Sunday, December 20, 2009

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Romania I: Ciorbă de Perisoare cu Carne

A few years ago, I picked up a few inexpensive cookbooks at the legendary Baltimore Book Festival. One of these was a yellowed book from the early 50's of Romanian cooking. I was intrigued, because I knew nothing of Romanian cooking, and the book only cost me three bucks. Fast forward to 2009, and it is the next brick in the wall of my Food Ethnography project.

Food Ethnography: Romania
Located in: Southeastern Europe
Some common ingredients: no blood - sorry, Dracula fans; meat, meat and more meat; also cabbage, cornmeal, eggplants, anything sour, peppers, more sour stuff; beans, tarragon, thyme, basil, parsley; did I mention anything sour?
Number of Romanian restaurants in the Baltimore area: 0
Number of Romanian restaurants in the DC area: 0, unless you're lucky enough to run across the Romanian Orthodox Church in Falls Church when they're serving Romanian food. The closest you're going to get is Café Sofia, which serves Bulgarian food, which is close.
Kind of like: When Hungary met the Mediterranean

My whole-hog introduction to Romanian cuisine begins with Romanian-American chef and cookbook author Anisoara Stan. Stan is perhaps responsible for introducing Romanian food to an American audience. That audience, circa 1951, was at the time mostly American housewives with an interest in "exotic" food. Stan's Romanian Cook Book has quantities but reads more like a narrative than a step-by-step recipe. It was disconcerting enough to have to map out any recipes like I never have before.

Romanian cuisine, like much of Southeastern European cuisine, is highlighted by chili peppers (or "sharp peppers" as Stan calls them), sour soups (ciorbă), vegetable dishes (such as ghiveci) with or without a lot of meat, and the quintessentially Romanian dish mămăligă, which is in the polenta and grits family. Over the next week or so - hopefully by the end of the year - I will be attacking the three Romanian dishes of mămăligă, ghiveci and my first Romanian recipe, ciorbă de perisoare cu carne - or ciorbă with meatballs.

The meal: Ciorbă de Perisoare cu Carne (Sour Soup with Meatballs)

The last time I made a massive meatball soup was a few years ago for an Italian dinner. The soup du jour was Italian wedding soup. This ciorba isn't terribly similar, but the meatballs did ring a bell. Specifically, the reminded me just how tedious it was to make lots of little meatballs for a soup. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The reasons why this soup, like many of Doamnă (Mrs.) Stan's recipes, seems so daunting are, again, the narrative style of the recipe, and the sheer quantity of ingredients. I should've taken a cue from the introduction to her vegetable section, which urges you to use "all the vegetables you can put your hands on." But I was running low on vegetables, so I needed to buy some anyway. I took myself to the I-83 market (now the last one I will get to this season, since I had a tough time getting around after the blizzard of '09 this weekend), and stocked up on some veggies for this recipe.

Everything one would need for a meatball ciorbă, minus a quart of water

For this recipe, I needed the following, some of which I bought at the farmers' market, some of which I had lying around, and some of which I had to improvise. There were three components to the soup: the stock, the meatballs, and the "etcetera" that goes into the ciorbă.

