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.


Ingredients:
 - 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


Preparation:
 - 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.


Presentation:
 - 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.



Ingredients:
 - 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


Preparation:
 - 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.


Presentation:
 - 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 creamy 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


Preparation:
 - 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 in half and remove the kernels. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on the plum meat, and let sit for a while. I prefer the smaller 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, creamy 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.


Presentation:
 - 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.
 - A few leaves of mint always bring a glimpse of freshness to the 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.


Ingredients:
 - 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)


Preparation:
 - 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.


Presentation:
 - 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.



Ingredients:
 - 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


Preparation:
 - 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.
 - 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.
 - 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.
 - 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.
 - 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.


Presentation:
 - 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.

Drob

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!


Ingredients:
 - 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 touche to the dish)
 - Two yellow onions
 - Spices: salt, pepper, thyme, paprika
 - Nine eggs
 - Half a cup of breadcrumbs
 - Cooking oil
 - A bit of flour


Preparation:
 - 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.


Presentation:
 - 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).



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

Preparation:
 - 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.
 - Place the baby back ribs 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 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.

Presentation:
 - 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

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.

Ingredients:
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

Preparation:
 - 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).

Presentation:
 - 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.

Ingredients:
 - 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

Preparation:
 - 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.

Presentation:
 - 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.

Cranberry Relish

This is one of my favorite recipes to serve alongside the Thanksgiving turkey. I used to search for it every year in the grocery stores, until I realized that it's fairly easy to prepare (and it usually tastes better when cooked at home anyway). The best thing about preparing it yourself is that you can customize it to your own taste (for example, my family prefers it less sweet, so I reduce the quantity of sugar I use).

Ingredients:
 - One 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries, cleaned
 - Three quarters of a cup of sugar (or use only half a cup of sugar for a sour, more natural taste)
 - One cup of water
 - One apple (I prefer the Granny Smith variety)
 - Juices from one orange and one lemon
 - Half a cup of raisins
 - One cup of chopped walnuts

Preparation:
 - Cook the cranberries, sugar, and water together on low heat, until the skins start to crack (about 5-10 minutes).
 - Meanwhile, peel the apple and cut into cubes. Once the cranberries' skins start to pop, add the apple and the orange and lemon juices. Cook until the apples become softer (about 15-20 minutes).
 - Remove from heat. Add the raisins and walnuts. Let cool, then refrigerate overnight (it thickens the dish).

Presentation:
 - The best presentation for this side dish is to serve it along the main dishes: the turkey or the glazed ham, the mashed potatoes, and the string beans.

Sweet Potato Souffle

I learned this recipe from a friend a while ago, and I really liked the contrast between the soft and flavorful interior, and the crunchy sweet crust on top. Enjoying this recipe with family and friends is a new tradition for my holidays.

Ingredients:
 - Four sweet potatoes
 - One cup of sugar
 - Half a teaspoon of salt
 - Quarter cup of flour
 - Half a cup of brown sugar
 - Four eggs
 - One can of evaporated milk (12 fl oz)
 - One tablespoon of vanilla extract
 - A third of a teaspoon of nutmeg
 - One and a half teaspoons of cinnamon
 - Two and a half sticks of unsalted butter (about 1 cup and a quarter, or about 250 grams)
 - Three fourths of a cup of walnuts

Preparation:
 - Cover the sweet potatoes in aluminum foil, and bake in the oven until they are soft (it takes about an hour). When done, remove the skins, and mash with a fork or with a hand mixer. Let the oven stay heated at 400F.
 - Separately, whisk the eggs, then add the vanilla extract, the cup of sugar, salt, and the evaporated milk. Add over the mashed sweet potatoes.
 - Melt two of the butter sticks in a pan, then combine with the sweet potatoes. Add the nutmeg and the cinnamon, and mix till uniform.
 - Take the baking pan where you will cook the dish. You still have half a stick of butter - use a bit of it to coat the pan. Following, add two-three spoons of flour to the pan, and distribute them uniformly (they'll stick to the butter). This will prevent the dessert from sticking to the pan.
 - Melt the remaining butter (after the coating is finished), and mix with the chopped walnuts, the flour, and the brown sugar.
 - Carefully place the sweet potato mixture in the pan, then top it with the walnuts crumbles as prepared at the previous step. Bake in the oven for 50-60 minutes.
 - Remove from the oven, let cool overnight, then store in the fridge. Serve cold.

Presentation:
 - The dessert is easiest to cut when cold. Still, you'll need a lot of patience to carve out some nice slices.
 - I love the leaf-shaped plates I recently bought, and I think they're perfect to present this recipe. In general, I think fall colors are perfect to complement this dish, particularly red, gold, or a reddish brown.
 - You can alternatively place some fresh cranberries next to the dish, some caramelized nuts, or a stick of cinnamon and a white vanilla flower if you find it easily.

Papanasi

This exquisite Romanian dessert masterfully combines warm flavorful fried cookies with the smoothness of cream and the sweetness of fruit preserves (think of hot brownie and vanilla ice cream taken to the next level). The recipe is quite simple and quick. A small difficulty is in finding the right cheese (I promise to research a few even easier alternatives and report back soon), and a small inconvenience is in discarding all the extra cooking oil - it feels like such a waste! So you'd better invite your friends and have a papanasi party!

