Rife 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 Medieval Feast | Iahnie de Fasole cu Ciolan Afumat

I've dreamed of preparing a medieval 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 the medieval way, 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
 - 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 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 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 some granulated 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 Jelly | 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 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, 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.
 - 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.

 - 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

 - 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.

 - 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 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

 - 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.

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).

 - 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

 - 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).

 - 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.

 - 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

 - 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.

 - 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.


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!

 - Half a pound of queso fresco, cottage cheese, white cheese, ricotta 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 crème fraîche or 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)

 - 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.

 - Place a base and a round top above it. Generously add crème fraîche 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.

 - 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)

 - 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.

 - 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.

 - 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

 - 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.

 - 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!

 - 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

 - 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.

 - 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

 - 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.

 - 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.

 - 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

 - 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.

 - 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.

 - 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

 - 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 oven and let cool.

 - 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.

 - 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

 - 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.

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!


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.

 - 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

 - 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.

 - 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.