Dracula Romanticism

2008.Aug.28 Thursday · 2 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

 Romania has the majestic castles, medieval towns, great hiking and wildlife, and cheap skiing of much of the ‘undiscovered’ former Eastern Bloc…. Horse-drawn carts jostle for space against fast cars whose drivers are talking money on mobile phones; farm workers watch The Apprentice on satellite in their medieval farmhouses. No longer the weird kid of Europe it was under Ceausescu’s despotic tutelage, Romania is now making new friends and passed the entrance exams for NATO and the European Union with flying colours.”

– Lonely Planet

Buenos Aires – It was time to celebrate the “weird kid of Europe’s” birthday – or at least “Liberation Day”. Romania, or rather the independent states of Moldavia and Wallachia, secured their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1856, unified in 1859, shortly thereafter changed their joint name to Romania, and were recognized internationally as an independent country in 1878, 130 years ago this past weekend. While Transylvania became a part of Romania until WWI, the two are often linked, though, I didn’t once think of Dracula during the planning of this meal. It just never occurred to me. I was too busy trying to figure out… well… how to make Romanian food interesting… to be quite honest.

I am sometimes drawn to odd sounding dishes, and limbǎ cu mǎsline, or beef tongue with black olives, was certainly one of those. And while I toyed with the idea of it being the main course, I first relegated it to our third course, as the hot appetizer, and later, to first position, as the cold. Why? After all, it’s a traditionally hot dish, no? Of course it is, we all know that. I just had this idea, all of the sudden, and it gave me a chance to use one of those lingering ideas from the cocina de vanguardia class I took last year.

But tongue? Ewww… I hear the squeals from hither, thither and yon. But come on, over the last year we’ve served intestines and glands of one sort or another and not one peep. Really, not one. Put tongue on the menu and you’d think I’d suggested an evening of ritual cannibalism. Still, no one cancelled their reserevation because tongue was on the menu… I think. I mean, a few people did cancel and gave other reasons… hmm… No matter, their loss, really. Let’s just put it this way, one local acquaintance who came Friday, assuring me (and throwing down the gauntlet) that he liked neither Romanian food nor tongue based on past experiences, called me Saturday morning to ask if he could come back a second night and bring a friend! He ate his whole portion of tongue. Both nights.

Veal Tongue with Black Olive Gelee

Though the original recipe called for beef tongue, I thought lamb’s tongue might be nicer for an appetizer. But none was to be found. My butcher who normally comes through for odd requests assured me he could get some, but called to say all he could get was veal tongue. We went with that. It’s surprisingly easy to cook. Though the recipe called for tongue simply boiled for several hours in plain salted water, then covered with a sauce made from olives and various other things, I decided that the various other things would go into the pot while it cooked. So – water, white wine, wine vinegar, garlic, tomato pulp, bay leaf, ginger, salt and black peppercorns all went into the pot with four lovely (not so…) veal tongues, which I brought to boil, turned down to low heat, covered, and left for four hours. Then I removed the tongues, let them cool a bit, peeled off the skin (very easy after cooking, don’t try it beforehand), chilled them, sliced them… and served them with black olive gelee – not coated like an aspic as some perhaps feared. No, interleaved with slices of the gelee. I took a cup of pitted black olives, tossed them in the blender with just under two cups of water, a tablespoon of horseradish, a half teaspoon of ground bay leaf and salt. I pureed that for a minute, then strained it through a fine mesh into a small saucepan, adjusted the seasoning (do it while it’s cold, because it’s going to be cold when you serve it) added four teaspoons of gelatin powder, brought to the point of a boil, stirring regularly, then poured it into a flat casserole dish, giving me a layer about ¼” deep, and stuck it in the refrigerator to gel. When done, I cut little rounds, interleaved them with the tongue slices, and decorated the plate with… a little rendered duck fat and some ground bay leaf.

Dumpling & Vegetable Soup

There’s nothing quite like good chicken broth. Nothing. A simple broth here made with chicken wings (or thighs work well too), browned with roughly cut up carrots, celery, onion, garlic, one hot pepper, some peppercorns, a couple of bay leaves and a handful of parsley stems. When nicely browned, add water to the top of the pot, bring it to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook for about 2-3 hours until it’s richly flavored. Strain into another pot, add in diced carrots, celery, onions, and potato, and cook until the vegetables are just done. Meanwhile, making the dumplings – 1 cup flour, 1 egg, 1 egg yolk, 5½ teaspoons milk, ¾ teaspoon salt, dash of nutmeg, 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley leaves. Mix all of that together to form a smooth paste. Bring a pot of salted water to a rapid boil and using little spoons (demitasse spoons work great), scoop in small spoonfuls right into the water (two spoons makes it easy, one to scoop, one to scrape it into the water). The blobs will sink, but then as they cook will slowly puff up and suddenly leap to the surface. When all the dumplings are floating on the surface, let them continue to cook for another two minutes, then strain, and add them to the soup.

Oyster mushroom stuffed grapeleaves

I’ve talked before about how to make stuffed grape leaves, these follow the same process, just with a different filling. I sauteed diced oyster mushrooms and sunflower seeds in olive oil with salt, white pepper, and a good amount of both sweet and hot paprika. I mixed that with uncooked rice and lots of chopped dill, then stuffed the grape leaves and cooked them in a mushroom and garlic broth. We served them still hot with sour cream mixed with ground dill seed. You can’t say no to these!

Mosaic Schnitzel

Who doesn’t love a good weiner schnitzel? Or milanesa as they’re called here, or for that matter, a chicken fried steak? The unusual thing about a mosaic şniţel, or mosaic schnitzel, is that it’s done in layers – generally of one or two out of three white meats – pork, chicken, veal – sandwiched around a mushroom and/or vegetable filling. I considered going all out and doing a thin layer of all three, but decided on just chicken breast and pork loin, pounded thin, sandwiched around a pine mushroom duxelles. Then the “sandwich” is dipped in flour that’s seasoned with salt and smoked paprika, then into beaten eggs, and then into breadcrumbs mixed with grated lemon peel and chopped oregano. They’re laid on a lightly oiled sheet pan, a little more oil drizzle or spritzed atop, and baked in a hot oven for 20 minutes. We served them up with a potato and turnip puree and some sauteed zucchini. Nice and juicy, and so much more flavorful than a plain old milanesa…

"Joffre" Cheesecake

Shortly after World War I, the most famous cafe in Bucharest, Cafe Capşa, received a visit from French general Joseph Joffre, and “invented” a cake in honor of his visit. It’s a chocolate – coffee – buttermilk layer cake, with dark chocolate ganache between the layers, and covered with a chocolate buttercream. It’s pretty much a deadly pièce de résistance or perhaps more accurately de no résistance, since unless you’re one of those odd people who won’t eat chocolate, this one is probably up there in the ultimate cocoa based cakes. I turned it into one of our cheesecakes, with a cocoa crust, a chocolate – coffee – buttermilk cheesecake layer, and a topping of dark chocolate ganache. Need one say more?

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