Arabella McIntyre-Brown chucks out the recipes books
My neighbours here in the mountain village cook traditional Ardelean food using recipes handed down through generations of mothers. They are so deeply embedded in the folk memory that I doubt anyone except the newest of brides has to consult the family recipe book. Maybe for festival food or the most complicated of cakes, but even then…
I love recipe books. But I confess that I don’t actually read them. I look at the pictures, and I note the ingredients. Then I play it by ear.
Some people cook brilliantly using their favourite chef’s instructions. There are Slater slaves, Nigella lovers and Delia devotees. Scrumptious food that looks fabulous. I’ve never been one for recipes. When I try to follow them, they usually go horribly wrong. I don’t cook anything that requires exactitude and delicacy. Food chez moi tends to be peasant food, a hearty muddle of flavours and textures from assorted continents. I can never repeat anything exactly, but as long as it tastes good, who cares?
Here in Romania I like to play with my food. Turn traditions inside out. Use my in-born widget of taste, which I consult to see if this will go with that. I find basic formulae that are almost infinitely forgiving and adaptable. Cakes, for instance. I never made a cake till I came to Romania. Now I’ve discovered that almost any combination of fruit, nuts, spices and flavourings, held together with flour and egg, can work wonders. I now found my signature dish, an anarchic fruit cake that visitors tend to demolish rather greedily.
Trying to find new ways with local recipes is fun, too.
Polenta: savoury or sweet
Mamaliga, for instance. Simple mamaliga, I confess, is wallpaper paste to me. But it’s gluten-free, local, and cheap – so a useful blank canvas. You can make it salty or sweet, depending on mood and need.
It’s savoury if you add some flavours and texture: boil the stuff, as per the packet instructions. When it’s just about done, chuck in a handful of sunflowers seeds; a generous double pinch of your favourite herb (or a melange), a bit of salt, and half a packet of telemea de capră. Stir it up, and pour into a cold oven dish. It will solidify as it cools. Later you can slice it, top it with something Cheddar-like and a little grated Parmesan, and shove it under the grill to heat through. Scrumptious with a colourful salad or ratatouille.
On the other hand, you can add soft fruit – berries or currants, for instance, for a great dessert, served hot or cold. Here you can find astonishing wild fruit in the markets. Fling some whole raw fruit into the blank polenta, with perhaps a little honey, and make a sauce from more of the fruit and a bit of sugar. Simmer gently till it’s soft, and blend till sauce-like. A square of wild raspberry polenta, with a wild strawberry sauce, would be, well, wild.
Cake: comforting cocoa or firey cheese
On the same principle, courgettes (zucchini/dovlecei), flour, oil, eggs and baking powder are a platform for chocolate cake and cheesebread.
The amounts don’t seem to be critical. As long as there’s enough flour to make a cakey mixture, the eggs and courgettes will hold it all together. Please note: this makes a cake, but since ‘cheesecake’ is something entirely different, I call it cheese bread.
Combine a grated courgette (medium sized), a cup of any old flour, two eggs, a packet of baking powder and a glug of oil. (NB you won’t see or taste the courgette, but it makes the cake moist and springy.)
If you’re in a chocolate mood, add in a lot of unsweetened cocoa (about a third of a packet) and some sugar to taste. Bake as usual.
If you’re feeling cheesey: instead of cocoa and sugar, chuck in some chopped chillis to taste. Snip up a bunch of spring onions (ceapă verde) and maybe half a red pepper (ardei). Some dried herbs of choice, if you like, and a pinch of salt. Then grab any oddments of cheese lurking in your fridge. If it’s a bit tired, cut off any giveaway mould. It’ll be fine. Any combo of cheeses is fine as long as it’s well flavoured and you take off any rind. Chop it up and fling it into the mix. Stir, pour into a pan, and bake as usual. The middle will sink a bit as the cheese is heavy. It should be solid, and is heavenly when eaten straight from the oven. Also heavenly while warm, and when cold. Eat on its own or as part of a salad lunch.
Don’t be scared to experiment, and have fun playing with your food!
Arabella McIntyre-Brown moved to Măgura, a village 1,000 metres up in the Carpathians, eight years ago. She has published three books in Romania.