Sarmale de Post cu Nuca in Foi de Vita | Walnut and Veggies Stuffed Dolmades

The spring has finally arrived, and Easter is just around the corner. The recipe presented here has its roots in the observance of Lent, during which time the chef of the house might prepare a vegetarian stuffed dolmades. My mom certainly did. I remember her preparing one of two basic variations: filled either with only rice, or with a mixture of rice and finely-chopped mushrooms. As you might imagine, both are simple and neither taste like much. This might serve as a reminder that you are sacrificing something (meat) during Lent. However, one should also have the option to give up meat without giving up the flavor.

We have two main types of 'sarmale' in Romania, where I am originally from: some are rolled in pickled cabbage leaves and others are rolled in young vine leaves. While the stuffing is usually similar for the two, that's pretty much the only thing they have in common: the former are usually sweet and sour (sweet from the meat and tomato sauce and sour from the pickled cabbage leaves and/or sauerkraut), while the latter have a very distinctive texture from the thin vine leaves. The latter is a special treat around Easter and during the spring in general, once the vine leaves are fresh and tender.

 - One red bell pepper
 - Half a cup of olive oil
 - One onion
 - One large head of garlic
 - One bunch of dill
 - One bunch of parsley
 - One 14 oz can of diced tomatoes
 - One 14 oz can of tomato sauce
 - Four eggs
 - One red beet
 - One cup of rice
 - Two medium-sized squash
 - One pound of shelled walnuts
 - One pound of fresh vine leaves (or marinated, if it is the only option)
 - Spices: salt, pepper, thyme, paprika, bay leaves

 - Bring two cups of water to a boil. Rinse the rice separately, then add it to the boiling water, reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid, and keep on cooking for 20 minutes. Make sure the pot you use is large enough to allow the rice to expand without overflowing. When ready, gently stir in the rice with a fork to increase its fluffiness. Set aside and let it cool.
 - Meanwhile, boil the red beet (about 30 minutes). Peel and set it aside to cool down (you can submerge it under cold water to speed up the process). Once you can handle it, shred it through a grater.
 - While the rice and the beet are cooking, peel the carrots and squashes and shred them through the grater. Also, mince the red bell pepper and the walnuts (no meat in this recipe, but walnuts add some proteins).
 - Peel and mince the onion and the garlic head.
 - Add the bell pepper, onion, and carrots to a pan, add a bit of oil, and fry on medium heat for 5-10 minutes. This helps bring out the flavors.
 - Break and beat the four eggs, separately.
 - Chop the dill and parsley.
 - Now to mixing everything: in a large pot, mix the rice, shredded beet, bell pepper, onion, carrots, garlic, olive oil, chopped dill and parsley, tomato sauce, eggs, walnuts, and squashes. Add salt, pepper, thyme and paprika, to taste. This forms the tasty filling for our dish.
 - Coat a large pot with a bit of oil. This is where the cooking will happen, and we don't want to dish to stick to the bottom. Please a few bay leaves at the bottom of the pot, for flavoring.
 - Take one grape leave at a time. Place a tablespoon or more of the filling in the center (or more, depending on the size of the grape leave). Carefully wrap the leave around such that the filling cannot escape. Place carefully in the pot, and pack them tightly. Proceed to the next grape leave (expect the process to take a while, the exact amount depending on your dexterity).
 - Mix the can of diced tomatoes with water in a separate bowl. Pour the mixture over the sarmale into the cooking pot. If needed, add more water until the sarmale rest under about half an inch of liquid (some of this liquid will evaporate during cooking).
 - Cover, and bake at 400F for one hour.
 - Enjoy hot, usually with bread, sour cream, and maybe a hot red pepper (if you like your food spicy).

 - The dish requires ample preparation time, so it's not very common (usually reserved for guests or special occasions). I find the best presentation to come from the number and the pattern formed by the tightly packed sarmale in the dish, so I usually pick a nice pot to cook the dish in, then serve them directly from the pot. Even if I transfer them to a plate, I think the best presentation involves a large plate that accommodates a good number of sarmale.
 - If you feel something is missing in just numbers and pattern, it's probably color (cooked grape leave are not very colorful). Consider adding some fresh colors: red (a hot pepper or some paprika), white (sour cream), and maybe greens (e.g. a branch of fresh thyme). Alternatively, you can use dill instead of thyme, but I'd chop it and mix with the sour cream, such that it pops up more.

Peach Caprese Salad | Salata Caprese cu Piersici

Have you found delicious tomatoes and peaches in your garden, and are looking for the perfect summer recipe? This salad is one of my family's favorites: juicy, soft, and flavorful. Give it a try and it might become your favorite too!

The dish is quite simple and it involves no cooking (provided you already have the balsamic glaze). And, as with most simple recipes, the secret is in using high quality ingredients: make sure the peaches and the tomatoes are ripe, juicy, and sweet.

 - Two or three ripe tomatoes
 - One of two juicy peaches (nectarines work equally well)
 - A few fresh basil leaves
 - Preferably one or two pieces of burrata cheese, or mozzarella cheese in its absence
 - Balsamic glaze
 - Olive oil
 - Salt and pepper

 - Wash the tomatoes and the peaches, and cut in slices or cubes of roughly the same size.
 - Add the burrata or mozzarella cheese.
 - Tear the basil leaves and scatter them on top.
 - Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper.
 - Finally, drizzle olive oil and balsamic glaze over the salad.

 - I prefer burrata over mozzarella cheese for this salad. The former is soft and mushy, and looks most presentable in one piece (which I like to slice in the center to reveal the creamy interior). If you're using the latter, you can easily cut it into pieces (about the same size as the tomatoes and peaches), and then evenly scatter them throughout.
 - The balsamic glaze contributes a bold flavor and nice strong pattern on top of this colorful dish, and as such should be added as the last step. If you're missing glaze, you can prepare it from balsamic vinegar by following these easy steps: bring balsamic vinegar to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes, and finally let cool before using.

Romanian Beef Tripe Soup | Ciorba de Burta

This post presents a delicious and fairly unique authentic soup from my home country Romania. Informally, we call this "the queen of soups", and it is considered a rare delicacy. It is sweet, sour and garlicky, with many other subtle flavors that blend together under the surface. The soup is so simple that many of these aromas are magical: the guests are left wondering where they all come from when the dish seems to only have water, tripe, and a couple of vegetables. The obvious answer is that all these mysterious flavors come from the chef's artful technique, which is the explanation I usually go with. Serve hot with a pickled hot pepper, and it will provide an unforgettable experience for you and your guests.

 - Two pounds of beef bones (optionally with a bit of meat). I prefer beef shanks or short ribs
 - Six pounds of beef trip (honeycomb)
 - One celery root (peeled, whole)
 - Two parsnips (peeled, whole)
 - Two squash (peeled, whole)
 - Three yellow onions (peeled, whole)
 - Four carrots (peeled, whole)
 - 20 ounces of sour cream
 - Six egg yolks
 - Three heads of garlic (peeled)
 - Half a pound of pickled paprika or peppers (cut into stripes)
 - Five bay leaves

 - Cut the honeycomb tripe into strips. it's a fairly tedious process, so start early and see it to completion.
 - Boil the beef bones in about 2 gallons of water for an hour hour (or until any meat easily falls off the bone). Remove the froth regularly to keep the broth clear. When done, add the celery root, parsnips, onions, and carrots, and boil for another 45 minutes (or until you can easily pierce them with a fork).
 - Remove all bones from the broth, and discard them.  - Remove all vegetables from the broth. Save one carrot separately. You can use all others (minus that one carrot) separately for a boeuf salad, for example.
 - Add the tripe strips and boil for another hour (remove the froth regularly to keep the broth clear).
 - Separately, mix 20 oz sour cream with 6 egg yolks. Scoop one cup of hot broth and mix with the sour cream. Repeat this a few times until the temperature of the sour cream rises. Poor over the broth and mix thoroughly.
 - Mash the three heads of peeled garlic, and add to the soup
 - Finely mash the saved carrot, and add to the soup. This adds a beautiful orange tint to the soup.
 - Add the pickled pepper stripes and mix.
 - Stop the oven and set aside.
 - Serve hot, accompanied by slices of bread. You should also have some salt, pepper, vinegar, and garlic sauce ready for use.

 - The best presentation involves both color and texture. The honeycomb tripe has such a brilliant pattern, and you should try to stack a few pieces in the middle of the plate such that some of them show over the surface.
 - As for color, the pickled peppers tend to rise to the top, adding some beautiful red accents. This nicely complements the yellow and orange color of the soup.
 - Feel free to sprinkle some flakes of fresh parsley for a hint of green.

Fusion Garlic Sauce | Mujdei Taiwanez

Romanians love raw garlic with their food: you might know this by now if you've followed my recipes. One other thing I personally like is spiciness. I particularly felt in love with the spicy chili crisp used in the Chinese cuisine: it has crunchy texture, great flavor, and it always leaves me craving for more. One day, I thought about introducing this spice into a Romanian-Asian fusion dish. And what is more Romanian than our quintessential defense-against-vampires potion? So, there you have it: a traditional Romanian garlic sauce, with a generous drop of Asian spiciness, all brought together by an oriental sesame sauce.