Ingredients:
 - Half a pound of cottage cheese, white cheese, or farmers cheese (if using cottage cheese, place it in a strainer, cover it, and keep it in the fridge overnight to discard extra water)
 - Two cups of flour
 - A pinch of salt
 - Half a cup of sugar
 - One teaspoon of ground cinnamon
 - One tablespoon of vanilla
 - One teaspoon of baking soda
 - One tablespoon of lemon juice
 - One egg
 - One tablespoon of lemon peel (optional)
 - One cup of sour cream
 - One jar of fruit preserve (my favorites include sour cherries or berries)
 - Plenty of cooking oil
 - A couple of tablespoons of powdered sugar (for decoration)

Preparation:
 - Stir the baking soda with the lemon juice. Add the cheese, salt, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, egg, and lemon peel. Mix until uniform (it's ok if you have small chunks of cheese every here and there).
 - Slowly add the flour, and mix. You want to end up with a dough that does not stick to the fingers - you might not need all the flour, depending on how wet the cheese you use is.
 - Now to forming the papanasi. There are two parts: the base, and the top. You create the base by using a bit of dough, rolling it in a line that has the same diameter as a pinkie and the length of about three pinkies, and firmly joining the two ends (same shape as a doughnut). Note that the dough will increase in volume when cooking.
 - For the top, use about a tablespoon worth of dough, and roll it into a sphere.
 - The next step is frying. It is best if you have enough oil to cover the papanasi when cooking: so use a taller frying pan, and be generous with the oil. Pre-heat the oil on medium heat - it is ready when you add a bit of dough in the pan and it starts quickly cooking and forming circles around it. Now carefully add bases and tops, rotate and necessary, and remove when they turn golden-brown and look delicious. Don't overcrowd the pan. Place the cooked papanasi on a paper towel (such that it absorbs the extra oil from cooking). You may want to prepare one or two papanasi, cut them, and check the interior - if it's not properly cooked, then reduce the heat to prevent burning the outside while the interior is still cooking. If they're too thin or think, adjust the size/shape of the dough before starting to cook.
 - You want to serve this quickly, while they're still hot/warm.

Presentation:
 - Place a base and a round top above it. Generously add sour cream and fruit preserve.
 - Gently sprinkle some powder sugar over the plate for an artistic finish.

Curried Couscous with Fried Garlic

This flavorful recipe brings together four main ingredients: curry, couscous, pistachios, and fried garlic. Close your eyes, savor the aroma, and let the imagination take you on a exotic culinary trip to North Africa or the Middle East.

Ingredients:
 - One cup of dry couscous
 - Two baby carrots
 - One red onion
 - One zucchini or squash
 - 1/4 cup of roasted pistachios
 - One cup of water
 - Butter or olive oil
 - Rosemary
 - Spices: salt, pepper, chile pepper, curry
 - Fresh parsley (optional, for decoration)

Preparation:
 - Finely dice the baby carrots, red onion, and zucchini/squash. We only need about three tablespoons of each, so use the rest for another dish or save it for some other time.
 - Peel and slice the garlic. Fry in butter (or olive oil) on medium-high heat, with a few small branches of rosemary, salt, and curry. Promptly remove from heat when it starts to turn brown.
 - You can use the same pan to fry the diced vegetables for about 5 minutes.
 - Place a cup of water in a pot, add half a teaspoon of salt, one tablespoon of curry and another one of butter (or olive oil). Bring to a boil. Add the dry couscous, the fried vegetables, the pistachios, and most of the fried garlic (save a bit for decoration later on). Cover and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove the cover and stir with a fork to make the dish fluffy.

Presentation:
 - Serve in a colorful bowl. Use the extra fried garlic and some chopped fresh parsley to further garnish the recipe.

Blueberry Liquor | Afinata


The blueberry liquor is a common treat for visitors in Romania (we call it "Afinata"). We occasionally add drops of blueberry liquor in fruit salads, or we use the berries in the recipe to make desserts (for example, the Chocolate Blasts). And if you need another excuse to enjoy it, then you should know that it supposedly has curative virtues in treating different conditions. I don't remember a guest who tried this recipe at my place and did not ask for a recipe - so here it is.

Ingredients:
 - Five pounds of fresh organic blueberries
 - Five cups of sugar
 - (Optional) 2-3 tablespoons of vanilla essence or 1 vanilla bean
 - One 750ml bottle of 150 proof distilled alcohol

Preparation:
 - Wash the blueberries thoroughly, then dry with a paper towel. As an optional step, gently poke each blueberry with a toothpick to help the juice flow out. Place them in a large jar, accompanied by the sugar (make sure the sugar is spread all around the berries, not just in a uniform layer on top or on the bottom). Also, add the vanilla bean now, if you're using it. Cover the jar, mix occasionally (about once per day), and let sit for around one week (until the berries are covered in syrup and there is no more visible sugar).
 - Add the alcohol. If you want to add vanilla essence (and did not add a vanilla bean earlier), now is a good time to do so. Cover the jar, and let sit for 1-2 months.

Presentation:
 - Serve at room temperature or with a few cubes of ice.
 - I opted to present it surrounded by fresh berries (the source of the flavor in the drink).
 - I further threw in an colorful cocktail umbrella to make the whole presentation more lively.

French Flan


One thing I love about cooking is that I can prepare the recipes I love. Another is that I can prepare for my friends the recipes that they love. I researched this recipe long and hard, trying to reproduce memories of France for a good friend. The recipe is quick and simple, and it uses ingredients easily found in most grocery stores. Hope you have a chance to give it a try. Enjoy!

Ingredients:
 - Ten eggs
 - Two cans of evaporated milk (12 oz each)
 - Two cans of sweetened condensed milk (14 oz each)
 - One tablespoon of lemon peel (for simplicity, I use orange marmalade, same same)
 - Four tablespoons of sugar
 - Four tablespoons of vanilla extract or rum essence
 - A pinch of salt
 - One pie crust

Preparation:
 - Break the eggs in a bowl, and add the sugar, the rum or vanilla, the lemon peel, and the pinch of salt. Mix everything until uniform. Add the condensed and the evaporated milk. Use a mixer to ensure the composition is homogeneous.
 - Note that the French flan needs to be between three and four fingers tall when cooked. Choose a baking pan where the composition would fill about that much space. Also, make sure that there is a bit of extra space on top - the flan tends to bloat while cooking, and then it reverts pretty much to its original volume.
 - Preheat the oven to 425F.
 - Carefully lay the pie crust such that it uniformly covers the baking pan (both bottom and sides). Add the flan batter. Leave about half an inch of crust above the batter level, and discard the rest.
 - Bake for 50 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Serve cold.

Presentation:
 - Carefully slice the flan, making sure you don't crumble the crust.
 - For presentation, I topped the flan with a few fresh berries. I also placed the dish on an orange plate - I believe this color nicely matches the colors of the flan.
 - It's a French recipe, so you might as well serve it alongside a glass of champagne.

