Thursday, December 31, 2009

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Romania III: Mămăligă

To finish out my brief flirtation with Romanian cuisine, I had to make a helping of what most cookbooks and websites I checked have cited as a favorite dish in and around Romania: mămăligă. Mămăligă was probably introduced from Italy, as a lot of influence has gone from Italy to Romania since Roman times (Romania literally means "New Rome" - roma nea - in Latin).

This dish is in the same family with polenta and grits, only with the fat factor kicked up a notch. Ever eaten cheese grits? I have. Ever eaten cheese grits drowning in sour cream and butter? I have not. I'm guessing you haven't either, no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon line you grew up on. But this is a good description of mămăligă - like polenta or grits, but baked and/or topped with sour cream. Mind you, it doesn't have to be sour cream - this Transylvanian version posted on The Austerity Kitchen blog doesn't even mention it, but it does include feta cheese - which is optional. It does seem, however, that Romanians love that sour taste so much, it seems par for the course that mămăligă probably should incorporate some sort of sourness.

I went back to Anisoara Stan's Romanian Cook Book and she had a few different recipes for mămăligă - a traditional version, a modern version, and so on. Doamnă Stan's more narrative recipes don't work too well for an ADD-addled brain such as mine, and in terms of ease in following, her recipe for mămăligă just wasn't working for me. So I turned elsewhere. I first turned to a beautiful new book of Eastern and Central European cooking (this is a mouthful, y'all), The Illustrated Food and Cooking of Poland, Russia and Eastern Europe, edited by Lesley Chamberlain. And that's without the subtitle, which lists cuisines ranging from Ukranian and Hungarian to German and Austrian. And yes, Romanian is also in there. This book has helpful descriptions of each European region's style of cuisine, and every recipe comes with at least a finished photo and an accompanying how-to photo - sometimes several. The Chamberlain book's mămăligă recipe is different from all the others I read about, because it is in bread form. I didn't get the impression that mămăligă was a bread, and wanted something more authentic. I found it in my copy of Jeff Smith's Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors. Smith just gets giddy over, well, every recipe he writes about in this book, a broader crash course in foods of different parts of the world (his is the semester version, mine is the self-taught over the course of a week version).

Smith tells us quite bluntly that we will all definitely like mămăligă. Well with all that butter and cheese and sour cream I can see why. I just don't know how I will keep from gaining five pounds from eating this stuff.

The meal: M

The Frugal Gourmet's incorporates the following ingredients, almost all of which I had laying around. Seriously, this cost me about $2 extra, and all I had to do was head to Whole Foods to buy some of their extra cheese pieces they have in their salad bar section. Use any combo of sharper and less sharp cheeses you have lying around, and if you have feta but no sour cream, all the better for you.

  • water (hmmm, I wonder where you're gonna find that? You need 1 1/2 quarts of it)
  • yellow cornmeal, the finer the better (had a whole bag of this - you'll only need 1 1/2 cups. It has to be yellow - mămăligă isn't made from white corn meal)
  • 1 cup sour cream (left over from the ciorbă)
  • 1/2 stick of butter (got it)
  • cheese - lots and lots of cheese (for this I had about 0.15 lb of Havarti laying around. I then went out and spent two more dollars on some small pieces of Irish Dubliner and Ohio's own Guggisberg Swiss. I had planned to add some Parmesan, but ended up not needing it.
Mmmm. Cornmeal mush.

The process is simple: boil the water, take it off the heat, slowly stir in the cornmeal and put the pot back on the heat, stirring frequently for 20 minutes until the cornmeal mush is the consistency of "thick cake batter" (Smith's words, not mine). While doing that, melt the butter in an 8" square pan in a 350°F oven. Pour half the mămăligă "batter" into the pan, then spread half the sour cream on top and sprinkle half the cheese on top of that. Repeat with the other half of the ingredients, and bake until the cheese is browned on top. I chose to put it under the broiler for a few minutes afterwards.

The best way to describe mămăligă is rich. All of that cornmeal layered with cheeses and sour cream and butter, and I could not eat very much in one sitting (also some advice: if you're just recovering from a Crohn's or colitis flare up, you might want to hold off on the mămăligă, or else just eat a wee bit). It's a good if heavy accompaniment to ghiveci, and a nice complement to your meatball ciorbă.

On to a new year and a new culture in my quest to better know cuisines I know little about. Since it is cold and snowy here, more so than I ever remember in December, I'm really jonesin' for warmth. So my next stop is taking me to the tropics. Just where I'm not telling yet.

Sources of recipes:

Romanian Cook Book, by Anisoara Stan (1951: Castle, Secaucus, NJ); republished 1969, 1983 - ciorbă de perisoare cu carne, vegetable ghiveci

The Illustrated Food and Cooking of Poland, Russia and Eastern Europe: Discover the Cuisines of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine, Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkans, edited by Lesley Chamberlain (2009: Lorenz Books, London, England, UK) - general background on Romanian cuisine

The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors, by Jeff Smith (1990: William Morrow & Company, New York, NY) - mămăligă


irina said...

Hi there, Baltimore Snacker!

I really enjoyed the three posts on Romanian cooking. (You know, when you come from a slightly obscure country, it's exciting to see that anyone's curious about it.)

I thought I'd write with two things. First, you might enjoy my blog, . I tried just to focus on Romanian food at the beginning, but that proved too hard a task. Still, I do put up Romanian recipes or little notes about Romanian food.

Second, a note about mamaliga. You really don't have to bake it. The classic way I've had it is this: serve the mamaliga on a plate, and let each person add butter, feta, and sour cream as they wish. As a side, add an egg, sunny side up. While mamaliga is most delicious when covered in all the fatty, dairy goodness, that stuff isn't actually necessary -- a pat of butter and some salt would do as well, and wouldn't be so fattening.

John said...

Irina: Thanks for the info about mamaliga. I did no know I could kick down the fattiness a notch or two so I a glad to know this! I'm glad you liked it and will check out your blog.

irina said...

John, I just thought of another reason why you should *not* bake the mamaliga with all the dairy on it! Part of the pleasure of mamaliga (at least, the way we always ate it) is the contrast between the hot mamaliga and the cold feta and sour cream. Baking it together takes it into cheese grits territory, and while I'm sure that's tasty, you don't get that wonderful, refreshing contrast!