 - Crushed garlic (two tablespoons)
 - Chopped parsley(two tablespoons)
 - Sesame sauce for shabu-shabu (four tablespoons)
 - Spicy chili crisp (two tablespoons)

I thought sharing a pic of the ingredients would ease finding them in stores, so here it is. You may want to look up the sesame sauce and the chili crisp in an Asian grocery store or online. I always use the Lao Gan Ma brand (it translates to Old Godmother, and she really knows how to do it well!).

 - Peel and crush a couple of garlic cloves.
 - Finely chop a bit of fresh parsley.
 - Now you have all the ingredients ready. The presentation looks better if they are not mixed yet, in my opinion.

 - Carefully place the ingredients in a smaller bowl. The ingredients have a nice variety of color, so you don't need to do much else.
 - I believe this recipe goes extremely well with a juicy meat, like a roasted chicken. For a fun presentation, you can sneak the garlic sauce bowl among chicken pieces on a larger plate (like in the photo above).

Creamy Soup of Vegetables and Chicken | Supa Crema de Legume cu Pui

My brother and I gave our mom a really hard time as kids, particularly when it came to her cooking: for one reason or another, we always thought everyone else cooked better than she did, and we never shied from expressing our expert opinions on the matter (truth be told, our mom was a fabulous cook, but it took us many years to realize that). At one point, we let her know that her soups cannot match the awesome delicacies served at our kindergarten. The reason was very simple: our lives were already full of hardships (like fighting over toys or screaming our lungs out), so she could not really expect us to have much energy left in us to also chew the vegetables in the soup. The amazing chefs at our kindergarten were aware of the complexities of a kid's life, and they created this amazing soup that had no vegetables to chew on (looking back, it was just water boiled with soup seasonings, almost nothing natural or nutritious). Our mom did not believe us at first, but after a few meals where we did not touch the soup, she decided to prepare a special soup for us, according to our specifications. The recipe below was her best attempt at creating a soup that is nutritious and healthy, while not having any vegetables nor meat in it.

In her unlimited wisdom, our mom selected a lot of lighter colored vegetables for the soup - it's easier to conceal a peeled summer squash or parsnip in a soup, then it is to achieve the same effect with a red bell pepper. She was a great cook, but she was not Harry Potter. After boiling everything, she mashed them individually and made them lost in the soup, which became very creamy as a result. Her biggest mistake was that she mashed them by hand, which allowed us to spot a few minute pieces of carrots upon careful examination of her creation. But the soup was too delicious, so we forgave our mom for her cunningness and we kept slurping her savory concoction.

Aside from being a great food for kids and a welcome change from a regular soup, this recipe is also great for situations where a loved one has difficulties chewing. For example, when he or she gets the wisdom teeth removed. Give it a try, and I assure you that your efforts towards preparing the dish would be greatly appreciated.

 - Two yellow bell peppers
 - Two summer squashes
 - Two celery sticks
 - One yellow onion
 - One carrot
 - One parsnips
 - Five or six potatoes
 - One small celery root
 - One and a half pounds of chicken (preferably with skin and bones - legs, wings, backs)
 - Spices: salt, a tablespoon of black peppercorns, four or five bay leaves

 - Wash, clean and peel the vegetables. Place them alongside the chicken in a large pot.
 - Add one gallon of water, the black peppercorns and the bay leaves.
 - Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium, cover, and continue cooking for an hour and a half.
 - Remove from heat.
 - Pick the vegetables and place them separately.
 - Pick the chicken pieces. Separate the meat and discard the bones and the skin.
 - Sift the soup through a cheesecloth, and discard the bay leaves and the peppercorns - they already added flavor to the soup.
 - Run the vegetables (minus the carrot) and the chicken meat through the blender (use some of the soup to get it going). Mash the carrots separately: similarly to my mom's original recipe, I like to see very small pieces of the carrot in the soup, and not really a puree of it (which would change the color of the soup).
 - Finally, mix the vegetables and chicken with the remaining soup. Add salt to taste.
 - Serve warm.

 - Place the soup in a nice colorful bowl for serving. I prefer a red or orange bowl, as it matches the occasional small pieces of carrots in the soup.
 - Garnish with croutons and chopped parsley to add further color and texture.

Authentic Romanian Homemade Borsch | Borş De Casă

Sour soups are so common in Romanian cuisine that they have their own name - 'ciorbe' (singular: 'ciorbă'). I've previously detailed two such delicious recipes: Sour Beef Soup and Meatball Soup, if you'd like to give them a try (if you fear the sourness, plan to complement the flavors with a bit of cream for extra smooth richness). There are a few alternatives to make the soups sour, including using lemons or sauerkraut juice. But by far the most authentic approach is to use a special ingredient named "borsch".

I have never seen borsch being homemade in Romania - my mom always bought it from someone else. Once I moved to the United States of America, I learned of three approaches to procuring this ingredient. The most common one was to give up on the idea of getting it, and use lemons instead (we'd do this sometimes in Romania as well, though it's not really authentic as lemons don't even grow in the country in the first place). The second approach was to bring concentrated packages of borsch from back home, which cooks would ration to last them until their next trip over. Finally, some courageous hearts would pack a few litters of borsch in their checked in luggages, then fly them over - uncommon but not unheard of. In the past, I usually opted for the first approach - it does satisfy the craving. I recently decided that there should be an easy recipe for authentic homemade borsch. The preparation is primarily hands off and takes a few days, at the end of which you will be the proud owner for several litters of an authentic ingredient for your soups. Oh, and did I mention that borsch has countless therapeutic benefits when ingested in and of itself?

Ingredients (makes about 3 liters of borsch):
 - Half a pound of unprocessed wheat bran
 - One slice of bread
 - Two tablespoons of coarse corn grits
 - One fresh celery stick
 - Five to ten twigs of fresh Italian parsley

 - You will need a large lidded jar (one or two gallons) for this recipe.
 - Tear the slice of bread into very small pieces, and drop them in the jar. Add two cups of wheat bran and two cups of water, then mix. Cover with the lid, and let sit for two days at room temperature (I find it handy to keep it in the kitchen, where the temperature is around 70-75F).
 - After two days, you will sense a sour smell when you lift the lid off the jar. You obtained the fermented bran base (it is called 'huște' in Romanian) for preparing the borsch.
 - Add the remaining wheat bran over this fermented bran, two tablespoons of corn grits, and three liters of warm water. Give it a though mix.
 - Cut the celery stick into two or three smaller pieces, and add them and the parsley twigs to the jar. Together, they will add extra flavor to the borsch.
 - Cover, and let sit for two to four days at room temperature. Stir regularly with a wooden spatula: this speeds up the fermentation process. I keep the jar in the kitchen, and every time I pass by and realize it's been more than an hour since I stirred last time, I give it another twirl. Also, sample occasionally with a spoon to learn when it is sour enough for your taste.
 - When ready, discard the celery and parsley. Sift the borsch through a cheesecloth. If you're not ready to use the filtered borsch immediately, you can safely keep it in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
 - Be sure to save the fermented bran in the fridge for up to a few weeks, and use it next time you want to prepare more borsch - the subsequent batches are usually more sour and flavorful than the first. For the same quantity of borsch, you'll only need half the quantity of base, so you can give half to a fellow cook. To prepare it from the fermented wheat bran, you skip the first two steps and save two days from the process: add about two cups of wheat bran, two tablespoons of corn meal, 3 litters of warm water, stir and be patient for a few days.

 - You will rarely need to present borsch in and of itself - most often, it'll go in a soup. There you go: problem solved.
 - I can think of two reasons you'd want to present this to someone: to drink it directly for its therapeutic effects, or to share it with a fellow enthusiastic cook. For such situations, I find it interesting to showcase it next to a jar where a fresh batch is being prepared. The reason is that, by itself, borsch looks just like a lemonade, while the bran and the yeast in the jar add an interesting texture to the presentation.
 - Another trick you can use to enhance the presentation is to sneak a slice of red beet into the jar, and keep it there until the borsch turns a pretty pink color. Remove the beet, be mysterious to your guests about where the color comes from, and enjoy the conversation.

Stuffed Peppers, Tomatoes, and Summer Squash | Ardei, Rosii, si Dovlecei Umpluti

I've seen stuffed bell peppers quite often here in the United States. That recipe has been always missing something, in my opinion. Back in Romania, we use a more varied selection of vegetables to be stuffed, and also a delicious wine-based sauce to make your taste buds dance with joy. A stuffed bell pepper is quite good, but you might be in the mood for a stuffed summer squash at the moment; or a stuffed tomato; or all of them combined. Why not? With this recipe, everything is possible.