Chicken Schnitzel

If you, your family, or your friends love chicken nuggets, there's no excuse to not know this recipe and do a healthier and tastier version at home. I love it because the tender chicken breast (which does not have much flavor on its own), is deliciously complemented both in taste and in texture by the fried coating.

Ingredients (for the chicken schnitzel alone):
 - Two chicken breast
 - Three eggs
 - Half a cup of flour
 - (optional) sesame seeds
 - Spices: salt, pepper, chili pepper
 - Cooking oil

Preparation:
 - Slice the chicken breasts into thin slices. The trick to simplify the preparation is to make sure that the slices are very thin (gently use a meat tenderizer to get them there, if needed). Once these thin slices are covered in batter and are frying, you'll know when they're done simply by checking that the coating is cooked (it turns brownish).
 - Break the eggs in a bowl, and mix thoroughly. Add the spices and the optionally the sesame seeds. Stir and make sure the batter is uniform.
 - Spread the flour onto a plate. We will use it to help the batter stick to the chicken slices.
 - Heat up the cooking oil in a pan. You want the cooking oil to be about a quarter of an inch deep.
 - Pick one slice of chicken, and cover it with a thin uniform coating of flour. Dip it in the batter, then fry on one side until it turns brownish and looks ready. Flip over, and cook the other side as well. Remove and place on a paper napkin (to absorb the extra grease).
 - Repeat for each slice of chicken breast. You can also cook a few at a time, depending on how large the pan you use is.
 - If you prefer a crispier coating, add some bread crumbs to the batter.

Presentation:
 - For best taste, you really want to serve them hot.
 - Note that the recipe in itself does not have much color, so you really want to strategically place some colorful items nearby. For example, if you place a plate of schnitzels in front of your guests, make sure you add a variety of color via fresh tomatoes, radishes, bell pepper strips, cucumbers, or scallions. During the cold Romanian winter, we'd choose an assortment of colorful pickled vegetables to go with it instead.
 - An alternative serving is as a sandwich (as pictured above). Here, I lightly toasted the bread slices, and used arugula, tomato slices, and mustard to complete the sandwich.

Boeuf Salad | Salate de Boeuf


This is one of the essential Romanian recipes, a dish that rarely misses from a bigger feast with family or friends. I actually don't remember a time when I visited someone in Romania during the winter holidays, and did not have this served at the table as an appetizer.

The recipe combines three of the common ingredients in our cuisine. First, there's the meat (I find it very intriguing that the recipe name comes from the French word "beouf" that means beef, and still I've only seen this dish cooked with either chicken or without meat at all). Second, there are the potatoes, a common trend in Romanian dishes (they last a long time without requiring refrigeration, so they're particularly popular throughout the cold season). Third, there are the pickles: they are our approach to preserve vegetables through the winter without requiring a refrigerator. No, there is no garlic in this Romanian recipe. :)

I do hope that you'll find a chance to prepare this recipe, and to enjoy it with friends or loved ones.

Ingredients:
 - Five red potatoes
 - One large parsnip
 - One large carrot
 - One chicken breast
 - One cup of sweet peas
 - Eight baby dill pickles
 - Two pickled bell peppers (if you can't find those, use fire-roasted peppers kept in lemon juice or vinegar for one hour)
 - One-two cups of mayonnaise
 - Three boiled eggs
 - Spices: salt, pepper
 - For presentation: two boiled eggs, mayonnaise, olives, extra pickles, fresh parsley

Preparation:
 - Boil the eggs, including the ones to be used for presentation (make sure the yolks are firm).
 - Boil the chicken breast for about an hour in a large pot, together with the peeled potatoes, parsnip, sweet peas, and carrot. Periodically remove the foam that forms on top of the boiling soup. You may want to start checking with a knife about 45 minutes in, and remove the pot from heat once a knife starts to easily slide through the largest potato.
 - Remove from heat and drain. You may want to save the water and use it for a soup.
 - Carefully dice the boiled vegetables, the chicken, and the pickles. You want all pieces to have about the same size - aim for something slightly slightly bigger than a pea. Place everything in a large bowl.
 - Take three of the boiled eggs, cut them in two, and separately the yellows. Dice the egg whites, and add to the other diced ingredients.
 - Add the spices, to taste. Be careful with the salt - the pickles are already fairly salty.
 - Finally, you want to add as little mayonnaise as possible, but make sure that the whole dish stays together. You may want to add a few spoons of mayonnaise, mix everything together, check the overall consistency, and repeat if not yet ready.

Presentation:
 - The Boeuf Salad has a fairly thick consistency, so you can play a bit with the shape. I've often seen it in a hemispherical form (think of half of a football ball).
 - Next, I've always seen the salad covered with a thin layer of yellow mayonnaise (it's yellow because that's the color of fresh natural homemade mayonnaise). If you don't want to go through the trouble of preparing the mayonnaise in-house, then choose the best commercially-available mayonnaise, and mix it with the yolks of the three eggs used in the salad - that usually does the trick (visually, at least).
 - Finally, use slices of boiled eggs, olives, pickles, or fresh parsley, to finish the presentation.

Fluffy Cherry Cake | Pandispan cu Cirese


This dessert is delicious, light, and easy to make. My favorite part is the fluffiness - you can really feel how each bite simply melts in your mouth. Additionally, the cake does not need much sugar - it provides a plethora of sweet fruity delights instead. And while cherries (or even better: sour cherries) are the fruit of choice for this recipe in Romania, you will find that any other seasonal fruits work equally well.

