Eating the Winner

I want to thank everyone who voted on my Romanian food post, first because it’s always nice to hear from folks in this weirdly isolating place of e-connection, but also because the top choice was sarmale (option C), and it was absolutely delicious.

A friend made a traditional meat recipe, which was excellent, but since I’ve been eating more than my share of the beasts of the field lately, we opted for a vegetarian version instead. Our stack of mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bell peppers crowded the cutting board. We had to saute the mushrooms in a separate pan because it was too much for one dish. You know you’re doing something right when that happens.

Once everything was ready, we combined them, added the (uncooked) rice, and got our hands dirty. Other cuisines cook or freeze the cabbage leaves to soften them, but Romanian sarmale uses pickled cabbage, so they’re a bit like un-shredded sauerkraut. This makes them easier to work with and adds a special complexity to the end product.

Grab a leaf, add a warm handful of filling, roll and tuck, then stack them in the pot. Ideally it’s a genuine Romanian black ceramic pot from Marginea, but anything Dutch oven-y will work. Add enough of the cabbage and tomato juices to keep everybody nice and moist (or pieces of smoked bacon, if you’re making the meat versions), with a crown layer of cabbage leaf on top, then cook. Our vegetarian rolls only needed a couple hours for the rice, the meat version normally takes about three hours, but a friend who was using the Marginea pot left that bad boy in the oven for six hours.

We used the stove instead, because every Romanian in the house was cooking something for the holiday. Two hours passed quickly in conversation with the other chefs, trying their eggplant spreads, stuffed peppers, and maybe just a bite of chocolate layer cake. Let me tell you, that kitchen smelled incredible and was the coziest place within a thousand miles.

Then we were prizing out a couple sarmale each, and setting them on a bed of creamy mamaliga (polenta) with a scoop of creme fraiche on the side. I like them with a nice sharp cider, though my hand hovered over both the cold beer and glass of Romanian red wine for quite a while.

I loathe having phones at the table, so don’t have photos of the end product (and hunger ate my focus first) but I can still feel the hearty warmth of that plate of tasty food, eaten with friends around a crowded table, while a cold winter wind peered enviously in the window.

Bon appetit, or as the Romanians say: pofte buna!