January is a tough month. For the first week or so, we all come down from the holiday high, having just spent a couple of blissful weeks with friends and family, and likely taking some well-deserved time off of work or studying. Now that vacation is over, and reality has hit like a proverbial ton of bricks, I tend to look for anything – and everything – that helps take away the winter blues. More often than not, this involves comfort food.
I’m Romanian, and a big part of our culture is those typical Eastern-European hearty food staples – stews, potatoes, hearty meats and lots of bread. We wash all that food down with something called palinca, a highly potent fruit brandy (plum is a favourite) that warms up your insides in no time. During cold and short winter days, the best thing to do is eat, drink and (try to) be merry.
There are two dishes that have been favourites of mine since I was a kid. They always fill me up and make me feel just a little bit better about bracing any cold weather activities I may have to do (like walking to work, or heading to Ottawa).
Sarmale (Romanian Cabbage Rolls):
I know, “cabbage rolls” doesn’t sound super appealing. But the minced meat, bread and sour cream combo of this dish make is a filling and truly comforting meal.
Recipe c/o Food.com (the family ones we have are all in Romanian)
3 lbs heads of cabbage (sour cabbage, if possible)
1 1/2 lbs ground pork
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 medium onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups celery, finely chopped
1/2 lb bacon, finely diced
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 cup rice
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup tomato juice
1 quart sauerkraut (I prefer Polish in jar)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh dill (optional)
1 smoked ham hock
- Remove core from cabbage. In a large pot, bring to boil enough water to cover cabbage. Add 2 tablespoons salt and 1/4 cup vinegar to boiling water. Immerse cabbage in boiling water. Cover and cook over medium-high heat 5 to 7 minutes. With fork or tongs, gently remove leaves as they become tender. Drain well; let cool. Trim main leaf vein so it is flat like rest of cabbage leaf.
- In a large frying pan over medium heat, add oil, onions, celery, bacon, salt, pepper, paprika, parsley leaves and saute until light golden brown. Remove from heat and let cool for 1/2 hour.
- Add ground pork, rice and sauteed onions together along with 1/2 cup water, and mix well. This is the meat filling.
- Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of the meat filling in center of cabbage leaf. Fold right hand side of leaf over filling, then roll from base to bottom of leaf, then with index finger gently tuck left hand side of leaf into cabbage roll to make a nice neat roll. Squeeze juice out of sauerkraut and place 1/2 of jar on bottom of pot. Chop any leftover cabbage and place on top of sauerkraut. Place pork hock on top of sauerkraut. Arrange cabbage rolls, seam side down in pot in neat layers. Place them loosely touching each other and layer on top of one another. Sprinkle with salt between layers. Place second half of sauerkraut on top of cabbage rolls. Spread tomato sauce and tomato juice over kraut and place 1 bay leaf (and optional dill sprig) on top. Cover rolls with water just enough to cover rolls. Place heavy dish on top making sure there is a couple inches between plate on top of pot. Cover pot and bring to boiling and reduce heat to simmer and cook for about 2 hours.
- Serve with sour cream and fresh bread
This is a staple of almost every Eastern European country. It’s hearty, meaty, potato-y and, most importantly, you eat it with a ton of bread. It’s carb overload but it’s just what the doctor ordered for this time of year (assuming your doctor is Romanian).
Recipe c/o my dad (from Burt Wolf’s Menu Cookbook)
Makes 4 servings
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 -inch cubes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into thin strips
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into thtn strips
1 carrot, peeled and cut into thin stnps
1 medium onion, sliced
1 cup corn kernels
1 cup quartered string beans
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
6 cups beef or chicken broth or a combination of the two
4 new potaloes, cut in half
3/4 cup rice
Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro as a garnish
- In a large casserole over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the beef and brown on all sides. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.
- Stir in the bell peppers, carrot, and onion and cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the corn, string beans, salt, and broth. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the potatoes and rice. Cover the pot and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the meat is tender.
- Place the solid ingredients in a soup plate and spoon on some of the broth. Garnish with the chopped parsley or cilantro.
- Serve with fresh baguette.