over the course of a few days.

The next tricky part was that it didn’t rise nearly as quickly as the recipe suggested it would, even with some coaxing in the oven with the warming drawer on, so by the time I was supposed to have finished the bake, the loaves still had some time to go in rising. I had to go to a show, so I put them in the basement to slow down the fermentation, then stuck them in the oven when I got home. It finished at around 12:30 AM, but the proof was in the nibbling: this is a damn good recipe.

One hint: go easy on the wheat wash, especially if you plan to keep it on hand for a week or more. Rye bread famously keeps a long time because of the sourdough, but plain flour doesn’t have that benefit, and the top of the bread got moldy while the rest could have lasted a long while. Also, if you’re going through all this effort, at least double the recipe—the ingredient cost is way lower than your time investment!

Marinovannyye griby | Marinated mushrooms | Recipe

Mushrooms, particularly ones foraged in the forest, are a prominent part of home cuisine in Russia. One way to make the most of a good haul is to preserve them, whether by salt curing, or in a liquid marinade as done here. I’d say technique-wise this turned out pretty well, even with boring store-bought brown mushrooms, though I found this particular recipe to be too heavy on the cloves.

Buterbrodiki so shprotami | Sprat canapés | Recipe

Butterbrot is a German word, meaning simply “butter bread,” but in the Russian case the borrowed name seems to refer to something assembled, a sort of sandwich. This version—which, ironically, is built on top of mayo, not butter—is Kachka’s calling card, a nibble so integral to the restaurant that it’s what they offered as a sample recipe for a news article. It reminds me so much of what my grandparents liked to eat: fish, rye (we toasted little slices of the bread I made), boiled egg, and sharp greens. If this sounds good to you, you’ll like it. If it doesn’t, you won’t.

 

Salat Olivier | Russian salad | Recipe

This salad is so endemic to the cuisine that many places around the world call a mayonnaisey mess of potatoes, meat, and vegetables a “Russian salad” in their language. But, as with so many foods, the origin of this food comes not from a Russian, but rather a French chef who composed something quite a bit fancier involving game birds and shellfish at a posh restaurant in Tsarist times. The recipe got thoroughly Sovietized, with ingredients much more in the commoner’s reach such as boiled eggs and bologna (for a tangent, here’s a fascinating history of how Soviet bologna is derived from the American version!), and it’s now de rigueur at any social event and particularly a New Year’s party.

I though this was not amazing. At first it was quite dull, so lent it a bit more flavor by throwing in a bit of pickle juice, which rescued it somewhat. I’m not sure whether it was my own shortcoming, or if this is just as intended. But the mouthfeel is amazing, and I could definitely see hoovering a ton of this while drunk and hungry.

Pelmeni | Dumplings | Recipe

Apparently, in Siberia, they traditionally make these dumplings by the hundreds and just keep them in outside in the harsh winter, pulling out and boiling from frozen whatever they need for dinner. (In my mind, they throw them straight out the kitchen window into a snowbank, but they’re probably tidier about it than that.) But as so often happens, what’s borne of necessity proves useful even in more resource-filled times: once assembled, these dumplings just don’t keep, you either gotta boil them right away or put in the freezer until cooking, even if that’s just for a half hour.

We would not have eaten this dish if not for Deena. First of all, she co-authored the recipe (which was “adapted” on the linked page). Secondly, she brought the pelmenitsa, the purpose-made honeycomb mold that makes exactly 37 at a time, no fold-and-pinch required. And thirdly, she rolled out the dough, which I just hate doing. So thank you, Deena, for being you, for being a friend, and for having good arm strength and patience to roll dough.

This recipe isn’t strictly traditional; it’s one of the few I’ve found that calls for a smidge of ice water when mixing the meat, but that does wonders for the texture of the filling. You could also put all sorts of other things inside, in fact we made some veggie-friendly ones with mashed potatoes, but apparently when it’s not meat-filled they’re called vareniki. (You know a food is essential to a culture when they come up with totally different names for relatively small variations.)

The most important part of this recipe, though, is the dressing at the end, with butter and that little bit of vinegar. It’s really what makes the whole concoction sing. And disappear. We made about two hundred of these things and they almost all disappeared, despite all the other stuff we served.

 

Shchi | Cabbage soup | Recipe (which I only kinda followed)

Every recipe I found for this Platonic ideal of a peasant soup quoted the same saying: Shchi da kasha – pishcha nasha, “Shchi and kasha are our food.” (That phrase has fantastic prosody!) Though as the Kachka cookbook explains, there’s not really such a thing as recipe for shchi, but rather you compose it from (usually) cabbage, plus whatever meats and veggies you have on hand. So while this one page I link to calls for chicken, and Kachka suggests spare ribs, I used what I had on hand: part of an unreasonable amount of ham that was gifted to me at a Halloween party, and some thin shaved brisket in the freezer that I’d erroneously purchased for the Korea meal back in February. I’d like to think that the haphazard provenance of the material, more than its identity, made this soup a shchi. Similarly, though more intentionally, I made a quart of sauerkraut using cabbage that I planted in the spring specifically anticipating the Russia meal.