There are a couple more changes in the recipe I present here. First, we Romanians love fattier meats - they are much smoother when cooked. To keep the recipe healthy, I use a lean ground meat (for example, ground turkey breast) which I combine with shredded squash pulp. It has the same effect. Second, we traditionally serve this recipe with sour cream. However, the recipe here features a savory creamy sauce instead, which perfectly complements the stuffed vegetables and can be used instead.

I hope you have a chance to try this authentic Romanian recipe, and I promise it will take you and your guests on a nice culinary adventure in the south-eastern parts of Europe.

Vegetables to be stuffed (they should all have about the same height)
 - Five small bell peppers
 - Five beef tomatoes
 - Five squash pieces (you'll need to cut them out from two or three larger summer squashes)
 - A pound and a half of lean ground meat
 - Half a cup of rice
 - One small summer squash
 - One large onion
 - One carrot
 - Spices: one tablespoon each of salt, pepper, thyme, and paprika
 - One cup of tomato sauce
 - One cup of sour cream
 - Two cups of white wine
 - Ten tablespoons of vegetable oil
 - Half a cup of fresh chopped parsley

 - Cut the tops of the bell peppers, and discard the seeds.
 - Cut the tops of the tomatoes, and carve out their centers.
 - Cut the large summer squashes into pieces (about the same height as the tomatoes and bell peppers). Remove their pulp and set it aside.
 - Now to preparing the stuffing. Finely dice the small summer squash, as well as whatever pulp is left from the larger summer squashes. Mix it with the meat.
 - Finely dice the carrot and the onion. Fry them in three tablespoons of oil for five minutes. Add half a cup of rice, stir, and cook for another couple of minutes. Let cool, then mix with the meat.
 - Add the spices (salt, pepper, thyme, and paprika) to the meat. Mix everything until uniform.
 - Next, stuff the vegetables with the meat mixture. Do leave a bit of space for the rice to expand (maybe enough space for another one tablespoon of mixture to fit in.
 - Now to cooking. We need to use a deep pot where the vegetables can be covered with water, but which can also be used both on top of the oven for boiling, and also inside of the oven for baking. If you don't have a single such pot, two smaller ones will do the job.
 - Coat the pot with the remaining vegetable oil.
 - Gently transfer the stuffed vegetables to the pot. They should be pretty close together, with not much space remaining in between.
 - Pour two cups of wine over the vegetable.
 - Add water to almost cover the stuffed vegetables (leave about half an inch).
 - Start cooking until the water is boiling. Cover with a lid while leaving a bit of space for the steam to escape. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook for 45 minutes. During this time, about half of the water should evaporate.
 - Finely dice the interiors of the tomatoes, and mix it with the tomato sauce and the sour cream. Add to the liquid in the pot and mix gently.
 - Place the pot in the oven (without the lid), and bake at 375F for 20 minutes.
 - Remove the dish from the oven, and sprinkle the chopped parsley on top. It is now ready to be served.

 - The dish as it comes out of the oven features a nice variety of colorful vegetables accompanied by the fresh green of the parsley. It also offers the guests a variety of options to choose from: do they prefer tomatoes, peppers, squash, or a piece of each and every one?
 - When serving, encourage the guests to cut each stuffed vegetable on their plate in two, open it up, and add sauce from the pot over the stuffing. This makes it extra moist, smooth, and delicious.

Baked Chicken with Bell Peppers and Garlic | Pui la Cuptor cu Ardei si Usturoi

My mom cooked this delicious dish a while back, and I loved the subtle garlic hints in the sauce and the juiciness of the meat. The recipe is simple, and the effect is grand. I've just prepared it for guests this past weekend, and got the ultimate compliment: folks using pieces of bread to not waste any single drop of the sauce in their plates.

 - Five or six chicken legs (drumsticks or thighs)
 - One bell pepper (or one cup of colorful bell pepper slices)
 - Eight ounces of tomato sauce
 - Four tablespoons of vegetable oil
 - Half a head of garlic, sliced
 - Spices: salt (half a teaspoon), pepper (half a teaspoon), thyme (half a teaspoon), paprika (half a teaspoon, optional)
 - Quarter cup of finely chopped parsley

 - Preheat the oven to 375F.
 - Coat a pan with oil. Add half of the tomato sauce, the chicken pieces, then the other half of the tomato sauce on top. Make sure the chicken pieces are nicely covered. Add the sliced bell pepper in between.
 - Sprinkle the pepper, thyme, and paprika. Save the salt for later.
 - Cover with aluminum foil, thoroughly; this helps preserve the juices. Bake for 45 minutes.
 - Remove the foil. Add the sliced garlic. Baste everything with the liquid in the pan. Add salt. Bake for another 20 minutes.
 - Remove from the oven, and sprinkle the chopped parsley on top.

 - Serve the dish as it comes out from the oven (it already features a great variety of colors: the red from the tomato sauce, the green from the parsley, and the color from the bell pepper slices).
 - Serve hot alongside mashed potatoes or pasta, and possibly accompanied by pickles (Romanian style).

Rice Pilaf with Chicken | Pilaf cu Pui

This is one of the first recipes I learned to cook. I was freshly out of my parents' home, out of my country, far away from even the whole European continent: I was a newly enrolled graduate student in the United States. A week or two after landing on the American continent, I started craving for Romanian food. And boy, was it hard to find those delicacies in the area my school was in. I started asking my mom for easy recipes over the phone and over email, and this is one of the first she shared with me.

I did not know anything about cooking rice at that time. At the same time, my mom forgot to warn me that it grows in size tremendously: I guess that's something everyone should know, though I didn't. I was really excited to finally have some food from back home. So, I eyed the quantities for each ingredient in her recipe (slightly different from the one I detailed here), and I filled the pot with the ingredients (including the uncooked rice). And the rice started growing, to my great surprise. One pot of pilaf soon became two, then three. The dish tasted great in the end, just like it did back home. But I had so much of it in such a short time: I ate it for both lunch and dinner, most days, for the next week or so. As such, I really had enough of that taste, and I did not want to see it in front of me for a long time. It's been 15 years, and I finally craved for this dish again. And, as I prepared it, I thought I'd share the recipe with you as well. Hope you give it a try, and if you do, I hope you remember that rice triples in size when cooked.

Before I delve into the recipe, let me also mention that I consider this to be a difficult dish to prepare. The reason is that I like recipes that are more hands-off, where you can leave stuff in the oven or on the stove and not pay much attention to them (for example, I once started preparing the Fall-Off-The-Bone Baby Back Ribs, then I headed to the beach for a few hours of volleyball, only to come home and find the dish almost ready for eating). The rice pilaf takes significantly less time, but it requires one to watch it carefully, and to promptly remove it from heat when ready. The reason for this is that if you keep the rice cooking further, it absorbs more and more moist, it looses texture, and it ends up as a mush.

 - One onion
 - One red bell pepper
 - One carrot
 - One medium squash
 - Two tomatoes
 - One and a half cups of rice
 - Four or five chicken drumsticks
 - One and a half cups of white wine
 - Three cups of chicken broth
 - A quarter cup of freshly chopped parsley
 - A quarter cup of olive oil (or half a stick of butter)
 - Spices: salt, pepper

 - Preheat the oven to broil or highest heat available; we will need this for the final step.
 - Finely chop the onion, bell pepper, carrot, squash, and tomato. Also finely chop the parsley, but save separately for later.
 - Place the oil (or melt the butter) in a pan, add the chicken drumsticks, and cook on low heat until the chicken changes color (about five minutes). Add the chopped onion, bell pepper, carrot, squash, and spices (salt and pepper) to taste. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes, and set aside.
 - Place the wine in a pot, add the rice, and cook on low heat for 5 minutes. Only stir gently and occasionally to make sure the rice does not stick to the bottom.
 - Add the chicken broth over the rice, together with the chicken and the vegetables (also, transfer the oil they were cooked in, as well as any juices there might be: they all help make the recipe flavorful and smooth). Add also most of the chopped parsley (keep a bit for the end). Mix gently. Continue cooking on low heat for another 10 minutes. Try a bit of rice, and cook for a few extra minutes if it still feels undercooked.
 - Make sure the pieces of chicken are at the top. Transfer the dish to the preheated oven, and cook until the chicken gets a nice crust and a beautiful color to the top of the dish. When ready, remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes. This final step allows the rice to become more moist and flavorful.
 - Use a fork to gently fluff up the rice. Then sprinkle the final bit of chopped parsley on top, for extra color.

 - The dish looks great in and of itself: an ocean of white rice, with occasional colorful accents from the red bell pepper, carrot, tomatoes, and parsley.
 - If you managed to brown the chicken a bit as well, the presentation should be perfect.

A Renaissance Feast | Iahnie de Fasole cu Ciolan Afumat

I've dreamed of preparing a Renaissance dish ever since I visited a Renaissance Festival in the United States. I noticed that one of the most popular (and more unusual) foods there was the turkey drum, and that was a good starting point. One challenge was to make it tender and moist: this is achieved through slow simmering followed by a quick broil. And what can go better next it, other than some smooth flavorful beans?

