Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Romania II: Vegetable Ghiveci

My next foray into Romanian cuisine turned out to be a dish that you might find in many different parts of the world. There didn't seem to be anything particularly Eastern European about roasted vegetables with olive oil, sautéed onions, and soup stock. But as many writers have said about Romania, they love their fresh vegetables.

One of the most common vegetable dishes not just in Romania but in much of Southeastern Europe is ghiveci (/gee-VECH/). Ghiveci can be embellished with meats, fish, etcetera, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, the recipe I used struck me as quite vegan., especially for the 1950's. And you aren't limited in the variety of vegetables or even fruits you add to this dish. Anisoara Stan in her Romanian Cook Book notes that this dish is made in winter or summer out of "all the vegetables you can put your hands on" (p. 33). While she gives a set list of vegetables to use in her ghiveci, one can feel free to vary them here and there.

What all the ghiveci dishes share in common is the dish in which they are roasted. The recipe itself is named not for the ingredients but for the dish in which they are cooked: a ghiveci is a very large, usually ceramic cooking vessel. I don't have one of these, so I went with the next best thing: my slow cooker, which had the added benefit of my being able to just leave it cooking while I was out. I'm sorry, but the idea of leaving my oven on while I'm out running errands doesn't sit quite well with me.

The meal: Vegetable Ghiveci

I only used about 2/3 of these ingredients - they wouldn't all fit in the slow cooker

Stan has a set list of ingredients, as I have said before. I improvised on some of them not only because I didn't have the freshest ones available that Doamnă Stan recommended, but also because I couldn't fit them all in my slow cooker. I will say that I bought some vegetables specifically for this project, and others to use in a few recipes.

The ones she recommends, and my substitutions:
  • 1 bunch carrots (I had two mammoth ones left over from the ciorbă)
  • 4 large potatoes (I had lots of potatoes - a box at the I-83 Farmers' Market for only $2)
  • 1 turnip (had two for $1)
  • 1 eggplant (didn't buy one - not in season)
  • 1 cup green peas (bought a can at Wegman's for 70¢, used half of it)
  • 1 green pepper (didn't use one, but I did throw in a Thai chili I had lying around)
  • 2 celery roots (my friend Jim recently got rapturous over the phone about his first experience with celery root. I'll use it next time; I just used leftover celery)
  • 1 squash (acorn squash, one for 50¢)
  • a bunch of leeks (replacement? 1 bunch of green onions)
  • 2 bunch mixed herbs (I threw in some parsley)
  • 1 bunch of grapes (had some green grapes in the fridge)
  • 1 cup lima beans (I didn't use any, though it was due more to space than to lack of desire)
  • other veggies left out: 3 parsley roots, 1 cup green beans, 1 small cabbage, 1 small cauliflower, a handful or two of okra, and about 10 tomatoes. In their place, I used a bunch of kohlrabi ($2) and a sweet potato and white mushrooms I had laying around.
  • 4 heads of garlic (I just used 1 1/2 heads, a rare thing for me since I usually go overboard with the garlic)
  • 4 or 5 onions (a large box of onions for $2 at the farmers' market)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, plus an extra cup (had it)
  • 2 cups soup stock (instead I used white wine)
  • salt and pepper
Altogether I spent an extra $6 to $8 just for this recipe, not counting vegetables bought for several recipes. This is a particularly good recipe to use if you're on a budget, because you really just have to throw together whatever vegetables you have, and maybe some fruits that you know will stand up to being cooked in a slow cooker without turning into mush (apples, pears, grapes = yes, citrus, bananas, many berries = not so much). It would've been cheaper had I just done that.

The recipe is simple to adapt to the slow cooker: just keep on cutting, prepping and chopping whatever vegetables and fruits you have until you just about fill your slow cooker. This includes the green onions and whole garlic cloves. They all get thrown in. You should have at least a few of the vegetables that Stan lays out in her recipe, but the one you absolutely must have is the onion (you should have the leeks/green onions and the garlic, but you must have the onion). You don't just throw these in with everything else; instead, you need to prep these in a specific way. Instead of throwing the onions in with everything else, you fry these up in 1/2 c of olive oil until browned (mine isn't completely vegetarian - I added a smidge of butter). then you add 2 cups of stock, or white wine in my case (I had it laying around). Let it boil while you heat up that last cup of olive oil by itself until it is boiling. Dump the boiling oil on the screaming vegetables (MU-hahahahaha!) and then follow it up with the onions.

Next, Stan gets a little vague on her cooking instructions. Here is what she tells you to do next:
Cover and bake in a moderate oven, until the juice has been absorbed. Serve hot or cold. (p. 35)
Yes, that's all it says. I need a wee bit more guidance than this - like what temperature I roast it at, or for how long I leave it in the oven. This is why I chose to use the slow cooker: I just set it on LOW for 5 hours. Perfect.

Of course, there is just one problem: how am I going to eat all this? Even after giving some to family or friends, I'll have a lot for one single man to eat. I could try to freeze some of it, but honestly I think it will become mushy. But this problem is mitigated by the ghiveci's versatility. It can be your entrée, or a nice side to turkey and stuffing, or ham, or chicken - just about anything. You can eat it in a large tortilla, or with another type of flat bread. Or you can eat it over cornmeal mush such as mămăligă (see below). I had it with some wild rice and a glass of that Hungarian wine Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood).

It would look prettier if I wasn't just using my camera phone.

I'm starting to feel like a Romanian housewife now! And to really get into that vibe I have to tackle one of the most common dishes in all of Romania: that first cousin of polenta and grits and second cousin to cornbread - mămăligă.


Nanc Twop said...

I love roasted vegetables, and I love my slow cooker, so this recipe intrigues me. But did the 1.5 cups of oil make the veges a tad, um, slippery?...

* I've never used that much oil (in one recipe) in entire my life... just call me an oil-virgin.