Ingredients:
 - Four eggs
 - 1 cup of flour
 - 1/2 cup of sugar
 - 1/2 cup of sparkling water
 - A pinch of salt
 - One cup of fresh fruits
 - One spoon of vanilla
 - One spoon of lemon peel
 - A bit of butter or oil
 - For presentation: powder sugar, a few extra fresh fruits

Preparation:
 - Preheat the oven to 325F.
 - If you're using cherries (or other seeded fruits), carefully remove their seeds.
 - Carefully separate the egg yolks from the whites. We'll thoroughly whip the them in two separate bowls. I recommend you use a mixer, unless you're in the mood for a serious workout.
 - Start by whipping the whites for about 5-10 minutes (they turn into a foam). Continue whipping to incorporate half of the sugar.
 - Next, we'll whip the yolks for about 5-10 minutes. Add the rest of the sugar slowly and gradually, then the lemon peel, vanilla, the sparkling water, and a pinch of salt. Continue whipping for another 15-20 minutes. The end result has a lot of volume due to small air bubbles mixed in the composition - these will make the whole dessert fluffy.
 - We need to gently combine the whipped whites, yolks, and two-thirds of the flour (we'll need a third for the next steps). The key word here is gently - we need to preserve the airiness of the composition. Start by putting the whites and yolks in the same bowl, and mix slowly from the bottom to the top with a wooden spatula. Use a sifter to gradually add the flour, and keep slowly mixing the composition from the bottom to the top. We're actually not even mixing the flour in - we're gently incorporating it by allowing the flour powder to stick to the surface and then turning the mixture over.
 - For baking, choose a pan wide enough to accommodate the composition while not spreading it too thin (I use a 9x9x2 inches pan). Coat it with a thin layer of butter or oil, then a thin layer of flour (use the sifter again). Remove any extra flour. This allow the cake to nicely separate from the pan.
 - Use the sifter to cover the cherries (or whatever fruits you use) with a thin layer of flour. Mix to uniformly cover all sides of the fruits. This will help some of the fruits to not sink to the bottom of the cake.
 - Place the mixture in the coated pan. Gently add the flour-covered fruits on top. Bake for 45 minutes.
 - Remove from the over and let cool.

Presentation:
 - Make sure the dessert is cold before you cut it. To be sure, let it sit overnight.
 - Before serving, sift some extra powder sugar on top.
 - A few fresh fruits can be used to accompany the dessert and add some color and contrast - a "before and after" presentation.

Spaghetti Squash Pasta with Creamy Olive Sauce

I love this pasta recipe for several reasons. First, the spaghetti squash is a great replacement for pasta: it is a natural product that is higher in nutrients and lower in calories and carbohydrates. Second, the sauce has an olive flavor and a creamy consistency unlike any other pasta sauce you've tried before. Give this recipe a chance, and you won't be disappointed.

Ingredients:
 - One medium-sized spaghetti squash
 - Olive oil
 - One cup of pitted kalamata olives for each serving
 - A couple of cherry tomatoes per each serving
 - Heavy whipped cream (about one cup)
 - Spices: salt, pepper, and optionally chili pepper
 - For presentation: basil leaves, parmesan cheese

Preparation:
 - Cut the spaghetti squash in half, and boil it until the fork goes in easily (about 45 minutes to 1 hour). Remove it from heat, and gently scrap the meat with a fork to get some nice pasta strings.
 - Mix the spaghetti squash meat with a bit of olive oil and salt - it gives the pasta some flavor and shininess, and it helps separate the strings better.
 - While the spaghetti squash is boiling, you can go ahead and cook the sauce. I use one cup of kalamata olives per each serving. Add the pitted olives to a blender, and pour enough heavy whipped cream to get the blender rolling. Blend them together, though make sure you still have some chunks of olives (for consistency, you really don't want just a paste).
 - Transfer the olive mix into a pan, and add the cherry tomatoes cut in half. Sprinkle the spices on top, and cook on low heat for about half an hour.

Presentation:
For the best presentation, you might want to place the dish on each individual plate: the pasta on the bottom and a layer of creamy olive sauce on top. If you can rescue some of the cherry tomato halves, you may want to place them on top for a splash of red color. I further used some parmesan cheese and a leaf of basil to finish the presentation. Most importantly: enjoy while still hot!

Mititei



I grew up in a tall apartment building, like most Romanians during the communist era. My memories are filled with my mom's delicious homemade recipes cooked on the stove or in the oven. Grilling was a luxury, something you did when you went on a picnic during a weekend or on a longer vacation. Mititei were always the highlight of the menu on such special days - they remind me of leaving the city behind and spending some time near a lake or in the mountains. This is probably one of the dishes that you'd greatly miss, once you enjoyed it in Romania (another one is sarmale).


What makes this recipe memorable? First, it's the flavor - multiple hidden spices that make the meat taste great. Second, it's the tenderness - we usually prepare the mititei from fatty ground meats, which then keeps them tender during cooking. As such fatty meat is not that easily found abroad (and as it's not necessarily that healthy for you anyway), the recipe below introduces a twist (which might be classified as sacrilege back home, but it does the trick). Third, it's the great flavor added by grilling. Hope you have a chance to prepare and enjoy this great Romanian recipe.


Ingredients:
 - Two pounds of ground meat; ideally: a combination of ground beef, pork, and lamb; common: a combination of beef and pork; simplest: either ground beef or ground pork
 - One teaspoon each of ground cumin, anise seeds, allspice, and coriander
 - Two teaspoons each of ground pepper and thyme
 - One cup of beef broth
 - One and a half teaspoons of baking soda
 - One tablespoon of lemon juice
 - A small head of fresh garlic, or half a large one
 - Two tablespoons of olive oil
 - Two medium-sized yellow squashes


Preparation:
 - Peel the yellow squash, discard the skin, and shred the interior.
 - Mix the baking soda with the lemon juice.
 - Thoroughly grind the garlic.
 - In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients.
 - Form the mititei: for each one, take about three or four tablespoons worth of mix, press in the palm of your hand, and roll in the form of a cylinder. Do not worry if they don't yet keep the desired shape.
 - Refrigerate overnight - this allows the flavors to blend, and it makes the composition firmer, and allows them to keep their shape while cooking.
 - Remove from fridge, and roll again in your hands to reinforce a nice cylinder shape. The composition is much firmer now, and the mititei will keep the desired shape much better.
 - At this point, you're ready to grill the mititei. Make sure you prepare them medium-rare, such that they stay juicy and soft.