 - One big smoked turkey drum or two smaller ones
 - One each of a small yellow squash, carrot, onion, and parsnip, or half of bigger ones
 - One pound of beans
 - Four or five garlic cloves
 - Four tomatoes
 - Cooking oil
 - A bunch of parsley
 - Spices: a tablespoon of thyme, six to eight bay leaves (depending on size), salt, pepper (whole and ground), chili pepper

 - Put the smoked turkey in about a gallon of water (they should be completely covered). Add three or four bay leaves and a teaspoon of whole black pepper seeds (if you have any). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let simmer for two hours and a half - this helps the drums get moist and tender. When you see the meat start to fall off the bone, place in a tray with a bit of oil and broil in the oven for a few minutes - this should add a nice red tint to the presentation. Note: we're not planning to cook in the oven, just to give it the color, so use the highest temperature possible and keep an eye on the meat. Also, do not discard the water where the turkey simmered - it is a great base for a soup or a stew.
 - We will prepare the beans while the turkey is cooking. We need one pot and one extra large pan. Place the beans in the pot, cover them in water, bring to a boil, then discard the water. Repeat this five times - it helps eliminate whatever makes beans gassy.
 - Meanwhile, finely dice the carrot, parsnip, onion, yellow squash, tomatoes, and garlic cloves. Place them in a pan with half a cup of cooking oil, and simmer on low heat while the beans are cooking. We want them to almost become a puree - it adds a delicious base for the recipe and keeps everyone guessing how you achieved the flavor with no apparent help.
 - Once the beans have boiled in five waters, drain them, and add them to the simmering vegetables. Add about four bay leaves, a tablespoon of thyme, salt, pepper, and a a touch of chili pepper (to taste). Transfer a cup of water from the smoked turkey pot (for extra flavor), mix, and continue simmering for half an hour.
 - When the beans with vegetables are cooked, add some chopped parsley, mix, and remove from heat. Or save the parsley to decorate at serving time (either works equally well).
 - Serve the beans alongside the turkey legs, while they're still hot.

 - Sprinkle finely chopped dill on top of the dish to add an extra splash of freshness to the presentation.
 - We love beans with fresh onions (or scallions) in Romania; they really go well together.
 - Serve alongside a cold beer. I wish I had my stein handy when I took the picture.
 - If you really want to go all in, consider handholding the drums while serving, and make barbaric sounds of enjoyment to show the cook how much you appreciate devouring the dish. I'm sure the kids would love this part.

Orange Cream Cake | Tort de Portocale

This is one of my favorite desserts: it is light, creamy, fresh, and not as overly sweet as many dessert you can buy here in the US. I also love its presentation: a contrast between fresh orange slices and a simple solid cream. In the past, I just waited for someone to prepare and serve it along, and then I would have my taste buds jump up and down with joy. But now I decided it is time to learn how to prepare this dessert myself. Here is the recipe, if you want to give it a try.

 - Four egg yellows
 - One cup of sugar
 - Two cups of heavy whipped cream
 - Five or six oranges
 - One lemon
 - One cup of milk
 - Two teaspoons of vanilla essence
 - Two packages of gelatin (7 grams each)
 - 150 grams of ladyfingers

 - To start, place a deep (preferably metal) bowl in the freezer: we need it cold to prepare the whipping cream.
 - If you're starting with whole eggs, then separate the yellows from the whites. We won't be using the whites for this recipe - feel free to use them to prepare a healthy omelette or another dessert (how about a Raspberry Foam?).
 - Whisk the yellows with the sugar, then mix with the milk and juices from a lemon and an orange until uniform. Place in a pot on medium heat, and bring to a boil while stirring frequently. The milk loves to bubble up and make a mess on the oven, so keep an eye on it.
 - Meanwhile, mix the gelatin in three tablespoons of water, and let stand for two or three minutes. Add a quarter of a cup of hot water, and mix thoroughly until all the gelatin has dissolved. Pour over the hot milk in the pot, and stir until uniform. Remove from heat, and let cool until it thickens. I usually place the pot in an ice water bath until it reaches room temperature, then transfer the pot to the fridge. We're looking for pudding-like consistency.
 - While the hot mixture is cooling off, you have time to whip the heavy cream. Remove the previously chilled bowl from the freezer. I use a mixer on high speed, and it takes less than 5 minutes to start seeing peaks forming. Add the vanilla essence, and mix until you can easily remove the whisk out of the cream and there is no dripping. Place the whipped cream in the fridge until it is needed. As a note, proper whipped cream could have also used three or four tablespoons of powdered sugar (added in at the same time as the vanilla). But we will combine the whipped cream with the milk mixture, which already has plenty of sugar, so we can skip on adding extra sugar to the whipped cream.
 - Once the milk mixture has reached a pudding-like consistency and the whipped cream is ready, we can go to the final steps of the preparation. We will use a large pot, and we will flip the cake upside down when firm; so whatever goes to the bottom of the pot will become to top of the cake. Coat the pot with a bit of oil, then stretch a layer of plastic foil all around: this will help us flip over the cake without any pieces sticking to the pot. Also, make sure the plastic foil extends past the top of the pot - this will help remove it once we flip the cake over.
 - Extract the juice from one orange and set separately. Feel free to add a splash or rum or amaretto to the orange juice, if you feel adventurous.
 - Peel and slice the remaining oranges, then place them on the bottom and along the side of the pot. This will bring beautiful fresh orange accents to the presentation (see photo above).
 - Once the previous step is ready, quickly combine the chilled milk mixture with the whipped cream. Place about half of it over the orange slices. Dip half of the lady fingers in orange juice, the place the over the cream close to one another. Gently press them in. Continue with another layer of cream, and one more of lady fingers (also dipped in orange juice). Make sure this final layer is pressed into the cream such that it is as flat as possible: remember that we will flip the cake over, and the cake might break if its bottom has ridges.
 - Cover the cake pot with a layer of plastic foil, and refrigerate overnight.

 - For presentation, we will first flip the cake over. Start by removing the top layer of plastic foil. Pick a nice flat plate, place it centered and faced down over the cake pot, then quickly flip the pot over. The final step is to carefully remove the remaining plastic foil.
 - I love the presentation in and of itself: a clean white cake with beautiful orange accents.
 - A few flowers can further add a nice touch of color to the presentation.

Cozonac | Sweet Romanian Bread

Cozonac is one of the festive dishes we enjoy on special occasions in Romania, be it Christmas, New Years Eve, Easter, or a wedding. I remember one of the signs that the holidays are here is when the unique fragrance of cozonac has reached every corner of the home, starting in the kitchen and ending in the living room. The preparation is fairly intensive, but the results are certainly worth the effort, especially if they remind you of festivities or traditions.

An overview of the recipe, and the keys to getting it right.
I was used to the baking another fluffy cake named pandispan: the key to keeping it fluffy is to whisk the eggs until they become airy, then gently introduce the flour into the mix (see that recipe for details). Cozonac is different in that it uses yeast to create the fluffiness, and the process is very different. Baking with yeast requires three key steps: (a) activating the yeast, (b) keeping it at proper temperatures (not too cold nor too hot), and (c) creating a proper environment for it to grow. Let’s talk about each of these in more details.
  (a) First of all, you need to activate the yeast. Think of the yeast as being asleep (this helps preserve its properties on the shelf for a longer period of time), and you need to wake it up such that it helps your recipe grow. The process is simple: yeast is easily activated in the presence of sugar and warm water or milk. I mix yeast and sugar in equal proportions, then I add water warm enough such that I can comfortably hold a finger in it. If everything goes well, expect to see a froth forming on top of the liquid. If you don’t get this step right, then your yeast won’t be active and your dough will most likely not rise - you're better of stopping here and just retrying this step.
  (b) Think of handling yeast as of playing with a delicate kid. If the temperature is low, the kid might catch a cold. If too hot, that won't work either. It is the same with yeast: you want to keep a nice warm temperature, both in the air and also on the surfaces that it touches (for example, the working surface where you handle the dough). I remember that back in my childhood, my mom would raise the temperature in the entire kitchen when cooking this recipe - this helped keep the yeast ready for action.
  (c) Once we put together the dough, we expect the yeast to grow. If the yeast is active, if we kept it at an appropriate temperature so far, and if we plan to keep it at an appropriate temperature from now on, then this should not be a far-off expectation. And still, I’ve followed these steps several times in the past and ended up with a dough that did not grow much. What happened? The answer lies in another important step: kneading. As I had the pandispan recipe fresh in my mind, I took it gently on the cozonac dough, and I kept my kneading short and delicate. This was a mistake: kneading is paramount to getting cozonac right. The reason is that when flour and water are kneaded together, long strands of gluten form from the expansion of certain proteins. These strands allow the growing yeast to easily stretch the dough and form bubbles of air, which is the key to achieving a fluffy cozonac. An effective kneading is simple: press the dough, stretch it, fold it back, and repeat. What is not so simple is doing it for over half an hour (stories of moms kneading for one to two hours are not uncommon). At this point, you may consider buying a mixer with dough hooks to help with the process, particularly if you plan to do this often.

