Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Traditions, the Romanian Way

Fill in the blanks (and we are talking food)- it is not Christmas without ___.

I have no recollection of the first moment I tasted it. I hardly remember learning to make it. But I will never forget the sensory overload that the scent of this dish shoved my into every single time it flooded out of the oven. Warm, sweet, sour, bacony, seasoned with thyme, bay leaves, peppercorn, complete with onions, garlic, the sauerkraut cabbage roll -sarmale - is ever present during the holiday season in any Romanian home.
For the past ten years, I have rolled up my sleeves and made that dish here in Denver. I made it because it would never be Christmas without it. I made it to get myself high on the scent that comes out of the oven while it cooks. I made it because I craved eating it next to the Christmas tree. And in the process, I got a few new family members hooked on it.

The food that I grew up with is precious and priceless. Nothing will ever replace it. It built the person I am, the palate that makes me smile when I taste something new, the ease with which I make everything from scratch no matter the time or effort, the fearlessness that makes me comfortable cooking any vegetable without a recipe.

Somehow though, the food of my childhood, the Romanian food, my grandma's dishes are not what I am focusing on in the kitchen. I find no need to spend my time perfecting Romanian dishes. I don't use recipes for Romanian recipes- they are simply part of me. And I have a hard time sharing them for two reasons -first, I just don't have a written recipe- I make it up, every time. Also, I am not exactly sure how much interest it would garner (the humble way to describe my feeling) or how much appreciation you would have for it (the snarky way to describe my feeling).

But no matter what my feelings are rooted in, when I got this email from my sister-in-law...

subject: cabbage rolls

ok... what do I need to do to convince you to write a blog post. In the spirit of Hanukkah, Ansel [my nephew] and his mama and dada would love your recipe!

...I figured I'll go ahead and write the recipe, share my tradition, my scent of Christmas, my 'it's not Christmas without' dish.

Sarmale, a Romanian holiday tradition

Ingredients: 2 large cabbage heads; about 1/2 cup canola oil for sauteeing; 2 pounds 85% lean ground beef (pork in Romania; I adjusted for the Jewish guy I married); 2 large slices of bread; 1/4 cup milk; 2 large eggs; 2 large onions, finely chopped; 4 large garlic cloves, minced; 5 tablespoons rice; 4 tablespoons thyme leaves, finely chopped, plus 5-6 springs; 1 cup tomato sauce; 4 ounces of bacon, sliced; 4 bay leaves; 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns; 32 ounce jar of sauerkraut; salt and pepper to taste.

The real trick is the cabbage. Back in Romania, we did this with sauerkraut. No - not the kind you buy in a jar at the chain grocery store or that plastic bag at your fine food grocer. Every fall, whole cabbages get the salt water treatment in Romania in giant containers that are left in cool dark pantries. These cabbages are perfectly sour, still crunchy, yet softened by Christmas. But that is back in Romania and we're not there. Well, I may actually be there while you are reading this, but I digress.

Remove the leaves from the cabbage trying to keep them intact. You might need to smack the cabbage a few times on the counter to release some of the hardness. You might need to remove the core without removing the leaves first. You might need to cut it in half at one point, but first try to remove the leaves while it is whole. You will probably only use half of each of the two cabbages. You will notice that the leaves get thicker and harder and whiter pretty fast. You don't want those. You will get probably about 15 leaves out of each cabbage- more or less works, and leaves that are imperfect are fine - you can patch things up.

In a large, preferably deep sautee pan, heat a layer of canola oil, about 1/8 of an inch. Add the cabbage leaves in batches. Sprinkle salt on them and move them around the pan until they are coated with oil and start to soften. You want them to be limp without any browning so adjust the heat on your stove if you must. Repeat with the rest of the leaves and set aside.

Wipe your sautee pan clean, add a layer of canola oil, and put it on medium heat. When hot, add the onions and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Allow the onions to soften without browning- 3 or 4 minutes. Add the rice and cook for 3-4 more minutes. Add garlic and chopped thyme and remove from heat after 1 more minute. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, combine meat, bread, eggs, salt, pepper, and the cooked onions/rice/garlic/thyme. Mix it well with your hands. I personally taste it for seasonings- I know, it's raw- so is tartare. You can eye it ...or taste it.

Get an oven proof heavy bottomed pot and put half of the sauerkraut, including the liquid on the bottom of the pan. Start forming the rolls- one cabbage leaf at a time. Roll about a small handful of the meat mixture in each of the leaves. There is no specific size requirement- you make the rules, but I'd try to keep them sort of the same size.

Pack them up snug, lay anther layer of rolls on top of it and top with the rest of the sauerkraut. Lay your bacon slices on top, pour the tomato sauce in a sort of even layer, and top with the bay leaves, thyme springs, and peppercorns. There should be liquid up to 3/4 of the pot. Cover it and stick it in the oven.

After 1 hour and 15 minutes (approximately), take the cover off the pot. Place back in the oven for another 15-30 minutes.