For the broth, add to 3 quarts of water:
  • veal shank bone & fresh pork bones (I cheated, and used 2 quarts of chicken stock and a quart of water. I had one quart already, but if you buy the two, it'll be about $3.50 to $4)
  • 2 large carrots (I bought some massive ones at the farmers' market, a big box for $2, but I will be using these for a while. One super big carrot was about 40¢)
  • 2 parsley roots (I have no idea where to find these. The closest replacement: 2 parsnips, which I could only find at Wegman's for about $2 per lb. Two are about a half pound)
  • 1 celery knob or 1 stalk celery (I had this lying around)
  • 1 tomato (I only had a green one, so in it went)
  • 1 quart of sauerkraut juice (It's not easy to find sauerkraut juice without the sauerkraut still in it. I got about a quart of kraut juice from 2 quarts of sauerkraut, which freezes well for up to a year. Each can was about $1.50).
For the meatballs:
  • 1/2 lb chopped veal + 1/2 lb chopped pork (since veal is so expensive, I just sprang for a pound of ground pork, at $4 per lb)
  • 1 egg (had it)
  • 2 tablespoons of uncooked rice (again, on hand)
  • 1 onion (another box for $2 - one onion was about 25¢)
For the etcetera:
  • more celery (again, had it)
  • leek (I bought a small bunch of green onions instead; I used half of a 99¢ bunch)
  • fennel (ran out, so in a pinch I used some ground anise seed)
  • thyme, tarragon and dill (used dried)
  • parsley (I sprang for fresh this time, $1.29)
  • lovage (not an easy herb to find, but celery leaves are so similar in taste, texture and look that I just used some of those)
  • hot pepper seeds
  • 2 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons of uncooked rice (both on hand), 1 cup sour cream (1 pint was $1.50), 1 tablespoon flour and salt and pepper (all on hand)
In the end, I spent more out of pocket for this recipe than I have so far, but since most of these vegetables will be used for the next recipe and beyond, the cost is mitigated. That said, I put out about $15 to $20 for this specific recipe. That doesn't include money spent on other ingredients that I had lying around, like flour, eggs, celery and dried herbs.

I know it is less special to dump 2 quarts of chicken broth into a soup pot than it is to make your own broth, but again, I felt like cheating - so sue me. And to be honest, this cookbook comes from an era before "boxed organic chicken broth from Trader Joe's/Whole Foods." In fact, one of the fun things about Stan's book is how she marvels over these new-fangled modern conveniences such as the ready availability in the US of formerly exotic herbs and spices like garlic and tarragon (it was the 50's, after all). But back to the broth. To flavor it, I did add the recommended vegetables: celery, parsnip, carrot and tomato, brought all that to a boil, and then replace the veggies with the quart of kraut juice. The kraut juice is absolutely critical. Stan briefly laments that Romanians in her time no longer take the time to process sour wheat bran - the traditional souring agent for ciorbă. Instead, she suggests things like kraut juice and lemons, the latter of which were just becoming easier to find in Romania in the 50's.

Evil Dead III: Army of Meatballs

The meatballs were, again, tedious but easy enough to make: just mix the ingredients (also with some parsley and thyme). Make as many walnut-sized meatballs as you can. In retrospect, I forgot to roll each in flour, which was Stan's recommendation. Re-boil the broth, add 2 T of uncooked rice, and drop in those meatballs along with celery, leek (green onion), fennel (anise) and your various herbs.

The soup is still not sour enough, so you have to add a thin sour cream paste to the boiling liquid. Mix the sour cream, egg yolks and flour together and water it down into a thin paste, and scoop it into the soup. Stir and boil for 20 minutes, and serve with parsley and a dollop of sour cream.

What can I say? The soup was sour. Not as sour as I first thought it would be, but sour nonetheless. The tang of the ciorbă made a nice contrast with the juicy pork meatballs. I tried to be conservative with the meatballs, and got about four in my bowl, but I had to go back for seconds. As stated before, this ciorbă is nothing like Italian wedding soup except for the fact that it has meatballs. Plus, the best part of this soup is that there is so much of it that it will last me a while, and I can share it.

My first ciorbă

Wine is a big part of many a Romanian meal. It's too bad that Romanian wine is not exactly easy to find in Baltimore. Fortunately the nice folks at the Wine Source pointed me towards a less refined, rustic red from nearby Hungary. The Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood) 2005 has a lot going for it. My favorite thing about it is that I find it pleasantly drinkable. I often find red wines more difficult to tolerate than, say, whites. I found Bull's Blood to be a little easier on my palate, so I wasn't overpowered by it (ironic considering the name, "Bull's Blood"). Also great about it is the price: at about $8 or $9 if I remember correctly, it was quite reasonably priced, and I would buy it again to drink with chicken or vegetables - or, again, ciorbe.


Pen Tablet said...

Romania is a great and beautiful country that is still unknown to many of us and I'm very grateful that you gave me a chance to read about some interesting Romanian things.