That’s it. A detailed list of ingredients and the preparation instructions are described next. With these in hand, you should feel empowered to prepare cozonac whenever you’re craving for it. No more thinking that you need ‘Romanian’ flour to get it right, and postponing until you actually find it (which is pretty much never). No more paying ridiculous sums to satisfy a craving: I ended up paying $42 a year ago for a cozonac half the size of what I can now do for $5. No more holidays without the house filled with the delicious cozonac smell. Enjoy!

 - One cup of whole milk
 - Two and a half teaspoons of active dry yeast
 - Three cups of sugar
 - Eight eggs
 - Three cups of ground walnuts
 - Two sticks of unsalted butter (about 225 grams, or a cup when melted)
 - Two tablespoons of rum essence
 - Two tablespoons of orange peel
 - Four tablespoons of oil
 - One tablespoon of coffee powder
 - A quarter of a cup of cocoa powder
 - Five and a half cups of unbleached bread flour (I prefer the King Arthur Flour brand)
 - Pinch of salt
 - Optional: one cup of raisins or cubed turkish delight pieces

 - Mix two and a half teaspoons of active dry yeast with two and a half teaspoons of sugar. Add a cup of heated whole milk (the temperature should be such a way that you can place a finger inside and comfortably hold it in there). Let sit for 30 minutes: this helps activate the yeast. When ready, you should see froth formed at the surface the milk.
 - Meanwhile, coat two loaf pan with butter. Melt the remaining butter on low temperature and allow it to cool to room temperature.
 - Carefully break the eggs and separate the whites from yellows as follows: one cup with two yellows, one cup with six yellows, and two cups with four whites each.
 - Whisk four egg whites, then incorporate a tablespoon of rum essence, and whisk until uniform.
 - Whisk six egg yellows until their color lightens up, then gradually incorporate a cup and a quarter of sugar and a tablespoon of orange peel. Whisk until uniform.
 - Sift the flour in a large bowl and add a pinch of salt.
 - Once the half an hour has passed and the yeast is activated in the milk, quickly mix it with the melted butter and with the whisked egg whites and yellows. Pour this over the sifted flour. Mix with a wooden spoon until uniform.
 - Now to kneading: here's where you'll have to use your hands instead of the wooden spoon. Coat your hands in oil, and start turning and ponding the dough. Periodically coat your arms with oil again and again until you use all the four tablespoons of oil - this prevents the dough from sticking to your hands, while also making the cozonac more moist. Continue kneading for at least 30 minutes.
 - Once kneading is done, place the dough in a warm environment (near the oven should work), cover with a towel, and let stand for 45 minutes. This is a good time to put together the filling (next step).
 - Whisk the other four egg whites, then gradually incorporate a cup and a quarter of sugar. Gently sift a quarter cup of cocoa powder and mix it in. Add a tablespoon of rum essence, one of orange peel, and one of coffee powder. Finally, add three cups of ground walnuts. Mix everything and set aside.
 - Once the kneaded dough has stayed for 45 minutes (it also hopefully grew in size to some degree), cut it in two: we will be making two cozonacs. Take each half and flatten it with a rolling pin. Add a thin layer of the filling, and optionally the raisins or turkish delight pieces. Roll tightly from two opposite sides such that clean dough meets in the middle: it helps to keep the filling in during cooking. Seal the two ends and gently twist it around - this gives it a more interesting shape when cooking. Place each twisted roll inside a loaf pan (previously coated with butter). Cover with a cloth towel and let sit for one hour in a warm place.
 - Finally, use the two remaining egg yellows to coat the cozonacs, sprinkle the leftover sugar on top, and optionally decorate the top with walnut halves. Place them on the lowest shelf in an unheated oven. Set the temperature to 325F and start the cooking process. Note that the cozonacs will continue to grow in size as the dough raises. Do not open the door while they are cooking, particularly during the first half an hour - hopefully your oven has an internal light and a glass front door that allows you to peek in without opening. Start keeping an eye on the cozonacs after about 25 minutes of cooking. You want their tops to have a pleasant reddish brown color: once this happens, cover them with aluminum foil, and keep cooking. The total cooking time is about an hour after the oven reaches 325F. To check when they are ready: stick a toothpick all the way in, remove it, and check that it is clear and dry. If not ready, cook for another five minutes, then check again.
 - Once the toothpick comes out dry and clear, turn off the heat and let the cozonacs stay in the oven for another 15 minutes. After all this, remove the cozonacs from the oven, cover them with a towel, and allow them to cook slowly. Do not cut them for the first 15-20 minutes after they were removed from the oven.

 - The top of the cozonacs looks beautiful, so they often don't need much help in the presentation. Alternatively, slices have intricate shapes of alternating bread and filling, with occasional spots of color from the turkish delight. A beautiful presentation in and of themselves.
 - A few fruits can further add color and freshness to the presentation.
 - Serve it alongside a glass of milk, or accompanied by a glass of wine.

Romanian Garlic Chicken Aspic | Piftie | Racitura

Back in the days, Romanian families would sacrifice a pig at the beginning of December, then use it to prepare all sorts of delicacies for the holidays. Nothing was left aside: we have a great variety of tasty recipes that use most parts (not only the meat). As such, the holidays season brings a lot of specific dishes that are not easily encountered throughout the rest of the year.

'Piftie' or 'racitura' is one prime example of such a recipe. It uses some of the meat, but most importantly the pig's feet. When boiled, the feet create a lot of gelatin, which causes the dish to thicken like a jello when cold. As it's not so easy to find pig feet abroad, and also as chicken or turkey are lighter and easier on the stomach, I present a variation of the recipe that can be easily prepared with fairly common ingredients. Note that I recommend using packaged gelatin: I used pigs feet in the past, but I found them to add some flavor that was out of place in combination with the chicken meat - gelatin does the job without adding any extra taste.

 - Three to four pounds of chicken legs or wings (you need a lot of bones and skin to add taste, and some meat)
 - One head of garlic, peeled and mashed
 - One carrot
 - One parsnip
 - One onion
 - Two celery stalks
 - Three bay leaves
 - One tablespoon of black pepper seeds
 - Gelatin (a few packages, depending on soup quantity left after boiling)
 - Salt
 - For decoration and serving: bread, mustard, parsley, radishes, scallions, bell peppers

 - Boil the chicken in water on medium heat for about two and a half hours. Discard the foam periodically to keep the soup clear.
 - Add the carrot, parsnip, onion, celery stalks, bay leaves, and black pepper seeds. Boil for another hour.
 - Add the mashed head of garlic, and fix for salt. If the soup is too greasy, then a layer of fat will form at the top - feel free to remove and discard it.
 - Now to thickening the soup. The chicken bones and skin are most likely insufficient to make the soup coagulate. If you want to check this: take a bit of soup in a jar, place in the fridge until it cools, and check its consistency. Most likely, you will need to add gelatin to thicken it. Check the instructions on your gelatin package, and use about two thirds the recommended gelatin proportion for making jello. For example, if the instructions tell to combine a package with a cup of water, then you want to use about two packages for three cups of soup. Check how much soup you have: I ended up with six-seven cups, so I used four packages of gelatin. Check the instructions on the package: I initially added the gelatin to a cup of soup, let it sit for about a minute, then I thoroughly mixed this with the rest of the soup.
 - Separately, pick the chicken meat, shred it, and set it aside. Also, save the carrot (for color). Discard the chicken bones, skin, and all other solid ingredients in the soup.
 - Select a few deep bowls. Place parsley and carrot pieces on their bottom, then add chicken meat on top. Carefully add the soup over, but filter it through a tea strainer to make it as clear as possible.
 - Let it refrigerate overnight.

 - When ready to serve, remove one of more bowls with the dish from the fridge. Carefully flip them over onto flat plates: this upside-down soup with smooth edges is a most dramatic presentation.
 - Feel free to use extra parsley to garnish the dish.
 - Serve with bread, mustard, and fresh vegetables (radishes, scallions, or bell peppers). Feel free to use some of them to further improve the presentation.


I was introduced to lentils in an Ethiopian restaurant many year ago, and I felt enamoured with their unique flavor and consistency. I did not know how to cook them for a long time, until I finally experimented and found a recipe I love: a savory combination of lime and cumin, masterfully complemented by aromas of fried garlic and ginger.