I started this soup at 11 the night before, when I had to throw the bread in the oven. That was long enough to simmer the meats for about an hour and a half; I quickly cooled them in a hotel pan (big surface area = faster cooling), fridged overnight, skimmed fat in the morning, and cooked for another hour until the meat was crumbling. I extracted the meat, cut it finer, and built back up a soup using the sauerkraut plus veggies sauteed on the side. Another simmer, then hotel-pan cooled again and back in the fridge to develop flavor, and finally reheated before dinner.

Especially with a dollop of smetana, this was one frickin’ tasty soup: just enough salt from the ham, a good beefiness from the brisket, and a surprising amount of flavor from the veggies. This particular shchi will never be repeated, yet at the same time it’s recreated a million times a day. That’s the beauty of shchi.

Kurinyye kotlety | Chicken patties | Recipe

The same guy who brought bologna to Russia is also responsible for this dish. Despite the name, it’s not a schnitzel-type pounded meat cutlet, but rather it’s essentially a pan-fried torpedo-shaped meatball. Whatever you call it, it’s an extremely common dish, made of just about any kind of ground meat with grated onions (beware, eyes and knuckles!) and breadcrumbs or milk/water-soaked stale bread. Don’t be fooled by the simple list of ingredients, these are really quite tasty, with the crisp from pan-frying making them a fun texture too. So long as you don’t overcook them, the meat holds plenty of moisture.

 

Grechnevaya kasha | Buckwheat groats | Recipe

Remember that proverb above? Here’s the second half. While “kasha” in English tends to refer specifically to buckwheat, in Russian it simply refers to any simmered grain, but whatever, here we are with some toasted buckwheat, cooked in water then tossed with a generous amount of butter. I like the nuttiness and toothy texture of buckwheat, so this was a pleasant accompaniment to the kotlety.

 

Syrniki | Cheese pancakes | Recipe

If you thought pancakes were already a perfect food, did you ever think about taking out most of the wheat and replacing it with cheese? Yup, Russian farmers cheese is dry and soft enough that it mixes up into a really tasty dessert. I also whipped up a basic compote of frozen raspberries with a bit of sugar and lemon, just because. It did take forever to cook small pancakes for 16 people—thank you, Deena, for all that time spent over the stove!—but it did all get eaten, so it was clearly worth it.

Meal 142: Romania

Following in the footsteps of Namibia and Panama, this was our third annual Neighbor Nosh! We got a permit to shut down the block, and set up tables and chairs right in the middle of the street. It was so neat to take the neutral space we all use and see every day, and to claim it as a not just a gathering place as with a typical block party, but for sharing a sit-down meal to spend quality time with each other. I encourage anyone to do it even if they’re not forcing a random country’s food upon their neighbors.

We all agreed that this was the best of the three such meals. Romanian food has a lot of flavor and variety, ranging from sensations like tangy, spicy, and garlicky, to rich, hearty, and comforting, an imprecise contrast which roughly parallels the heavily overlapping Ottoman and Slavic influences. Adventurous foodies and picky kids alike found plenty in this meal to enjoy!

On the side, as accompaniment to everything, we had smântână (the sour cream common to Russia and other Slavic cuisines) and mujdei, which takes many forms but here was a bunch of garlic mashed with salt and a bit of sunflower oil, as pungent as it is simple.

Mămăligă | Cornmeal | Recipe

Just like polenta, it’s made out of coarse cornmeal and water. But if you call Romania’s staple starch polenta, this blogger will not be happy. They have a point: basic mămăligă is even simpler than polenta, without the salt and butter and/or cheese that Italians use (though there is a more done-up version like that), and is also cooked to a thicker state. In fact, it’s simply poured onto a board where, thanks to the lack of fat, within a minute it magically congeals into a mass solid enough to slice and hence a fine vehicle for dips or even dipping in soup.

 

Salată de vinete | Eggplant dip | Recipe

Despite being called a salad, this is really more of a dip or spread. It’s super simple, just roasted peppers with a lot of oil and some lemon juice. I made it two ways, in the food processor and mashed by hand. The first was, as expected, a lot smoother and fluffier, while the hand-mixed version was heavier and more textured. I rather preferred the first, especially because it took a lot less work.