Presentation:
 - The color of mititei can hardly be compared to how tasty they are. But the presentation can greatly benefit from colorful accompanying side dishes. For example, garlic roasted potatoes and a summer salad.
 - There's nothing like a cold beer to complement this dish.

Sarmale | Smoked Romanian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Sarmale is one of my favorite Romanian recipes for the winter season. The flavor is a delicious combination of smoky, meaty, sweet, and sour. The preparation is a bit tedious, but once done you'll enjoy fabulous feasts for the next few days.

Ingredients:
 - To soften the cabbage leaves (if needed): 12 cups water, half a cup of vinegar, and two tablespoons of salt
 - One cup of raw rice
 - Two pounds of ground pork
 - One squash (peeled, then shredded)
 - Half of a big red pepper (or an entire smaller one)
 - One cup of baby carrots
 - One onion
 - One clove of garlic
 - Three tablespoons of spices: salt, pepper, chili pepper, thyme, paprika
 - Four tablespoons of cooking oil
 - One can of tomato sauce
 - About two pounds of sauerkraut
 - One cup fresh dill (chopped)
 - A bulky piece of smoked bacon (about one pound)

Preparation:
 - Here's an overview of the process. First, we need to soften the cabbage leaves (you'd want to skip this if you're lucky enough to get whole pickled cabbage leaves). We'll then prepare a meaty mixture and roll it in the leaves. Traditionally, this stuffing uses fatty pork meat - the fattiness makes the sarmale tender and soft. Here, I describe a healthier alternative that's easier to procure: use regular ground pork meat, but mix it with shredded squash. Finally, baking will allow all the flavors to blend in nicely.
 - Let's start with softening the cabbage leaves. Take a cabbage head, and cut the core out with a sharp knife. Mix 12 cups of water, half a cup of vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of salt, and bring to a boil. Pour the boiling mixture over the cored cabbage - you'll notice it open up like a blossoming flower. Gently remove the leaves one by one, and avoid tears and ruptures. Leave them in the hot brine a bit longer, until they become soft and pliable.
 - We'll need three cups of boiled rice. I like to prepare that myself, with a twist: mix one cup of water with one cup of sauerkraut brine, and bring to a boil. Rinse one cup of rice separately, then add it to the boiling mixture, cover, reduce the heat to low, and keep on cooking for 20 minutes (don't remove the lid). Note that the rice expands while cooking (it grows about three times its original size), so use a pan big enough to accommodate this quantity. When ready, stir in the rice with a fork to increase its fluffiness. Let it cool.
 - Meanwhile, dice the red pepper, carrots, onion, and garlic. Place them in a pan with oil, and cook for 15 minutes on medium heat. Let cool as well.
 - We're not ready to prepare the stuffing. In a large bowl, mix together the ground pork, the shredded squash, the rice, and the veggie mixture cooked earlier in the pan. Add the spices, olive oil, one cup of pureed tomatoes, and the chopped dill. Mix thoroughly.
 - With the stuffing ready, let's talk about putting together the sarmale (each one needs to be rolled individually, which will take some time). Take a leave of cabbage (cut it in half if it's too big), place two tablespoons of mixture in the center, and roll: fold one of the longer sides over the meat, then roll across the longer side, then stuff the remaining side in.
 - Take a big pot and add a bit of cooking oil. Then place a thin layer of sauerkraut to make sure that none of the sarmale sticks to the bottom. Carefully place a layer of sarmale, with a few chunks of smoked bacon interleaved and a couple of bay leaves. Make sure they're tightly packed - we don't want much space in between.  Top with a thin layer of pureed tomatoes. And repeat until the pot is full (or until you run out of sarmale) - another layer of sauerkraut, followed by one more layer of sarmale and a few chunks of smoked bacon (plus one or two bay leaves) , then one thin layer of pureed tomatoes. When finished, top everything with layer of sauerkraut.
 - Add two or three cups of water (depending on how tightly you placed everything in the pot).  We want the sarmale to cook in water and become tender and moist.  Bake in the over at 400F for two hours.

Presentation:
 - Serve the sarmale hot or warm.
 - The dish goes well with sour cream, chili peppers (fresh or pickled), and polenta. They all add a bit of color to the presentation.
 - Enjoy sarmale with a cold beer, and with great company.

Yellow Wax Bean Salad | Salata de Fasole Galbena


When in season, yellow wax beans are tender and bright. Add in some garlic and a splash of vinegar, and you'll have a refreshing salad. Try it with a mushroom pizza, with Romanian meatballs, or with another of your favorite entrees.

Ingredients:
 - 1 pound of yellow wax string beans
 - 3-4 garlic cloves
 - 2-3 fresh cherry tomatoes
 - 1 cup of chopped fresh parsley
 - 3 tablespoons of olive oil
 - 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar
 - Spices: salt and pepper

Preparation:
 - Bring water to boil in a pot. Add the yellow wax string beans, and boil for 20-25 minutes. When ready, discard the water.
 - Mash the garlic cloves. If you don't like raw garlic too much, mix with the beans while they're still hot - this will slightly cook the garlic. If you're a big fan of raw garlic (like I am), wait for the beans to cool, then add the mashed garlic.
 - Partially mash the beans - we don't want them to be a paste, but we don't want the whole strings either.
 - Dice the cherry tomatoes and the fresh parsley, and add them to the mix. Also, add the olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.
 - Mix everything.
 - Serve cold or at room temperature.

Presentation:
 - The recipe is already very colorful - the strong yellow of the beans, mixed in with the red of the tomatoes and the green of the parsley. It can be used in an of itself to add color and taste to other recipes - for example, it greatly compliments a delicious steak.

Pork Chop in Tomato Sauce | Friptura cu sos


This is a fairly common Romanian recipe, usually served during the cold winter months. I love this recipe because it infuses tomato and garlic flavors to regular meat. Mix the tomato sauce with mashed potatoes and add pickles - and you've got yourself a winning combination!

