Cheshire-based food writer and photographer Irina Georgescu, author of Life in Small Bites, shares a recipe from her homeland, and her tips on bringing some Romanian cosiness to your Christmas table.
In Romania, pork and polenta are staple dishes, and we like to come back to them in times of celebration.
This is comfort food for those bitterly cold winter days, when all you need to know is that there is something cooking slowly in the oven for a feast later.
Whether it is for a family gathering, a dining-out at a traditional restaurant, or for Christmas, we find comfort in the rich flavours and juices of a pork dish, with the creaminess of the polenta and a good refreshing pickle. By pickles, I mean fermented cucumbers and green tomatoes, pickled peppers and cauliflower, that we place on a side dish, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with pepper.
Saltiness requires a drink, and although we very often turn to a glass of homemade red wine, we can’t start eating without having drunk at least one shot of the Romanian plum brandy called ‘tzuica’. I can promise you that your appetite will be greatly improved.
How to host a Romanian Christmas feast
- Start with that shot of tzuica. The table is laden with Romanian charcuterie, usually homemade from a home-reared pig, cumin bread sticks, winter salads, smoked mackerel salad, sliced red onions, pickles and bread. It’s more like a mezze style of eating.
- The small plates are then taken away to make room for ‘sarmale’ – sour cabbage rolls stuffed with minced beef and pork, served with polenta, sour cream and a pickled chilli. It is an offence to the host if you only eat one: 4-5 are the norm.
- A mini break is required, to gather our strength and catch our breath, before the show stopper pork-roast is served. It comes with roast potatoes, jus, and more pickles…and more wine.
- Then the coffee pots are on the stove – we make a Turkish-style coffee in a copper pot called ‘ibric’. It is served in small coffee cups, with a tiny seed of cardamon inside, and it just provides another short break before the dessert.
- Romanian Christmas dessert is a traditional walnut and rum filled brioche cake called ‘cozonac’. It is similar to a Russian babka. Then we have fruits and more drinks…until nobody can remember anything, and it’s all a blur.
This a dish inspired by these Romanian Christmas flavours, using porks cheeks for their melt-in-the-mouth texture, and for all the juices that will be absorbed by the polenta. It makes a hearty dish.
Here is how you make it:
Pork’s Cheeks with Romanian Polenta and Gherkins by Life in Small Bites
Ingredients (for two people)
4 pork cheeks (or pork oysters, 500ml red wine, 150ml water, 1 onion, roughly sliced, 1/4 celeriac, diced, 2 heads of garlic, 2-3 bay leaf, 1 spring of thyme or rosemary, 1tbsp oil, 1/2 teaspoon of honey
200g polenta, 300ml milk, 2 tablespoons yoghurt (if you don’t have yoghurt, replace with 100g grated Cheddar), 50g butter, salt and pepper
To serve: 4 gherkins…or more.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil (not olive oil) in a heavy, oven proof pan and brown the pork’s cheeks on all sides. Set aside on a plate. In the same pan, caramelise the onion, garlic and celeriac. Put the pork cheeks back in the pan, add the wine and the water, and make sure that the cheeks are fully covered by the liquid. If they are not, add more wine and/or water. Put in the oven at 190C for 3-4 hours. It is better to check after 3 hours, the cheeks need to be super tender, almost falling apart.
When they are ready, remove the cheeks from the pan, wrap them in kitchen foil and set aside.
Carefully put all of the liquid through a fine sieve and transfer in a shallow pan to reduce. Add the half teaspoon of honey, and simmer to reduce it to half. Skim it of any foam. It doesn’t have to be thick, it is not a glaze or gravy. It takes around 15-20 min. When it is ready, reduce the heat to minimum, and leave it to bubble while you are making the polenta. It takes 5 minutes.
Before you start on the polenta, place the cheeks back in the oven, in the tin foil and in an oven proof dish. You don’t need to add any sauce. Open the kitchen foil and roast at 170C for 5 min.
Now you have time to make the polenta. Bring the milk to a simmer, add the polenta and whisk continuously until it is all incorporated. In about 5 minutes, it is ready. It needs to just fall off the spoon. Take it off the heat, add the butter and the yoghurt, and pour in the middle of a plate. Add two pork cheeks, drizzle with the jus, add 2 gherkins…and enjoy with a glass of red wine. You can have coffee and grappa after dinner.
Find out more at www.lifeinsmallbites.co.uk