Reading my previous posts on the culinary delights of the fair Romanian folk, it may have seemed a bit to focus around various bits of animal, with focus on the mighty pig. So I thought of writing a piece on somewhat lighter fare that is eaten in the summer. It is no longer summer at the time of writing this post, it was not at the time the pictures were taken and it will certainly not be at the time of posting, but it was a particularly mild autumn so I will keep the title.
October is one of the nicer months in Bucharest, a city of very hot summers and quite cold winters. It is the driest month, historically speaking, not too cold and not too hot. It is so nice people often say: I don’t remember the last time we had such a nice October – usually the last time was the previous year. But the meteorological memories of people can be unreliable. This particular October was, in fact, nicer than usual, especially the last week when temperatures got to the mid 20s, some 8 degrees above normal. This post was written on a particularly nice day mid-month, although ever so slightly on the too windy side of things. The sun was shining, the swans were swimming and the last tomatoes were still struggling to ripen on the vine. And we had a nice family meal in the style of summer.
I will begin with a note that this particular post will not have exact recipes, that is not really my thing, but more of an overview, focused on the starters. Romanian meals usually start with ciorba during the week day, but during a weekend gathering other things are preferred. I should mention that whenever I reference oil, it is sunflower oil I am speaking about. It is, by quite some distance, the most popular cooking oil in Romania because it is quite cheap and Romanians consider it neutral tasting, although this may be just because they are used to the taste. It is not particularly healthful – seed oils generally are not in my opinion – and I use none of it in every day eating – I use mostly olive oil or butter – but these dishes just do not taste right to Romanians with oil other than sunflower.
One of the more popular summer foods in Romania is “salata de vinete cu ardei copt” – eggplant “salad” – more of a dip really – with roasted pepper. This is done quite simply. The eggplants and peppers are roasted – on a grill if available or on a stove top if not – until done, which I cannot tell you when it is, you have to see it.
A medium eggplant should take some 40 minutes until it is charred on the outside and baked on the inside. When done baking, it needs to be processed still hot or the flesh can darken. This can be difficult and lead to burning of fingers if care is not used. Just remove some of the skin and scoop the flesh with a spoon in a colander. Salt it some and leave drain for 20 minutes.
The resulting eggplant can be turned into the dip – just add a tablespoon of oil per eggplant and a very finely chopped raw onion, mix and that is it. The drained eggplant also freezes reasonably well, and people sometimes freeze a few bags of it to be prepared at a later date – the preference is to bake more eggplants at a time.
The peppers are easier – bake until the skin is slightly charred and can be peeled off. Add salt and vinegar to taste and that is about it. Usually the core and seeds are removed from the pepper, but that is not the way of the Pie household. Each one removes the core of the peppers they eat. So to eat get some good bread, cover in a layer of eggplant and either put a piece of pepper on top or, as I do, take a bite of each, alternatively.
A second popular dish is a form of deviled eggs. This is simple; hard boil the eggs, remove the yolk, crumble it and mix it with salt, pepper, some herbs, and either butter or liver pate and a tablespoon of mayonnaise. Refill the egg with with the mixture.
The next dish is a fish roe dip and it is made from either carp roe – cheaper – or pike roe – pricier and preferred. It is practically like making mayo, but with fish eggs. Add the row, salt and some lemon, and then mix while slowly adding oil until desired consistency. Add finely chopped onion to taste – the onion is sometimes served on the side, but most often mixed in.
Next we have green string beans and garlic. This type of beans are ones that grow long and thin – we call them Chinese beans in Romania, don’t know what particular cultivar it is. This is also quite simple, pick tender pods, boil for 3 minutes and add a lot of minced garlic and some mayo to tie things together. The garlic is the secret – boiled green beans being disgusting themselves. Often a similar thing is made but with mushrooms instead of beans.
Finally no Romanian summer meal is complete without some raw vegetables – tomatoes, peppers, radishes, onions – and plain white cheese – usually a piece is fresh, softer and less salty, the other is aged, harder and saltier. All these starter are placed on the table and each eats what they want.
The main course was catfish – the Wels catfish – two ways.
One is the traditional way of cooking fish down these parts saramura – which translates as brine. But unlike most places when things are brined before cooking, here the brine is like a sauce. You basically add a teaspoon and a half of salt per cup of hot water, with fresh ground black pepper, paprika and thinly sliced chilies to make the base – or thin brine. The fish is taken hot off the grill and placed directly in the brine. Various vegetables can be added on the grill next to the fish – tomatoes, peppers, chilies, onions – to be used as a side. Sometimes these are peeled and mashed in the brine to for a thicker brine – more similar to a sauce, other times they are on the plate next to the fish. The dish is usually served with polenta. In my family we usually do the thin brine. Also this type of brine is also used with grilled chicken.
The second way is simply fried – just dredge it in a bit of cornmeal and fry it on both sides in a pan – we don’t usually deep fry fish. This is eaten simply with a good squeeze of lemon or mujdei de usturoi.
So this about covers the food for the day. It was warm enough to eat outside on the patio. The lake looked good and clean – for reasons I do not understand the last few summers it was plagued by some vegetation that completely filled it to the point you barely realized there was water there. The white wine was properly chilled and of good quality. Overall it was not a bad day.