Serve with polenta and always make memories around food!

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Make it. Gift it.

There is a light at the end of the December madness tunnel- I know there is. I can’t see it, but I’m crossing my fingers that it is actually there.

As cheerful and happy as December may be, it is stressful and tiring and consuming. Countless Christmas gatherings, frantic holiday shopping, home decorating, greeting card writing, , party hosting, mad traveling, and crazy eating – all to the tune of Christmas music can frazzle even the most cheerful December-lover.

In the whirlwind, taking a deep breath, a step back, and making at least some of your gifts can actually take some of the pressure off (skipping the mall really helps!). If the holiday season gives you lemons, jam them and give them away! Easy as 1-2-3.

One: drive to your local grocery store (you are probably going there anyway) and buy the following: 12 lemons, olive oil, 2 bunches marjoram (or oregano). Also, get the smallest canning jars you find (aisle 12- ) 4 oz each old fashioned pattern or not comes in a box of 12.

Two: wash lemons. Cut into halves, quarters, then eights.

Remove seeds- it’s just much better if you don’t have to spit seeds out when you eat. Place lemons in the food processor along with 1 cup olive oil, 8 tablespoons chopped marjoram (or oregano), 1 cup sugar, 4 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper.

Chop it until the lemon is chunks and put it in the jars you bought. These quantities will make twelve 4 ounce jars.. You adjust to your needs- more or less.

Three: make a cute tag with what’s in the jar. Done.

Save the rest of the story- where the recipe comes from (Teri Ripetto at Potager, published in Colorado Organic) and what to serve it on (a grilled ribeye, a baked fish, a bresaols-topped crostini topped with bresaola, or like I did tonight, as a base for dressing for a shaved fennel salad).

Photography by
Jennifer Olson.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Local Holiday Gifts- Top 10

Colorado celebrated its 4th annual Buy Local Week two weeks ago. The concept was to connect local businesses with ...the rest of us during this particular week. Nice concept - but a week flies by too quickly. So I think we should keep going - local all the way, all the time.

No matter what local is to you, to me, it is about roots and community. It is about quality and reliability. About belonging. About respecting nature, your body, and the traditions of those before us. So this holiday season, turn to local for gifts, food-focused gifts.

Here are my top 10 Colorado local food/holiday gifts.

The cookbook: Colorado Organic- Cooking Seasonally, Eating Locally.

Why: it just has it all. The book is a collection of profiles of eight of Colorado's most loved chefs (think Teri Ripetto, Yazmin Lozada-Hissom, Lachlan McKinnon-Patterson), recipes from their restaurants (yes, recipes from Potager, Duo, and Frasca), and stories featuring eight of Colorado's most interestinging farmers. The recipes are approachable, the stories intriguing, and the photography stunning. And let's face it, everyone who loves food loves a good cookbook.
Where: Online if you click here. Or for a list of retailers, click here.

2. The meat: Il Mondo Vecchio

: Cause they've got meat curing down to an Italian-back-door- loading-dock-selling- only-once-a-week-science. Yes- you can go to the loading dock on Fridays afternoon to sample and buy. You can create your selection from a great variety of meats- I wouldn't miss the bresaola, duck prosciutto, and vine e pepe nero.
Where: Order online here or visit these locations.

3. The cracker: 34 Degrees Crispbread

Why: Because it is the easiest thing to pull out of a pantry and have a snack with or serve an appetizer on at a party. It is versatile and the variety of flavors gives the chance of creating a nice selection for a present.
Where: basically everywhere these days- Whole Foods, Safeway, Marczyck or online at
4. The spices: Savory Spice Shop

Why: because everyone should have the chance to throw out their old spices and start new with fresh ground spices and hand crafted seasonings. They have pre-made gift sets but you can always make your own- that is my favorite part!
Where: Online- here- or at one of the many locations in Colorado (and now in a few other states!).

The preserved fruits and vegetables: MMLocal

Why: Because they are beautiful (literally), interesting, and deeply rooted into the farms and orchards of Colorado. They have the skill and the commitment!
Where: Online if you click here. And with one more click here, find a list of retailers.

Why: cause a bottle (or a six pack) of anything is an easy and successful gift every time. And because these Colorado companies actually provide high quality
Where: Well, your friendly neighborhood liquor store should carry all of this. But, in case that doesn't work Total Beverage- which rocks- carries and will ship any and all of the above.

The sweet treat: Enstrom's Almond Toffee

Why: have you tried it? Crunchy and smooth at the same time, flavorful, unique, and about as easy as a gift as it gets- you will find this baby wrapped in the freezer.
Where: retail locations are here. And of course you can order this online too.