Ingredients (about 10 servings):
 - Two cups of lentils (mixed, yellow, or red preferred)
 - One red bell pepper
 - One onion
 - Ten baby carrots
 - A head of garlic
 - Ginger (about a third the quantity of garlic)
 - Juice from one lime
 - Half a cup of olive oil
 - Spices: salt, pepper, cumin, chili pepper flakes

 - Wash the lentils, then soak them in water overnight. Note that the lentils will grow in size, so allow for extra water: I use six cups of water to soak two cups of lentils.
 - Clean and chop the bell pepper, baby carrots, onion, garlic, and ginger. Keep the garlic and ginger separately.
 - Heat the olive oil in a cooking pot on medium heat. Add the chopped bell pepper, baby carrots, and onion, and fry for two-three minutes while stirring occasionally.
 - Add the garlic and the ginger, and fry for another couple of minutes.
 - Drain the soaked lentils, and eventually run them through some clean water if you want to. Add them to the frying pot, and add five cups of clean water. Stir and make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 25 minutes.
 - Add salt, pepper, cumin, and a touch of chili pepper flakes. Cover, and continue simmering until it reaches the desired consistency (about 10 minutes).
 - Remove from heat when ready, then add the lime juice.
 - Serve warm or hot.

 - I like the lentils when they're creamy, but the mush does not have the most interesting color. Fortunately, the red bell pepper and carrot chunks sprinkle color pops throughout the dish. I presented the recipe in a bowl that matches them in color.
 - A couple of slices of lime can be further used to garnish the dish: lime is one of the ingredients, and it adds a fresh green tint to the presentation.

Cajun Roasted Chicken | Pui la Cuptor cu Legume

The cajun roasted chicken is becoming my favorite dish for when I have guests coming over. One reason is that it's great looking - a big colorful piece of tender meat. It additionally allows for a smooth introduction to an exotic cuisine: I always serve this alongside an authentic Romanian garlic sauce. It also offers a lot of variety: some people like dark meat, some like white meat, there are vegetables, an adjustable degree of spiciness via the garlic sauce, and I usually add a few mushrooms next to the chick for vegetarians. Finally, it's very simple to prepare and does not require much attention: you basically spend 30 minutes to put together la pièce de résistance for the whole dinner (the rest of the preparation time is hands free while the bird is roasting in the over).

One more note on this recipe. The chicken as a whole is a big piece of meat, and many people find it challenging to choose the appropriate time and temperature such that the chicken is juicy yet properly cooked. This recipe presents a simple solution to the conundrum: cook the chicken covered to keep it moist while killing bacteria, then remove the cover to finish the preparation and to give the dish a nice color. This is the kind of easy trick that can help anyone prepare impressive meals.

 - One chicken (about 3 pounds)
 - Six or seven medium-sized red potatoes
 - Two carrots
 - One onion
 - One squash (optional)
 - One red bell pepper (optional)
 - A bunch of parsley
 - One beer
 - Cooking oil
 - Spices: salt, ground pepper, cajun spices

 - Preheat the oven to 450F.
 - Meanwhile, peel and dice the potatoes and carrots. Boil them for about 10-15 minutes.
 - Coat a 2 inches deep baking tray with a bit of cooking oil. Add the boiled potatoes and the carrots. Peel and dice an onion, and add it in (I've been told more than once that the onion in this recipe was the best tasting onion the guests have ever tasted). Optionally, dice a squash and a red bell pepper, and add them as well. Gently mix the vegetables until they're equally distributed: you don't want a corner with bell peppers and another one with the carrots - it just does not look as good in the presentation. Add salt and pepper over the vegetables.
 - Generously coat the chicken with cajun spices (both inside and outside). Place in the baking tray, over the vegetables.
 - Pour a can of beer inside the chicken and over the vegetables. It would be great if the vegetables are covered in beer (particularly the onion), but make sure the liquid is not all the way to the top of the tray: there will be some extra juices from the chicken, and we don't want them to overflow the tray and mess up the oven. If is perfectly fine if you open a second bottle of beer, add those critical couple of teaspoonfuls over the recipe, then drink the rest. :)
 - Carefully seal with aluminum foil (helps keep the chicken moist), and cook for two hours in the oven at 450F. Drop the temperature to 400F, remove the aluminum foil, and cook for another hour and a half on the lowest rack. Check periodically - if the chicken skin starts turning too dark, brush it with the juices covering the vegetables, and place a sheet of aluminum foil over the chicken to preserve its color.
 - Remove from the oven. Serve hot or warm.

 - The chicken on the cooking tray looks impressive in and of itself. I'd just place it in the middle of the table, on a heat-resistant serving mat.
 - Use the bunch of parsley for both color and freshness. Either place it on the side, as in the photo above, or alternatively, chop it finely and sprinkle it all over.
 - With your permission, I suggest you serve this recipe accompanied by some authentic Romanian garlic sauce. It is a killer combination that always makes an impression.

Meatless Balls | Chiftelute Vegetariene

I've recently decided to reduce my consumption of meats, which means I have more chances to enjoy the delicious flavors and textures of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. That also gives me more opportunities to play around with healthy organic produce and to come up with new concoctions. Here, I present a yummy recipe for meatballs that lacks, well, meat.

I started the thought process by imagining what combination of ingredients might come close enough to meat. I chose red beets for both color and texture. I added squash to keep the dish flavorful and juicy, as in the my earlier Romanian meatballs recipe. I thought couscous would also go well into the composition (it adds consistency). Finally, I added ground walnuts for their rich flavor and for a bit of unexpected crunchiness. Throw in the onion, garlic, and spices, and the mixture smells so good and fresh that you want to eat it with a spoon before it's even cooked.

I further find interesting the progression of color in the original meatball recipe and in this variation. The meatball recipe starts with a pink colored mixture, a healthy tint brought about by the meat. However, the meatballs turn brown during the frying process. The color pigments in the red beets are much more persistent, which allows the meatless balls to maintain a beautiful pink tint all throughout.

 - Two red beets
 - A medium-sized squash
 - Half a cup of garlic cloves
 - Half an onion
 - Two cups of walnuts
 - One cup of parsley
 - Four eggs
 - One cup of couscous
 - Spices: salt, ground pepper, thyme, a bit of chili pepper
 - For frying: flour (about a cup), and a lot of cooking oil

 - Preheat the oven to 450F. Cover the red beets in aluminum foil, and bake for 90 minutes. Remove the beets from the oven and let cool. Then carefully peel, chop (I use a food processor), and set aside.
 - While the beets are cooking, place one cup of water in a pot, add two tablespoons of oil and a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, then quickly stir in a cup of couscous, cover, and let stand for five minutes. Use a fork to stir the cooked couscous until fluffy.
 - Clean, peel, and chop the squash, half of an onion, garlic cloves, walnuts, and parsley. Mix with the beets and couscous when ready.
 - Add the eggs and spices to taste. Mix everything until the composition is uniform.
 - Now to the cooking part. First, heat up the oil on medium heat. I use a deep pan, and I make sure the oil is about two inches deep (we want to have the balls completely covered in oil when cooking, such that their outer part cooks quickly and uniformly.
 - Use about two spoons of mixture to form each ball shape. Roll them through flour, then fry them for about two minutes each.

 - Even when cooked, the vegetarian meatballs will have a nice pink/red color due to the beets. Choose some fresh ingredients of colors that complement this: for example, fresh parsley or scallions.
 - I chose to present a few balls in a black long dish with a red outline: the black helps emphasize the nice colors in the meatballs, while the red delimits the presentation (while also matching the main color theme in the dish). An alternative presentation of this appetizer could have involved a bunch of meatballs in the center of a wider plate, surrounded by greens (scallions, cucumber slices, celery, or parsley), and accompanied by some cherry tomatoes and feta cheese cubes for extra color. Play with your imagination and your sense of style, and I am sure you can come up with even better presentations.

Sour Beef Soup | Ciorba de Vacuta

This is a tasty soup with many vegetables and occasional gifts of tender meat. As an extra bonus, the lemon flavor and the sour cream smoothness come to satisfy your craving for an ethnic touch. You really can't go wrong with this recipe, if you're looking for a simple recipe that you'd enjoy in a Romanian home.

 - Two pounds of beef (preferably with bones, for example back ribs or short ribs)
 - Three medium-sized carrots
 - Three medium-sized parsnips
 - One celery root
 - One red bell pepper
 - One green bell pepper
 - One yellow onion
 - Three small potatoes
 - Two zucchini
 - Two lemons
 - Four large tomatoes (or one 14.5oz can of diced tomatoes)
 - Three tablespoons of tomato paste
 - One bunch of parsley
 - One pound of sour cream
 - Spices: salt and pepper

 - Add the beef and one gallon of water to a big pot. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer (not a lot of bubbles): this helps keep the soup clearer. Cook the beef for an hour and a half, while periodically removing the foam.
 - While the beef is boiling, you have plenty of time to clean and dice the vegetables. You may want to keep them in cold water such that they stay fresh and don't change color (particularly the potatoes).
 - After an hour and a half of boiling the beef, remove it from the water, separate the meat and cut it in cubes, and discard the bones. Add the meat back to the soup, together with the diced carrots, parsnips, and celery root. Continue simmering for another 15 minutes.
 - Add the diced bell peppers, onion, and zucchini, and let them simmer for 10 minutes.
 - And the diced potatoes, and the tomatoes. Carefully mix the tomato paste in the hot soup until it becomes liquid (you can also remove a cup of hot soup, mix it with the tomato paste, then add it back to the soup). Continue simmering for 15 more minutes.
 - Remove from heat. Add the squeezed lemons, the chopped parsley, and sour cream, salt and pepper to taste. Mix, cover, and let the the flavors blend for 5 minutes.
 - Serve hot.