 

Salată de ardei copţi | Marinated peppers | Recipe

Despite also being called a salad, this is really more of a marinade. It started with a fire sale on red peppers a few months prior, which I threw on the grill that day, peeled, and froze in their charred state. Then I just defrosted them, mixed them in the dressing, and that’s that. Oily and tangy, they’d be great on a crusty bread, but were also just fine with what we had.

 

Compot | Fruit drink | Recipe

Simmer fruit in water with a bit of sugar, then cool it down. Is it a drink or a snack? Yes! Depending on what fruit you use, this can either be tasty — the cherry version went in an instant — or weird, as evidenced by close to a gallon of leftover grape compot that looked like a vessel of hundreds of alien eyes.

 

Murături asortate | Assorted pickles | Recipe

From everything I’ve read, pickles are a huge deal in Romania. There are a million different things you can pickle and ways to pickle (I even read about vegetables stuffed with pickles before pickling), but this is perhaps the most basic: put a bunch of veggies in a jar, fill with salty water a few spices, and wait. Classic lacto-ferment, and tasty. The fun part of this one was that thanks to red cabbage, it all turned pink while the cabbage itself lost all color.

Borş de fasole | Bean soup | Recipe, Bors

The two most common Romanian soup recipes online are with meatballs or tripe. The former is just too similar to the filling of cabbage rolls (see below), while the latter just didn’t strike me as the best thing to foist upon two dozen unsuspecting neighbors. While a bean soup is perhaps more classically Moldavian than broadly Romanian, it did seem a good choice to balance things out. Plus it was a chance to try my hand at borş, which is the same word as that Ukrainian beet soup, yet in Romania it refers to a sour fermented liquid made from wheat bran.

I made two parallel pots, one soured with borş and the other with sauerkraut juice. The one with borş was a little more mellow, but they both were quite good, especially with the smoked pork adding richness. And, as with almost all soups, it was even better the next day.

Saramură de pește | Sour fish | Recipe

I was afraid this might end up being one dish too many, especially when I had to go to three stores before I found anything approaching carp, which ended up being bass. (For being close to the ocean and with so much river fishing, it’s surprising few places have reliable fish selection and quality in Portland.)

But this ended up tasting really good! And I learned a new cooking technique: lining a pan with salt to keep the fish raised a bit off the pan, so you can get it good and hot but not have to fry it. It might have gone even better if I could have found my coarse salt, but a healthy layer of kosher salt worked ok. Once thus cooked, the fish is baked with a “marinade” of vinegar, veggies, and chilies, and the result is delicious: the fish is firmer than it’d have been if simply poached, and the zesty sauce was a real tongue-tickler.

Sarmale | Cabbage rolls | Recipe

After allll that, we get to the sine qua non of Romanian food, the cabbage roll. As with so many treasured national dishes, there are as many variations as there are grandmothers. I pretty much followed the linked recipe, except that I didn’t use as much pork belly as she called for (I found it incredibly hard to chop up, on reflection I should have frozen it a bit), and instead used more ground pork. But I was generous with the smoked meat and bacon, exactly as specified. I managed to make one head’s worth of whole cabbage leaf sauerkraut about ten days in advance, though I couldn’t fit a whole head in the jar so instead I separated the leaves which I then fermented. Fearing that one head wouldn’t be enough, I also used a fresh cabbage, which I softened and separated using a novel technique as described in the recipe: boil the whole head, carefully removing a few leaves with tongs every few minutes until you get to the core.

These were really delicious. I loved what the savory and the dill seed did, just different enough to make it feel like I was eating something distinctive. And the rich meat, with the tangy cabbage, and just enough tomato sauce...really, a great and satisfying combo. Frankly we couldn’t tell much of a difference between fresh and sauerkraut leaves, because I put sauerkraut juice in the fresh leaves’ pot so it all kinda tasted similar.

Given everything else I made, there were, conservatively, 80 rolls left over. So make these, but if you make a lot, have some containers on hand to send home with guests, or bags to toss ‘em in the freezer.

Plăcintă cu mere | Apple cake | Recipe

As discussed in the Moldova post, the Romanian name indeed is the same our word “placenta.” Thankfully, this version was a lot better than the one we did for that meal. Instead of a turnover, this recipe is essentially two separately baked cakes sandwiching a filling, and it turned out with more flavor and a better texture. A big thank you to Marisa down the block who made this treat!

 

Vargabeles | Noodle pudding | Recipe

This dish is considered Hungarian, yet it’s commonly eaten in Transylvania in Romania’s north, so it counts. It really reminds me of the classic Ashkenazi Jewish dish named kugel, the major difference being that this one has layers of filo dough to give some extra crisp, while the addition of a little lemon and egg white make it more firmly dessert-like. Our neighbor Betsy did a beautiful job, but also baked way too much, which I didn’t mind because this made for a great breakfast the next few days.