Ingredients:
 - 6 pork chops
 - One 18oz can of tomato sauce
 - One cup of wine
 - Spices: salt, pepper, chili pepper, thyme
 - One head of garlic
 - Finely chopped fresh parsley (for presentation)

Preparation:
 - Quickly fry the pork chops on high heat (one minute each side, or until they start to catch a bit of brownish color).
 - Preheat the oven to 325 F.  - Mix the tomato sauce, wine, and spices. Place a thin layer on a flat baking dish, then place the steaks, and cover with the remaining tomato mixture. Cover with aluminum foil.
 - Cook in the oven for 25 minutes. Remove aluminum foil and cook for another 25 minutes. Add the chopped garlic, mix, and cook for another 5-10 minutes.

Presentation:
 - Place the dish over a bed of mashed potatoes (or pasta).
 - Add a generous amount of sauce over each steak.
 - Sprinkle chopped fresh parsley for an adding bit of green.
 - The dish is greatly complemented by a side serving of pickles and a glass of cold beer.

Baked Sauerkraut with Smoky Delights | Varza Calita cu Afumatura


Romanian cuisine varies a lot from one season to another. Sauerkraut and smoked meats are two very common ingredients for dishes served in the winter (though you can find them throughout the year nowadays). This dish combines them both - it is one of my favorite traditional recipes to enjoy during the cold weather.

One trick to cook this recipe well is to balance the initial sourness of the sauerkraut with sweet and smoky flavors. This is achieved by combining it with flavorful ingredients (tomatoes and cooked onions taste sweet, meats are smoked), then baking the dish in the oven. Do not forget the bay leaves, thyme, and a slight spicy kick!

Ingredients:
 - 6 pounds of sauerkraut
 - 1 large onion
 - 1.5 pounds of diced tomatoes (canned or fresh)
 - 1.5 pounds of smoked sausages or meats
 - 1 cup of cooking oil
 - Spices: 7-8 large bay leaves, 2-3 of teaspoons thyme, salt, pepper, chili pepper (to taste)

Preparation:
 - Slice the onion, and cook it in oil on low heat for 15-20 minutes (until it becomes soft).
 - Mix the cooked onion and oil with the sauerkraut, tomatoes, smoked meat, spices, and add 3-4 cups of water.
 - Cover, and cook on medium heat for 1.5 hours. Stir occasionally to prevent burns.
 - Transfer the dish to the oven (move to another pot if necessary), and bake at 475 for another hour.
 - Serve hot with bread or polenta, raw onion, and a cold beer.

Presentation:
 - If available, fresh scallions would add a nice touch of green color while greatly complimenting the dish. Alternatively, slice some red onions and serve alongside instead.
 - A grilled sausage looks great alongside this dish, and so does a cold beer.

Garlic Roasted Potatoes | Cartofi la Cuptor


Potatoes and chopped dill are such a common side dish in Romania, that I've never thought of posting this recipe by itself.  But after having been singled-out as the best recipe at several dinners with friends, I thought it deserves its own spot.  Here, the basic dish is further complemented with green garlic and bacon pieces, for a result that boasts both great taste and enhanced colorful presentation.

Ingredients:
 - 1.5 pounds of potatoes
 - Fresh dill
 - Bacon (3-4 strips)
 - 1-2 green garlic plants
 - Cooking oil
 - Spices: salt, pepper, chili pepper

Preparation:
 - First, use a pan to fry the bacon strips (no oil is needed, just heat up the pan and cook the bacon on both sides until they turn a nice red color).  When ready, remove from the pan, and tear the strips into smaller bite-size pieces.
 - Wash and peal the potatoes, then cut them in cubes.  We'll first boil them to get them soft on the inside, then broil them at high heat to add a nice crust all around.
 - Bring water to a boil.  Add the potato cubes, and keep boiling for about 15-20 minutes.  The potatoes are done when a toothpick easily goes through them, but they are not yet mushy (if you boil them for too long, they'll start falling apart).  Use a colander to discard the water.
 - Heat the oven to 500F.  Take a baking pan, and lightly coat it with oil (to prevent the potatoes from sticking to the bottom). Add the potatoes, and place the pan in the oven for about 15-20 minutes (or until you see the potatoes starting to take a nice caramel color).  Use a spatula to turn the potatoes, and sprinkle the spices (salt, pepper, and chili pepper) all over.  Place back in the oven for another 10-15 minutes.
 - While the potatoes are cooking, chop about a cup of fresh dill, and 1-2 green garlic plants.
 - In the end, mix together the potatoes, bacon, dill, and garlic.
 - Serve immediately.

Presentation:
 - The dish has plenty of colors and can provide for a great presentation all by itself.  However, a delicious steak and a glass of cold beer can greatly enhance the presentation.  :)

Garlic Carrot Fries | Morcovi Prajiti cu Usturoi

Fries, fries, fries.  Everyone knows them.  But what if you wanted to surprise your family or guests with something different?  Introducing "Garlic Carrot Fries" - the sweetness of the carrots, the flavor of the fried garlic, and the same texture as the fries, all blended in a novel combination.  Serve alongside a good steak, and you've got yourself a winning combination!

Ingredients:
 - 1 pound of baby carrots (cut and peeled)
 - 1 head of garlic (mashed)
 - 1 cup of fresh dill or parsley (chopped)
 - Cooking oil
 - Spices: salt and pepper
 - [optional] 3 tablespoons of flour or baking powder

Preparation:
 - Bring water to a boil in a pot.  Add the baby carrots, and boil them for 7 minutes.
 - Remove the carrots, and place in a colander to discard extra water.  Leave there for 5-10 minutes.  Further rub them with a paper towel to remove extra water (it tends to be unruly and jumpy when in contact with the heated oil following soon).
 - Optional: if you want a nice crunchier crust, coat the baby carrots with flour or baking powder.
 - In a frying pan, heat some cooking oil (use high heat).
 - Carefully add the baby carrots, and fry for about 7 minutes.
 - Add the mashed garlic, the chopped dill or parsley, and the spices.  Fry for another 15-20 seconds.
 - Remove the baby carrots from the pan, and place them on a paper towel to help remove extra cooking oil.
 - Serve as soon as possible (or the crust might soften up).

