Romania's versatile cornmeal dish.
By Leah Koenig
As a self-described Italian food lover, I have eaten my share of polenta--soft and porridge-like with sweet roasted tomatoes and goat cheese, or hardened, sliced into squares and served as a side dish for just about everything. So I was surprised, and a bit confused, when my friend Julie invited me over for a traditional Romanian dish called mamaliga, only to serve me a steaming bowl of polenta.
Turns out, polenta and mamaliga are nearly one and the same. As Claudia Roden writes in The Book of Jewish Food, "Corn came to Europe from the New World--in the sixteenth century. Having arrived first in Venice, where it was used to make the porridge polenta, it was eventually grown in Eastern Europe, where it became known as 'Turkish Wheat,'" and mamaliga (bread of gold) in Romania.
For the Love of Cornmeal
Just like the Italians, Romanians (both Jewish and non-Jewish) grew very fond of their cornmeal porridge--a dish that is at once filling, inexpensive and infused with the warmth of home and family. Jewish families particularly loved mamaliga because it could be made dairy or pareve, and was durable enough to be cooked a day ahead and served on Shabbat. By the 17th century, writes Gil Marks in The Encyclopedia of Food, Romanians had replaced grains like millet and barley, once favored in their diet, for cornmeal.
"Dort tsu voynen iz a fargenign
In Romania, mamaliga is typically served all day--with sour cream and jam for breakfast, sliced and served sandwich-style with onions, cheese and pickles for lunch, and used as the starchy base for meaty stews at dinner. Julie introduced me to the joys of topping mamaliga with spicy black beans, salsa, cheddar cheese and slices of avocado. While not exactly a traditional preparation, this quick and nourishing meal demonstrates how versatile and deeply satisfying this peasant dish can be.<<< Less
If you prefer to make this dish pareve, use all water instead of half water and half milk.
Variation: Pour cooked mamaliga into a greased baking dish and bake at 350 degrees until hard enough to slice, 30-35 minutes. Let cool slightly and cut into squares or rectangles. Serve as is, or panfry the pieces until golden brown.
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