The Coffee: Conscious Coffees

Why: cause they figured out a way to grow coffee in Colorado. No, just kidding. Because, frankly their coffee is the best and your favorite coffee addict will recognize that immediately. Roast Magazine, the premier coffee publication, declared them winner of 2011 Roaster of the Year. Aside from having the best tasting coffee, Conscious Coffees is also committed to working with coffee farming communities that respect the Earth and its people- always a good thing.
Where: Online if you click here. Otherwise, at your local Whole Foods or any of the shops listed here.

9. The apron: Apron Divas or your favorite local-designer shop carrying aprons (Decades, Fancy Tiger come to mind).

Why: I don't know about you, but I love a nice new thoughtful apron. I have an apron- no, I have several aprons, but I wouldn't mind a new one.
Where: Apron Divas at these 3 locations. Decade is here and Fancy Tiger - here.

The gift certificate: to a restaurant that respects and celebrates local food- my favorites- Fuel Cafe in Denver and Cafe Aion in Boulder.

Why: cause, let's face it, while the gift certificate gets a bad rap for being 'not thoughtful enough,' we all love a good gift certificate. And these two places are fantastic- simple, thoughtful, unpretentious, producing beautiful dishes in a comfortable atmosphere.
Where: call your favorite restaurant and get it done. Visit, call, or email Fuel Cafe with just a click here and Cafe Aion with one click here.

Happy shopping!

Photography comes from the website of the business represented.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tis' the Season: Bitchin' & Turkey

'Tis the season for being grumpy, on edge, stressed, frustrated, and, well, just rude to those around you. It is also the season for eating ...turkey...which I am not a huge fan of. Here's my twist- an Asian-style turkey meatball that will take your mind off the giant bird you had to brine, roast, and carve.

Back to the grumpiness- it is the season for being selfish and narcissistic. Somehow the magic and frenzy of the holidays makes some believe that my driving is directed at them, than my shopping cart is purposefully in their way, and that my fumbling of the wallet as I juggle five bags, a toddler, and a giant cup of coffee (that I desperately need) is ruining their day by causing a whopping 25 second delay. At the stop light, in the parking lot, in the checkout line, on customer service phone calls, via emails, and in person, with people we know and people we've never seen before, December makes everything so personal!

Not long ago, I considered renting a condo in Aspen. I wasn’t dead-set on going and had no interest in spending a lot. I thought - make an offer. If they are interested great; if not, oh well. I sent maybe 10 emails out. Some of the folks replied that they were booked, others that they wouldn’t lower the price, others didn’t reply at all. And then there was this one, a man from California , who simply said I am highly insulted by your offer. I could not help but think- Seriously? You are burning energy on being highly insulted by a below-market offer on your rental condo in Aspen in the off-season??

One Monday night, at 10:30 pm, I was attempting to pick up my friend from the airport. I entered the waiting lot along with hoards grumpy picker-uppers of friends and relatives set to arrive on much delayed flights. The lot was full, and cars were moving at a snail pace each hoping that someone will leave liberating a coveted parking spot. No luck. I made myself a spot by getting my Toyota 4Runner to fit in front of a Mini Cooper- at the end of a lane. Our cars were facing and the size disparity was obvious. I turned my lights off but kept the engine running, which, in turn, kept the little orange side lights on. The middle aged woman in the Mini Cooper was not pleased with my presence: her mannerism and silent huffing was making that clear. With nowhere else to park, I figured it is best to let it go. But I could sense her frustration and see her irritation out of the corner of my eye. Flailing her arms, she was gesturing frantically that my lights were blinding her. I turned the lights on to kindly demonstrate blinding. And then I saw a parking spot open up and drove away, not ready to get in a parking lot fight.

I will not go on. Seriously, life is short, a lot of times miserable, and certainly full of things to be upset about, annoyed with, and insulted by. But this December I say ask yourself: seriously? Am I seriously upset/ annoyed/insulted? Bring it down 10 notches when the answer is no. Thanks.

December Snark-Free Turkey Meatball Wraps

Ingredients: 2 lbs ground turkey thighs; 6 small shallots, finely chopped; 6 garlic cloves, minced; 2 stalks lemongrass, tender white inner bulb only, minced; 6 tablespoons chopped cilantro, plus 1/2 cup for serving; 1/4 cup mint, chopped finely, plus 1/2 cup for serving; 2 teaspoons cornstarch; 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper (or to taste); 1 cup granulated sugar; 2 heads butter lettuce heads, leaves separated; 1 red onion, peeled, halved, thinly sliced; Sriracha and rice vinegar for serving.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine the ground turkey, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, chopped cilantro and mint, cornstarch, salt and pepper with your hands incorporating all ingredients well.

Spread the sugar on a large plate. Roll the meat into 1 1/2 inch meatballs and roll the meatballs in the sugar until evenly coated.

Transfer to the parchment-paper-lined baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes until lightly browned and cooked all the way through.

Arrange the lettuce, cilantro, mint, and red onion on a plate. Top with one meatball in each lettuce leaf. Drizzle with a little rice vinegar and make it as spicy as you can handle with Sriracha sauce.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.