A Romanian take on eggplant moussaka

Kristen Hartke

THE WASHINGTON POST – Though food was scarce during the Nicolae Ceausescu regime in 80s’ communist Romania, cookbook author Irina Georgescu’s memories of growing up there are, strangely, of abundance.

“In winter, the shops were empty,” Georgescu recalled, “but I don’t remember starving. I shopped with my mother, and I learned from her to always have a Plan B, to not panic, to always stay in control”.

Georgescu’s cookbook Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania carefully chronicles the brined cabbage, fruit compotes and pickled peppers that were everyday staples of her Bucharest childhood.

“It was actually a very good way of eating,” Georgescu said, “balanced and seasonal”.

The Carpathian Mountains carve a wide path through central and eastern Europe, including not just Romania but also Austria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Moldova and Serbia. The food culture is as varied as the landscape that brings it to life.

But it wasn’t until Georgescu moved to the United Kingdom (UK) in 2009 that she realised the recipes she had grown up on had never really been recorded and were in danger of being lost. “It was the food that connected me with my family,” she said.

Musaca de cartofi (Potato moussaka). PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

This was exactly the reason I was drawn to Carpathia. For more than 25 years, I have been regaled at family reunions with memories of the glories of Natalie Weber’s kitchen – my husband Rick’s grandmother, the matriarch of a large immigrant family from Bessarabia, once a part of Romania, now divided between Ukraine and Moldova. She died a few years before I met Rick.

Adolf, Natalie’s husband and Rick’s grandfather, perhaps best embodies the complex ethnic history of the region that Georgescu details in her book: He spoke German, Turkish, Russian and Romanian, a true “Black Sea German” who lived in both Bessarabia and Turkey as a child and would likely have been as comfortable with schnitzel as with shish kebab. “There are so many similarities between Romanian, Greek and Turkish cuisines,” Georgescu said. “The Carpathian Mountains divide the country into two parts, between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and it’s very evident on the table.”

This is why you’ll find mezze-style dishes such as fasole batuta in Carpathia, a garlicky hummus made with lima beans, next to a platter of smoked mackerel tossed with shaved onions, chopped pickles and mayonnaise (the first dish Georgescu’s mother trusted her to make on her own). “The Romanian Orthodox practice also infuses meals with a wide range of vegetarian and vegan dishes appropriate for Lent as well as fasting days on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

Zacusca, a puree of charred eggplant and pepper reminiscent of Serbia’s ajvar, and mamaliga cu branza si smantana, a creamy polenta dotted with aged cheese, offer glimpses into a diverse cuisine that echoes centuries-old trade routes. Even sauerkraut, typically thought of as Germanic in origin, is linked to brined cabbage introduced by Mongol invaders.

“The diversity of the landscape, the ethnic groups, the history of the region, it all comes together into this incredible food culture,” Georgescu said. “But there were no recipe books. Girls learned to cook by spending time with their moms and being exposed to their knowledge and skills. I loved helping my mom and grandmother in the kitchen, but I never really thought about Romanian food as a cuisine until I moved to the UK and felt this need to have a bridge between me and my family.”

That Natalie Weber’s two daughters were not particularly interested in cooking is likely why the family’s food heritage has largely faded to memory. My mother-in-law, who grew up in Poland and emigrated to the United States (US) at the same time as her future husband, is the one remaining link.

Spending time in Natalie’s kitchen as a young bride, Lotte learned a few staples: a vinegary stew of red cabbage and apples that became a hallmark of the family’s Thanksgiving table, along with a sweet potato pie recipe Natalie adopted in her new homeland after the Webers spent their first year working on a farm in Goat Town, Georgia, to pay off their passage to the US. The vast majority of the other family recipes were lost to the ether.

Until Rick began turning the pages of Carpathia, that is.

Suddenly, I learned that Natalie’s table had always featured a platter of roasted red peppers, or ardei copti, and that a round braided bread known as colac graced Easter celebrations.

When I decided to make Georgescu’s musaca de cartofi, a paprika-scented potato version of the Greek eggplant moussaka I grew up on, Rick recalled Natalie’s “potato lasagna” and reminisced fondly about the paprika that permeated many of her dishes.

Somehow, by way of Georgescu’s kitchen in Wales and the Communist-era kitchen of her mother and grandmother, I had found a way back to Natalie’s kitchen, whether in a Bessarabian farmhouse, an open fire on the side of a rutted road in the middle of a war, or a basement apartment at the corner of Morris Avenue and 177th Street.

“I’ll never be able to cook like your husband’s grandmother,” Georgescu said, “or even exactly like my own grandmother, because I don’t always have access to the same ingredients. Even the water can taste different. But this food still connects me back to my family, to a place and time and a beautiful diversity of culture. I’m glad that I started asking my mom questions before she died so that I had something to build on later”.

As for me, I may never have met my grandmother-in-law, but I’ve finally found the food ingredients that connect us.

MUSACA DE CARTOFI (POTATO MOUSSAKA)

Active time: One hour

Total time: One hour 30 minutes

Serving: Six to eight

This Romanian version of moussaka borrows from Greek and Turkish versions, using sliced potatoes instead of eggplant, a rich meaty tomato-based filling, and a blend of yoghurt and cheese on top. It is dish that tastes good hot from the oven or cold the next day.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to three days.

INGREDIENTS

One tablespoon vegetable oil

Two medium yellow onions, finely diced

One large carrot, finely diced

One (14-ounce) can diced or crushed tomatoes

One-and-one-quarter cups tomato sauce

One tablespoon sweet paprika

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Four medium russet potatoes

Three-and-a-half ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated

Generous half cup plain whole-milk yoghurt

Two large egg yolks

One tablespoon unsalted butter

DIRECTIONS

In a 12-inch frying pan over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering.

Add the onions and carrot and cook, stirring, until the onions soften and start to turn translucent, six to seven minutes.

Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce and paprika and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced and thickened, about 25 minutes.

While the filling cooks, peel and slice the potatoes into one-eighth-inch rounds. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and blanch the potatoes until just softened, about five minutes. Drain and set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the cheese, yoghurt and egg yolks until combined. Set the cheese mixture aside.

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Grease a nine-by-nine-inch baking dish with a little butter and arrange a third of potatoes in an overlapping layer on the bottom. Dot with small pieces of butter and season lightly with salt and pepper, then spread half of the filling on top.

Repeat with another third of the potatoes, butter, salt and pepper, followed by the remaining filling.

Finish with remaining potatoes and top with the cheese mixture.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the top begins to brown and bubble, and serve hot.

Nutrition | Calories: 377; Total Fat: 21g; Saturated Fat: 9g; Cholesterol: 104mg; Sodium: 253mg; Carbohydrates: 31g; Dietary Fibre: 5g; Sugar: 7g; Protein: 17g.