Favourites from Ana's Romanian Kitchen
Romanian Creamed Chicken (Ciulama de pui)What makes grandma's creamed chicken so special? I wish I knew! It's essentially a chicken fricassee, common in many cultures. And yet when grandma pulled her big roaster brimming with this creamed chicken from the oven, I remember people scurrying to table, undoing the top button of their pants as a preventative measure against the inevitable belly-stuffing that lay ahead. That's the power, I suppose, of simple comfort food shared with those we love. Some prep notes: Toss the chicken neck and gizzards into the pot during cooking; they'll impart some great flavor, and there always seems to be at least one person in a family who considers these items tasty prizes. If there isn't one of those people in your family, fish them out before serving (not a chance in the Mihoren family; there will be several people fighting over these bits). In the old country, smetana, a soured heavy cream, would have given this dish extra depth, but it's just as nice with the conventional dairy called for in the recipe below (I can imagine, though, that using creme fraiche would mimic the smetana effect). A few words of advice on consumption: First, get in there early and get yourself a leg. The legs go fast and they're the perfect excuse for picking up your dinner and getting to lick creamy gravy off your fingers. Second, always ~ and I mean always ~ reserve at least a ladle's worth of gravy for the end to mop up with some bread. Finally, creamed chicken is traditionally served with mamaliga, the Romanian take on the cornmeal porridge better known as polenta. The quantity is easily increased to serve many (grandma used to feed it to hundreds at church dinners).
Easter Paska (Traditional Egg Bread)The midnight church service on the Saturday night before Easter Day was long ~ 4 hours long ~ but then we would return to grandma and grandpa's house, still in darkness, with our blessed basket and eat its contents for breakfast before the day's activities and feasting began. There was smoked side bacon crusted with sweet paprika and tender young scallions, their white tips mild and perfect for dipping into a small crystal bowl filled with salt. There were hard-boiled eggs, their shells dyed a deep blood-red, ready to be cracked end-to-end in friendly competition before being peeled and eaten. And then there was the centrepiece: great-grandma Eva's Paska. Rich, lightly sweet, its interior glowing golden thanks to the butter and eggs that went into its dough, our celebration bread had a glossy brown crust adorned with a braided cross and rosettes; at the table it was sliced and slathered with fresh butter. The recipe looks complicated but it's really not. The dough is extremely elastic and forgiving, and once you make the decorative top for the first time, you'll see that it's actually quite easy.
Mamaliga (Romanian Corn Porridge, or Polenta)If "mamaliga" (mama-LEE-gah) is an unfamiliar dish to you, you're sure to know it by another of its names: polenta. Mamaliga is the Romanian version of this staple and has been called the country's national dish. While the recipe itself is not revolutionary, the history behind mamaliga is fascinating. Cooked in a round-bottomed kettle called a "ceaun," the cornmeal porridge would be turned out into the center of the peasantry's wooden farm tables, where it hardened as it cooled, holding its rounded shape. Portions would be sliced off using a piece of string held taut, and pieces would be topped with butter and sour cream, or with cascaval cheese, a sheep's milk cheese similar to pecorino. After each meal the matriarch would scrub the table clean, and it's said that many a Romanian table is concave and shiny in the center, a testament to the daily tradition of eating mamaliga. When making mamaliga, examine the piece served to you; any cracks that appear on the top of your portion indicate an unexpected journey lies ahead. Grandma never made her creamed chicken without mamaliga to serve alongside it.
Beet and Horseradish Relish (Sfecla cu hrean)Traditional recipes for Romanian sfecla cu hrean, including grandma's, call for boiled beets to be grated into the horseradish. Knowing what wonders roasting the beets has done for my borscht, I decided that concentrating their sugars in the oven would result in a “beetier” relish. The result is quite nice; the horseradish is still potent but is blunted nicely by the deeper flavour roasting draws from the beets. I’ve also amped up the sweetness by using cider vinegar instead of the more traditional white. Another word of advice: Be prepared to cry while grating the horseradish. The best texture is achieved by using the fine face of a box grater or even a microplaner, but going that route means you’ll be bent over a bowl of this root for a good 15 minutes. By the time I finished my eyes were streaming, my nose was running, and there were enough lingering fumes in the kitchen to make me tear up whenever I entered the room for the rest of the day. (My Aunt Janice recommends grating the horseradish outside so that the fumes dissipate and using a food processor to minimize the time you spend hunched over the root.) Oh, but the pain is worth it. The brilliant colour and complex flavour make this Easter condiment unique.
Potato-Cheese PerogiesThank goodness we still know how to make perogies just as grandma and great-grandma Eva used to. This recipe bears some hallmarks of grandma's time, married as she was at the very end of the 1940s. The dough incorporates margarine, which hit Canadian shelves in 1948 and was touted as a healthier alternative to butter (we know better now), and the use of reserved potato water (which she also used for making soups) speaks to the kind of frugality the Great Depression had necessitated. For me this is a classic perogy: a soft, tender dough filled with a comforting mash of potatoes and bright-orange cheddar cheese (another nod to newfangled post-War ingredients) blanketed in onions slowly fried and topped with a little pouf of sour cream. Perogies tend not to be a small-batch affair. When the family made them back in the day, a gang got together worked morning til night churning out a winter's supply with a variety of fillings ~ sour cherries and cottage cheese offered alternatives to the standard potato-cheese. This recipe also makes quite a lot, so enlist some help and plan to freeze small batches dressed in fried onions for quick dinners or snacks when labour beyond turning on a stove burner is out of the question.
Pork-and-Rice-Stuffed Cabbage RollsI know! This recipe ~ both its ingredients list and method ~ looks impossibly long and complicated. But it's not, I promise. Though I have eaten them my whole life on family feast days, until recently I had never made cabbage rolls on my own and was intimidated to do so. The process was, in fact, quite easy (though time-consuming), but my goal here is to provide detailed instructions in the method that help you visualize what you're going to be doing before you even get into the kitchen. I'll admit to taking liberties with grandma's original recipe, and even used some of the spices and herbs suggested in a recipe by Romanian cookbook author Nicolae Klepper. I opt for savoy cabbage rather than traditional smooth green cabbage because it's easier to roll. I use basmati rice owing to its quick cooking time ~ no chance it will retain any crunch in the final product. Our family cabbage rolls were almost always meatless, made with rice and mushrooms, but I've not only added ground pork but also layered the rolls with smoked side bacon, which adds tremendous flavour. And while grandma fermented her heads of cabbage in advance to give the dish a beautiful sour note (a step that distinguishes Romanian cabbage rolls from others), I've simply used sauerkraut itself to achieve some of that pleasant sourness. Finally, remember never to eat the rolls the day you make them. Wait until at least the day after, when the flavours have had a chance to truly blend. Most Eastern European families, including ours, will make their rolls well in advance of a holiday and freeze them until needed.
Now that Ana has passed on and our family and extended family is spread out all over Canada, I wanted to collect our family's most important and loved recipes in one place so that we can share them ~ amongst ourselves and with others.
These recipes are staples of the Romanian kitchen. Gather with your loved ones to prepare them and then feast together. I hope that these dishes will for you, as they have for me, come to be associated with many happy memories.