WTF Christmas Foods and The Cabbage Roll

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas can be a scary time. Like, frightful. Some scary-ass foods come out of the spooky forest, as Little Girl would say, and haunt our tables and our waistlines. I mean some really creepy, gravity-defying, puzzling culinary riddles that give you nightmares. Such, is the case, with Romanian food for Christmas.

I can speak of this with great experience, as I've had this food foisted on me for almost 30 years. Until finally I broke free from the chains of overcooked pork roast and dry sweet bread swirled with nuts and cocoa that somehow manage to taste nothing like nuts nor cocoa. I don't know if my mother was a particularly bad cook, because my grandma is amazing, or that Romanian food is just not that great. I'm venturing with Option #2 here.

Look -- all cultures have something funky. Americans have green jello with fruits inside. WTF? Why do we need some neon-green, atomic-lime tasting funky ass gelatinous blob with random fruits bizarrely suspended like some kind of screwed up time warping accident set on our table every December 25h? Or worse, when this is served with whipped cream?! Gasp! What the hell is that? WHY???

Or in Belgium they eat a bread that's shaped and baked in the shape of baby Jesus. The Brits have mince pies which are just...gross. But by far, in my humble opinion, the Romanians take the proverbial cake with their menu. A couple of years ago we had a traditional Romanian Christmas meal at my parents' house. Here are some pics for your viewing pleasure.

Every Christmas starts off with a toast of Tuica. The unofficial national spirit of Romania, it's a plum brandy that tastes more like pisco or grappa with the heft of a vodka. For Christmas, my dad boils some with sugar and black peppercorns. I actually rather enjoy it.

And yes, you have to serve boiled tuica in espresso cups. This is a must!

Next up on the appetizer-driven meal is Jumerele, or fried pork fat. Pieces of pork belly are cut up small and fried then seasoned heavily with salt. They are just perfect with the tuica. No seriously, it's quite good when you can get them fresh out of the fryer especially!

And the standard is Salata de Bouef, which is peculiarly named because it translates to "salad of beef" but Romanians make it with chicken. I don't know. It starts to go downhill from here.

The "salad" is more like a potato salad, involving very finely chopped boiled potatoes, boiled chicken, carrots, peas, onion, and pickles that are mixed in a Dijon-mayo dressing. It's then molded into a hill, covered in more mayo, and decorated with sliced green and red bell peppers, olives, and parsley. Actually I should point out here that this dish has very old roots. Frankly medieval Europe showcased dishes like this quite often, the cooks priding themselves on how intricately they could decorate the dish. This picture is nothing representative of what my grandma could actually do. Many years she creates rather intricate patterns and figures with cut vegetables. It's pretty amazing really. This technique is also classic French and can be found in their very old recipes as well.

And no Romanian get-together is complete with out our version of antipasto. Various salamis, cheeses, and olives are arranged decoratively on a platter for people to snack on while they drink their tuica.

[pictured: toba, hungarian salami, smoked pork belly, feta cheese, caskava, kalamata and green olives, fresh cow's milk cheese]
 But by far the scariest Christmas dish ever is the piftie.  Pigs feet suspended in pig-flavored gelatin served cold and jiggly, it's both nasty to look at and nastier to eat. Again, it's similar to another medieval dish called aspic. Piftie is Defcon 1, Level Orange WTF.

French bread is sliced thin and served with taramousalata or icre in Romanian. Taken from the Greeks, it's fish roe (usually from herring, carp or cod) and mixed with mayo. The Romanians add very finely chopped white onion to the mixture. It's served as a dip to be spread on fresh bread.

Usually we'd have homemade sausages as well but my mother never lets my dad make them. I remember he'd grind the meat himself, stuff the casings, and hang them dry in our garage high above in the rafters for about a month. He's use this 10 foot long pole to help move the sausages around and rotate their positions before finally balancing them down. A few years he'd make smoked sausages. I remember a little white house, much like a doll house, with a smoke box attached to the back. They turned out pretty good!

And then the main event...

Romanians are big on the pork for Christmas. We have roasted pork loin studded with garlic and roasted in wine with mashed potatoes, and stuffed cabbage or sarmale with mamaliga (aka corn mush or polenta) and muritur, or pickled vegetables. My grandma makes a batch of muritur every year -- carrots, pickles, cauliflower, spicy peppers, and cabbage all in a salty brine that cures for over a month.

And then after everyone complains they've over-eaten again this year, it's time for dessert! We usually have cozonac, a sweet egg bread flavored with finely chopped walnuts in cocoa and prajitura, or pastries of some kind. Usually my mom would make her walnut bread pastries with apricot jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

[cozonac on the left; prajitura on the right[
 So there you have it. A Romanian Christmas. After almost 30 years of enduring this, I've never been happier to marry a Sicilian-Colombian in my life!

What crazy Christmas traditions does your family have? Anything merriting the WTF label?


degarrido said...

Fascinating! One question...why does every culture have some disgusting form of aspic?

Mishy said...

I don't know!!! It's weird! I mean I do know (this is sad). Aspic was a common form of preserving foods, especially meats in medieval times. So the process stuck as a "traditional" food. Most European cultures have a form of aspic as a direct result of its history.