 - If possible, choose a soup bowl that is wider and shallower - this helps some of the diced vegetables break through the soup surface to reveal nice colors and texture.
 - Have extra sour cream handy, if your guests want to add more.
 - Sprinkle chopped fresh parsley on top to an extra touch of freshness.
 - Serve alongside sliced bread and chili peppers (fresh or preferably pickled).

Romanian Dumplings with Plums | Galuste cu Prune

This Romanian dessert has three layers: a sweet crispy coating, a soft inner dough, and a fruity core. A first bite from the dumpling usually samples the first two, only to slightly reveal the latter and to invite another mouthful. It is a great treat during the plum season, and a delightful way to savor this fruit.

Ingredients (makes between eight to ten dumplings, depending on size):
 - A pound of plums
 - Two large russet potatoes (about a pound and a half)
 - Two eggs
 - Half cup of cream of wheat
 - Flour (three quarters cup of flour for the middle layer, and a bit more to help mold the dumplings)
 - Four tablespoons of butter (a quarter of a cup)
 - Two cups of coarse breadcrumbs (i use panko breadcrumbs, as they're bigger; alternatively, put a few slices of bread in the oven at 375F, and when they get hard, grind them to crumbs)
 - Brown sugar (one cup for the outer layer, and a bit extra for the plums)
 - Spices: cinnamon, vanilla essence (two tablespoons), and a pinch of salt

 - Preheat the oven to 425F. Bake the russet potatoes for about an hour (use a toothpick to test when ready). Let them cool a bit, then peel and grind them (I use a potato ricer).
 - Melt the butter in a pan on medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs, stir in one tablespoon of vanilla essence and cinnamon to your taste, and cook for a few minutes until they turn a nice golden color. Remove from heat, stir in the brown sugar, and mix till uniform.
 - Cut the plums lengthwise in half and remove the pits. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on the plum meat, and let sit for a while. I prefer the smaller Italian plums, as you can use both halves together in each dumpling (if the plums are bigger, use only half per dumpling).
 - Gently mix the baked potatoes with the flour, cream of wheat, and a pinch of salt. Add the whisked eggs and one tablespoon of vanilla essence, and mix till uniform. It is ok if the composition is a bit sticky.
 - Now to forming the dumplings. Coat your palms with a bit of flour. Grab three-four tablespoons of mixture and gently press it flat to about a third of an inch. Roll the dough uniformly around a plum (or only half of it if the plums are big) - there should be no piece of the plum visible to the outside. Gently sprinkle a bit of flour on the outside, such that they don't stick to one another. Repeat until all dumplings are done.
 - Bing enough water to a boil in a large pot. Add the dumplings one by one. Boil them until they raise to the top (about 5-10 minutes), plus another 5 minutes.
 - Remove the dumplings from water, one at a time. You need to handle them very gently, as the exterior is fairly soft and can break easily. Roll the dumplings through the golden breadcrumbs mixture, then set aside.
 - I prefer to serve them at room temperature, but they're also good warm or cold.

 - Choose a nice serving plate or bowl whose color matches the beautiful golden texture of the dumplings.
 - I present the dumplings alongside a few extra plums - they are at the core of the recipe. Any guest who also tries a plum will get to appreciate the extra vanilla and cinnamon flavors we added to the dish. Or you can cut the fresh plums lengthwise, remove the pits, and sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar (such that they more closely resemble the ones in the prepared dish).
 - A few leaves of mint always bring a glimpse of freshness to the visual presentation.

Romanian Meatball Soup | Ciorba de Perisoare

I give you here the recipe for one of the more popular soups in Romania. In fact, we don't even call it a soup: it is a 'ciorba' (pronounced /tch-ior-bah/), which is a group of soups that taste sour. We have a special ingredient for the sour flavor - we use borsch, but not the beet-based one that seems common in nearby Eastern-European countries. I give a simple alternative here to easily obtain the same great taste by using lemon juice instead. In addition to the sourness, I love this recipe for the texture and flavor of the meatballs.

 - One yellow onion
 - One pound of lemons
 - Half a celery root
 - One yellow squash
 - One leek
 - One red bell pepper
 - One parsnip root
 - One large carrot
 - One pound ground meat
 - Four tablespoons fulls of uncooked rice
 - Four tablespoons of tomato paste
 - Two cups of chopped parsley (or dill, or both)
 - Spices: salt, pepper, paprika, chili pepper, bay leaves
 - For serving: a few leaves of fresh parsley, bread, sour cream (optional), hot peppers (pickled hot pepper would be more traditional)

 - Start by cooking the rice. Bring 3/4 cups of water to a boil, add the rice (rinsed separately), cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 20 minutes. When done, remove from heat, fluff with a fork, and let cool on a flat plate for some 5-10 minutes.
 - Meanwhile, chop all vegetables and greens. Set aside half a cup of finely-chopped onions and the parsley. Fry the rest of the chopped veggies in a bit of olive oil on medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Transfer the veggies to a large pot, add three liters of water, four bay leaves, and spices to taste. Cover, bring to a boil, then keep on cooking for another half an hour. Use this time to prepare the meatballs (next step).
 - Mix the ground meat with half a cup of finely chopped onion, the cooked rice, half of the chopped parsley (about a cup), and a tablespoon each of salt, pepper, and paprika. When the mixture is uniform, grab about a tablespoon-full of the mix with wet hands, and roll into a ball. Repeat till uniform.
 - Once the broth has been boiling for half an hour, add the meatballs and the tomato paste, and cook for another half an hour. Use this time to squeeze the lemons and remove the seeds.
 - Mix in the lemon juice to the soup, a cup of chopped parsley, and salt, pepper, and chili pepper as desired. Serve hot.

 - Sprinkle some chopped parsley on top for extra color and aroma.
 - A lot of Romanians like to serve this with bread and sour cream: it adds richness and yumminess to the soup, and it helps cool it if it's too hot. Offer your guests this option by presenting sour cream in a bowl next to the soup.
 - Traditionally, we also serve pickled hot peppers next to the soup, to please the ones who like a to spicy it up a notch.

Romanian Dumplings Soup | Supa cu Galusti

This is a very light and clear Romanian soup, one of the top five most common soups we have in our cuisine. Aside from the vegetables and the meat (which are fairly expected), the dumplings introduce an exceptional texture that is bound to impress your guests. Making the dumplings requires a bit of practice, but that is easily achievable because they are prepared separately. You might even want to start simple: make the dumplings and add them to your favorite chicken soup; if you like the end result, then try following the whole recipe next time.

 - Two parsnips
 - Four carrots
 - Two potatoes
 - Two eggs
 - Half celery root
 - Half a cauliflower head
 - Three or four chicken drumsticks
 - Half an onion
 - One teaspoon of cooking oil
 - Two zucchinis
 - One red bell pepper
 - 5/8 cups of creamy wheat
 - One cup of chopped parsley
 - Spices: salt, pepper, one bay leaf

 - Chop the parsnips, carrots, celery root, and cauliflower, and boil in two liters of water for about 30 minutes. Use a larger pot, as this is where we'll end up with the final soup.
 - Add the cubed potatoes and the diced bell pepper and zucchinis to the soup. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Continue cooking everything for another 20 minutes.
 - Chop the chicken drumsticks (we want to break the bones), and brown the pieces with a teaspoon of cooking oil on medium heat. When browned (not burned), discard the liquid, if any. Add the chopped half onion, and cook together for a few minutes (until the onion turns yellowish). Add one liter of water, one bay leaf, and salt; cover, reduce the heat to medium/low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Sift through a cheesecloth: add the broth to the boiling vegetables from the step above, as well as the meat (separated from the bones), if desired.
 - Meanwhile, we need to prepare the dumplings. Whisk the two eggs with a mixer for about five minutes, on high speed. Reduce the mixer's speed to low, and gently add the creamy wheat and enough salt as if you'd be preparing an omelet. Mix till uniform. Boil two litters of water separately. When boiling, add a cup of cold water to reduce the heat. Quick add about 3/4 of a tablespoon of batter, and allow it to quickly detach from the spoon: this will grow in size to form a dumpling. Continue until you run out of the mix. Cook for twenty minutes, gently flipping the dumplings from one side to another every 5 minutes or so. Pay careful attention to the water: as soon as it is boiling, add a cup of cold water to cool it off. After the twenty minutes, remove from heat.
 - At the very end, remove the soup from the heat. Carefully move the dumplings to the soup, one by one; make sure you don't also take the debris, which should be discarded with the water. Add the chopped parsley, and cover.
 - Serve hot.