Presentation:
 - The recipe has some beautiful orange and green colors from the ingredients.  I opted to serve it in a blue martini grass to further add another colorful dimension to the presentation.
 - An extra dash of fresh chopped dill or parsley can further help both the flavor and the presentation.  And, if you like garlic, so would a dash of fresh mashed garlic.

Steak au Poivre | Friptura de Vita cu Sos de Piper


I've had this unforgettable recipe for the very first time in a small German city called Koblenz.  At first, it seemed like an innocent steak with a creamy sauce.  And then, an explosion of spice hit me - it tingled my mouth and invited a refreshing sip of German beer.  I've been a fan of this steak recipe ever since, and hope you become one too.

Ingredients (per each person):
 - 1 steak
 - 3 tablespoons of olive oil
 - Spices: salt and pepper
 - 3 tablespoons of heavy whipping cream
 - 1 teaspoon of green peppercorns
 - Half a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce

Pre-preparation (one day in advance):
 - I like to marinade the meat for about 24 hours.  I add about a tablespoon of olive oil on one side of the steak, generously sprinkle some salt and pepper, and rub them in gently with your fingers (or with a spoon).  Turn the steak over, and repeat the process.  Then cover with a plastic foil, and place in the fridge for a day.

Preparation:
 - There are two easy approaches to prepare the steak: grill or panfry.
 - For grilling, heat up your grill and cook the steaks as you know best.
 - For panfrying, Heat up a pan to medium-high heat.  When ready, place the marinated steak in it.  Cook for about 2 minutes on one side, turn, and cook for another 2 minutes.  If you like the steak medium or well done, you may want to cover the pan while cooking.  If you like it rare, you may want to replace the pan with a lightbulb.  :)
 - When all the steaks are ready (I assume you want to share this recipe with family or friends), you need to proceed to preparing the accompanying sauce.  Use the same pan where you cooked the steaks: the leftovers from cooking the steak will add extra flavor to the sauce (optionally, add the Worcestershire sauce if you want extra flavor).  If you grilled the steaks, you need a pan for the sauce, and you'll also need to use the Worcestershire sauce to add some color.
 - Heat up the pan.  Add the heavy whipping cream, the green peppercorns, and the Worcestershire sauce to the pan.  Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute, while gently mixing with a wooden spatula.  The cream will suck in the Worcestershire sauce and some of the juices left over from the cooked steaks, and will start turning brownish.  When ready, add the sauce over the steak.  Serve immediately, while all the ingredients are hot and tasty.

Presentation:
 - Present next to a couple of colorful side dishes.  Here, the steak is presented accompanied by Garlic Carrot Fries and Yellow Wax Bean Salad.

Chocolate Blasts | Bombite de Ciocolata


Remember the times when you were a kid, and visiting some relative or family friend turned out to be the most boring thing you've ever done?  The recipe below is just one temptation hosts might have in Romania to keep children enthusiastic about the visit, and mostly quiet throughout the time the grownups chat (unless the dessert runs out too quickly, which causes some emergencies).

And who says this has to be a kid-only dessert?  Add a bit of alcohol to the filling (as in the notes below), and you've got the perfect dessert for parties of all ages.

Ingredients:
 - 1 lb of petit beurre biscuits
 - 8 ounces of unsalted butter
 - 1 cup of milk
 - 1 cup of walnuts
 - 8 spoons of cocoa powder
 - 1 cup of sugar
 - 2 tablespoons of rum or vanilla essence
 - Maraschino cherries (or alcohol-infused blueberries, as described below)
 - Shredded coconut

Preparation:
 - Finely grind the biscuits, and mix with the sugar.
 - Melt the butter on low heat, and add to the biscuits.  Mix.
 - Carefully dissolve the cocoa powder into the milk, and add the rum or vanilla essence.  When ready, add to the biscuits, and mix.
 - Finely chop the walnuts, and add to the biscuits.  Mix everything together.  If all went well, it sticks together when pressed.  If the mixture is too watery, incorporate a few more finely ground biscuits into the mixture.
 - Next, let's proceed to form the blasts.  Pick about 1-2 tablespoons of the mixture, and press it flat in you palm.  Add a maraschino cherry in the center, then roll the mixture to uniformly cover it all around.  Finally, covering it with coconut shreds.  Repeat.
 - Serve cold or at room temperature.  Given that you've used melted butter for this recipe, it probably means that you need to let it sit and cool for a while after the preparation.  I usually just refrigerate them overnight, which also helps make each blast firmer.
 - Note: while maraschino cherries have some nice flavor and consistency, I do love a different twist to this recipe.  It takes some preparation in advance, but it is definitely worth the effort.  Here's what you do.  Takes about five cups of berries, and poke each of them with a toothpick (to help the juice flow out).  Place in a jar, cover with two cups of sugar, and shake gently to mix.  Cover, and let sit.  After about a week, the berries would have bled some juice which also caused the sugar to melt.  Add about 250 ml of vodka, and let sit for one to two months.  Aside from the delicious blueberry liquor which you can now enjoy, you also have some alcohol-infused blueberries for your desserts.  Use 2-3 such blueberries as a filling for the chocolate blasts, instead of the maraschino cherries.

Presentation:
 - The recipe can be presented in many ways.  For a romantic dinner, place the chocolate blasts on top of red rose petals (or next to red rose blooms).  For a special occasion, cut open some coconuts in halves, use a paper towel to dry them out, then place the chocolate blasts inside (as in the photo above).

Cherry Compote | Compot de Cirese


I like to think of a compote as a natural fruit flavored juice that is perfect for a hot summer afternoon.  But in Romania, a compote is also an easy approach to preserving fruits for a longer period of time (over the winter and spring, for example, when fresh fruits could be hard to find).  If you've never tried it, give it a shot - the recipe below is very quick and easy to prepare.

Some of the common compotes in Romania are made out of grapes, apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, and mirabelles. I give you here the recipe for Cherry Compote - the others are very similar to it. I also simplified the recipe for quick consumption - the approach to prepare a compote that lasts for months is a tiny bit different (the end result tastes the same, but the cooking is slightly different to help with the preservation).