 - Serve in a nice colorful bowl. I chose a blue one, as it nicely complements the colors in the dumping soup.
 - If possible, try to have one of more dumplings break the surface of the soup: it looks more interesting than a flat surface. Then sprinkle some cracked peppers to add some extra depth to the presentation.
 - Use a nice bunch of curly parsley to further garnish the presentation.


Easter is the only occasion when lamb is served in Romania: we believe it is a pity to sacrifice the life of such a young animal, and only do it for this special celebration. And when we do, we have a variety of delicacies that use each of the lamb's young body parts, and try not to waste anything. Drob is a traditional Romanian recipe that use the internal organs (kidneys, lungs, liver, and heart) in combination with many greens and spices - it is used primarily as an appetizer, and it is served with bread and usually mustard. As common as it might be back home, it is quite rare to find this delicacy abroad (most likely because finding the necessary ingredients is quite a quest).

I give you below a variation of the recipe: same great flavor, but tailored for ingredients that are easier to find. The preparation is a bit time consuming (aside from chopping and dicing a lot of things, two of the items need to be cooked separately, then the whole things is baked for over an hour). I can only say that, if you grew up with this recipe, it certainly reminds you of special Easter celebrations in the middle of your loving family. Enjoy!

 - Two pounds of chicken livers
 - Two pounds of ground lamb meat
 - Two bunches of scallions
 - Two bunches of green garlic (or alternatively, the green leaves of a big leek)
 - One bunch of dill
 - One bunch of parsley
 - One red bell pepper (red is preferable, as it adds a nice color touch to the dish)
 - Two yellow onions
 - Spices: salt, pepper, thyme, paprika
 - Nine eggs
 - Half a cup of breadcrumbs
 - Cooking oil
 - A bit of flour

 - Boil three eggs hard (about 10 minutes), peel, and set aside.
 - Dice the two yellow onions, then fry them in oil until they turn a darker shade of yellow.
 - Fry the livers on medium heat, until they are dark brown. Do not overcook them, as they would turn hard. Set aside and let cool, then chop into smaller pieces.
 - Chop the scallions, green garlic, the dill, and the parsley.
 - Dice the red bell pepper.
 - Place the chopped livers in a large bowl, together with the ground lamb meat, fried onions, chopped greens, bell pepper, and the remaining six fresh eggs. Add salt, pepper, thyme, and paprika (to taste). Mix until uniform.
 - Coat a bread loaf pan with oil and a thin layer of flour: this helps the dish from sticking to the sides while cooking.
 - Place about a third of the mixture in the pan. Add the three boiled eggs, equally spaced (make sure they're not too close to either side). Add the remaining composition on top, and shape everything like a bread. Sprinkle some paprika on top for extra color and aroma.
 - Cover the loaf pan with aluminum foil, and place on the lowest rack in a preheated oven (400F). Cook for 40 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil, then continue cooking for another 30-40 minutes.
 - Let cool. Do not cut until it is cold, or the slices might crumble.

 - Cut into slices, and place on a tray. For extra effect, place it on salad or kale leaves.
 - Decorate with colorful fresh vegetables: for example, use an selection of cherry tomatoes, radishes, yellow bell peppers, green or red onions, and parsley leaves.
 - Enjoy with mustard and bread. And, why not, with a glass of red wine.

Fall-Off-The-Bone Baby Back Ribs

I discovered this recipe a long time ago, and it's been an all time favorite for my friends and family. The preparation is simple, and the long cooking time softens the meat until it literally melts in your mouth. And while the preparation takes a while, you don't really need to stay next to the oven the whole time (in the past, I even headed to the beach for some volleyball while the dish was cooking in the oven).

 - Baby back ribs
 - Barbecue sauce (I prefer the Hickory Smoke flavor)
 - One beer
 - Cooking oil
 - For presentation: your favorite colorful side dishes (for example, coleslaw and fries)

 - Preheat the oven to 425F.
 - Start by picking a cooking tray that's at least three inches deep. We want the ribs to cook in liquid, such that they are juicy and fall off the bone when done. Use about half a cup of cooking oil, and add beer until we have about half an inch of liquid (I use either an amber ale or a pale lager, though I don't think this will influence the flavor too much). A beer will likely be enough, depending on the shape of the tray you're using.
 - Clean the ribs and place them in the tray such that the presentation side faces down. We'll be cooking the meat for a while, and only flip it over towards the end such as to finalize the color and the texture for the presentation.
 - Put the tray in a preheated oven, and do not cover. Cook at 425F for an hour. Lower the heat to 225F, and cook for another four hours. Next, we first coat the top side with barbecue sauce, and continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Gently flip the ribs such that the presentation side is now facing up; coat with a generous layer of barbecue sauce, and cook for another 30 minutes.
 - Remove from the oven, and serve before it gets cold.

 - The ribs should have a beautiful red color when done. We'll add more colors in the side dishes that accompany it.
 - Coleslaw is my favorite side dish for this recipe; it looks great when you mix both red and green cabbage to prepare it.
 - Fries can be another great side dish, particularly when made out of colorful heirloom potatoes.
 - If you want to try a Romanian twist to the recipe, a good serving of colorful mujdei can go a long way in both taste and color.
 - Last, and certainly not least, you may want to enjoy the recipe with a cold beer. I usually do.


Mucenici is a traditional Romanian dessert that is always served on the 9th of March (it celebrates the memory of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste). My family always prepared the boiled version presented here (the other variation involves baking and is typical for the northeastern region called Moldova). It is a refreshing recipe that combines dough, walnuts, vanilla, and sugar - serve chilled, and it's a great way to cool off on a warm spring day.

For the mucenici:
 - Four to five cups of flour
 - One cup of water
 - Two or three pinches of salt
For the soup:
 - Two liters of water
 - Two tablespoons of lemon peel (I always use orange marmalade: it's cheaper and easier to find)
 - Spices: 1 teapoon each of ground cinnamon, vanilla essence, and rum essence
 - Half a cup of sugar
For serving:
 - Ground walnut kernels
 - Honey or brown sugar

 - Put one cup of flour in a mixing bowl, and mix in the salt. Slowly add the cup of water (a couple of spoonfuls at a time), and mix until uniform. The composition will turn out a bit watery. Start adding the remaining flour (a bit at a time), and keep mixing. Repeat this until you end up with a dough that does not stick to your hands (you don't need to use all the flour, or you may want to add some more as needed).
 - Now to the preparation of the mucenici. Pick up a bit of dough and roll it into a long thin string (a few times thicker than pasta, but as thin as you can manage). Roll the string around your fingers to form "8" shapes (tear the string as appropriate once each figure is completed). Smaller leftover pieces can be rolled into "0" shapes as well (the "8"s are just more common, but they both taste the same :) ). Place the finished pieces on sheets of wax paper. Repeat until you run out of dough. Leave everything outside to dry overnight, turn over in the morning, and let dry a few more hours on the other side as well.
 - Add about a cup and a half of mucenici to two liters of water, and boil for about 20-25 minutes. Add the lemon peel (or orange marmelade), one tablespoon each of ground cinnamon, vanilla essence, and rum essence, and half a cup of sugar. Stir, cover, and let cool for a few hours.
 - Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled (particularly if it's warm outside and your guests would love to cool a bit).

 - Choose colorful bowls to present the recipe (the dish does not have much color in and of itself).
 - It is traditional to top the mucenici with ground walnuts - either place them on a plate nearby, or generously sprinkle them over each bowl.
 - Given that some people might like the dish sweeter, have some honey or brown sugar handy for who needs it.

Spaghetti a la Maria

My mom created this recipe right around the time I moved to the United States. I was all alone and did not know much about cooking at that time - I could basically fry eggs and maybe potatoes. As this was the new favorite recipe for the whole family, my mom kept cooking it again and again. She'd then email me to describe how everyone savored the dish, how they were licking fingers, how they were asking for more. I think she wanted me to move back next to her, and the fresh memories of her amazing cooking made it really difficult to stay far away. In loving memory of my mom, here's her recipe for everyone to enjoy.

 - One pound of smoked bacon chunk (about two cups when chopped)
 - One onion
 - One red bell pepper
 - Two yellow squashes
 - 1.5 cups of heavy whipping cream or sour cream
 - Spices: salt, pepper, chili pepper
 - Cooking oil

 - Chop the bacon. Dice the bell pepper. Finely dice the onion and yellow squashes (we want them to melt and provide good flavor without being easily identifiable in the sauce).
 - Cook the bacon and onions in two tablespoons of cooking oil on medium/low heat for about 10 minutes. Stir frequently to make sure that it does not stick to the bottom or burn.
 - Add the bell pepper and yellow squashes, cover, and continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Stir occasionally, particularly in the first few minutes.
 - Add a cup and a half of water, spices (salt, pepper, and chili pepper, to taste), remove the cover, and continue cooking for another half an hour.
 - Add the heavy whipping cream or sour cream, mix until the sauce is uniform, and continue cooking until it simmers.
 - Serve hot over pasta.

 - An interesting type pasta can add a lot to the look of the dish.
 - You can further use some fresh leaves to add a splash of green to the presentation.