Ingredients (for two servings):
 - 16 ounces of water
 - 10 tablespoons of sugar
 - One tablespoon of vanilla extract
 - Half a pound of cherries
 - A pinch of cinnamon

Preparation:
 - Mix the water, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon.  Bring to a boil.
 - Add the cherries and continue boiling for 5 minutes.
 - Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for a few hours or overnight - this will allow the cherry flavor to infuse the liquid.  The compote can easy stay at room temperature for the first 12 to 24 hours, though it needs to be  refrigerated afterwards.
 - Serve at room temperature or cold.

Presentation:
 - Place in a nice colorful bowl, and decorate with some fresh mint leaves.

Chiftelute de Dovlecei


Ingredients:
 - 4-5 medium-sized baby squash and zucchini (about 5 cups when shredded)
 - 2 eggs
 - 3 tablespoons of flour
 - 3 tablespoons of vanilla essence
 - A pinch of salt
 - 2 tablespoons of lemon peel
 - Bread crumbs
 - Cooking oil
 - Half a cup of sugar

Preparation:
 - Shred the squash and zucchini, and place in a colander to discard any extra water.  Let sit for about 30 minutes, and periodically grab handfulls of shreds and squeeze the water out (and discard it).
 - Beat the two eggs separately, and mix with the flour until homogeneous (no lumps).
 - Add the shredded squash/zucchini, the vanilla essence, the lemon peel, and the pinch of salt.  Mix everything.
 - Use about 3-4 tablespoons of the mixture to form a ball, then flatten it.  This is called a "chifteluta" in Romanian (though it can have different shapes and ingredients, including meat - see here).  Coat both sides with bread crumbs.  Repeat until you run out of mixture.
 - Heat some cooking oil in a frying pan.  Fry each chifteluta until ready (about 2-3 minutes on each side).  Cook only three or four of them at a time to not overcrowd the pan.
 - When each chifteluta is cooked, remove it from the pan, and place it on a paper napkin (it helps remove some of the extra cooking oil).
 - Serve warm or cold.

Presentation:
 - When serving, top with sugar (or powder sugar).
 - Note that the squash and zucchini lend the recipe a vivid combination of yellow, white, and green.  Frying further adds some brown to the breadcrumbs cover that surrounds each chifteluta.  As such, the palette of colors for this dish can be nicely enriched with some fresh fruits such as strawberries or raspberries.
 - A splash of curly parsley leaves adds a reminder for the unusual main ingredient for this dessert.

Romanian Chicken and Mushrooms Stroganoff | Ciulama de Pui cu Ciuperci


Ingredients:
 - 8 ounces of mushrooms
 - Half a chicken breast, boneless
 - 2 tablespoons of shredded parsnip
 - 4 baby carrots, diced small
 - Half an onion
 - 3-4 small cherry tomatoes, diced
 - 2 tablespoons of shredded zucchini or squash
 - 3-4 tablespoons of oil
 - 3-4 tablespoons of flour
 - 2 cups of sour cream
 - 1 cup finely chopped dill
 - Spices: salt, pepper

Preparation:
 - Boil the chicken breast, mushrooms, parsnip, carrots, onion, tomatoes, and zucchini/squash in 6 cups of water.  This will last about 30 minutes, and it will look similar to a soup.  Wait for this to be ready before you proceed to the next step.
 - In a deep cooking pot, place 3-4 tablespoons of oil.  Heat it up.
 - Carefully sprinkle the flour over the hot oil, one tablespoon at a time, and mix till uniform.
 - Use a ladle to transfer the cooked meat and veggies soup (together with the liquid) to the pot with the flour and the oil.  Transfer one full ladle, then mix till uniform.  Only then you may proceed to transfer the next full ladle.
 - Cook everything for another 5 minutes.
 - Add the sour cream and the spices, and mix till uniform.  Cook for another 5 minutes.
 - Remove from heat.
 - Add the chopped dill, and mix.

Presentation:
 - Serve with polenta.  I like to let the polenta cool, then slice it carefully, and use some of these slices to decorate the dish.

Romanian Moussaka | Musaca



Ingredients:
 - 2 pounds of potatoes
 - 1 onion
 - 1 pound of ground beef
 - 1 can of diced tomatoes (14.5 oz)
 - Spices: salt, pepper, chili pepper, thyme
 - Cooking oil

Preparation:
 - Peel the potatoes, cut them into cubes, and boil them.  Remove, discard water, and let the potatoes drain in a colander.
 - Dice the onion, and broil it in a bit of cooking oil.  When it starts to turn yellow, add the ground beef and then spices (salt, pepper, chili pepper, and thyme), mix, and cook for about 4-10 minutes (until the beef is not red anymore).
 - Mash the potatoes, and add salt to taste.
 - Pick your favorite baking dish.  Preferably, it should be non-stick.  Ideally, if should also fit all the ingredients.  Gently coat the baking dish with a bit of oil of butter to further help remove the moussaka later on.
 - Split the mashed potatoes in three equal quantities.  Use the first third to form a uniform layer on the bottom of the baking dish.
 - Split the cooked ground beef composition in two halves, and use one to form a uniform layer on top of the potatoes in the backing dish.
 - Add half of the diced tomatoes in another uniform layer on top.
 - Add few more spices if necessary (remember that we did not add any salt nor spices to the potatoes or to the tomatoes).
 - Add another layer of mashed potatoes on top (though save the last third of them for the end).
 - Add another layer with the remaining ground beef.
 - Add another layer with the remaining diced tomatoes.
 - Add more spices, as needed.
 - Finally, add the last layer of potatoes.
 - For a nice color on top, top everything with thin slices of butter or shaved cheese.
 - Preheat the oven at 425F, and bake for 40 minutes.

Presentation:
 - Cut the serving slices vertically, and carefully remove each slice to preserve the layers.
 - Serve next to pickles, which also add some extra color to the presentation.
 - A cold beer goes perfectly wish this dish.