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Varza a la Cluj (Romanian cabbage and pork)

Varza a la Cluj (Romanian cabbage and pork)
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  • Varza a la Cluj (Romanian cabbage and pork)

    Post #1 - March 2nd, 2008, 8:20 pm
    Post #1 - March 2nd, 2008, 8:20 pm Post #1 - March 2nd, 2008, 8:20 pm
    On my second trip to Romania in 2000, I stopped for a few days in Cluj, a city in Transylvania. The region was long a part of Hungary but was transferred to Romania via the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Back then, the city was known as Kolozsvár. Cluj is now the third largest city in Romania with a population a bit over 300,000, including a large ethnic Hungarian minority. It's a beautiful, historic, city, well worth the time to visit. But today, I'll make a city (indeed, a national) specialty.

    One afternoon, walking a bit aimlessly but with an eye open for a tempting lunch spot, I came across a restaurant specializing in cabbage. Indeed, the name of the establishment, Vărzărie is based on the Romanian word for cabbage, varză.

    It was fairly downmarket, one step above a self-serve cafeteria and a little on the dingy side back then. But if you like cabbage and if you are particularly partial to the local specialty, varză a la Cluj (or varză clujeana), you will have to go quite a distance to do better than visit this friendly, cheap little restaurant. I ordered the dish named for the city at a cost of some maybe $2 or so. Filling and wonderfully flavorful, I had found a new favorite. (Stop in at at B-dul Eroilor 35 if you should find yourself in Cluj; it’s still there!)

    After reading Binko’s various adventures in Hungarian cuisine, I decided to post on this classic dish. The Hungarian name is Kolozsvári rakott káposzta—kapusta in all of its various spellings being the “Slavic” word for cabbage. (We’ll ignore the inconvenient fact that Hungarian, or Magyar, is not a Slavic language nor is it related to them, or much of anything else, except of course Finnish. In Hungarian, it’s clearly a borrowed word.) I scanned my various Hungarian and Romanian cookbooks and eventually settled on the recipe in George Lang’s The Cuisine of Hungary. I made some adaptations based on variations I found and also on personal taste, but this recipe is fundamentally Lang’s.

    Mise-en-place; not very many ingredients at all!

    The dish is based not on fresh cabbage but on sauerkraut and on pork, both fresh and smoked. A little onion and garlic, a little paprika, some rice and some sour cream, and you're pretty much done with the ingredient list.

    Your ingredient list:
    2 pounds sauerkraut
    ½ cup rice
    1 cup beef broth
    1 onion, finely chopped
    2 tablespoons lard
    1 – 2 pounds of smoked pork neck (the recipe calls for ½ pound sliced smoked sausage and ¼ pound diced smoked bacon)
    1 pound finely diced lean pork (the recipe calls for lean ground pork)
    1½ tablespoons paprika
    2 cloves of garlic
    1 cup sour cream
    ¼ cup milk
    salt to taste

    I began by squeezing the liquid out of the sauerkraut, adding a cup of cold water to it and and then cooking it for 15 minutes. (This helps reduce the sourness a bit.) While the sauerkraut cooks, simmer one-half cup of rice in a cup of beef broth for ten minutes. And during the last five minutes of these two steps, fry the onion in the lard.

    While these these little pots went about their business, I simmered a couple pounds of smoked pork neck in beef broth, though water would have worked just as well. I substituted the smoked pork neck for Lang’s specification: one-half pound of sliced smoked sausage and one-quarter pound of diced smoked bacon. I did so purely out of personal preference; next time I’ll probably try the more orthodox way.

    Simmering smoked pork neck

    Lang’s recipe calls for ground lean pork but since I could find only ground pork that was too fatty, so I bought some pork chops and diced the meat. This is a step where recipes vary; I prefer the diced meat to the ground in any event. Indeed, when I next make it, I will keep this substitution but I will revert to his use of smoked bacon and sausage.

    Once the onion had sauteed, I added the diced pork and cooked the two together for about 15 minutes.

    Sauteeing diced pork chops

    Then, off the heat, I added the (sweet) paprika and the roughly chopped garlic cloves.

    As I pondered the scene, I decided that my dice were a bit larger than I liked. I thought it might be easier and better to pulse it all several times in the food processor. The shredded pork that resulted, with the onion, garlic, and paprika thus incorporated worked far more beautifully than even I could have hoped.


    After I judged that the smoked pork neck had been simmering long enough, I drained it. Then, after it had cooled, I cut off meat and some fat and chopped it all up fairly finely. All that remained was to assemble the dish.

    Lang’s recipe would have had me put bacon fat on the bottom of the cooking pot; I simply used a bit of fat from the smoked neck. Then, building up from the bottom: one-third of the sauerkraut, one-half the diced pork/onion mixture, then half the rice. I topped this with the diced smoked pork neck and then half of the sour cream.


    The layering continued: the second third of the sauerkraut, the remainder of the diced pork/onion mixture, and the remainder of the rice.

    Third and last layer of sauerkraut before the final topping of sour cream/milk

    All this was finally topped with the last third of sauerkraut, over which I poured the remaining sour cream. Then, into the oven to bake uncovered for one hour at 375F. And, as they say: voila!

    Dinner is served.

    I must confess that this is the first time I've ever attempted to make the dish at home. It wasn't quite as good as in Cluj, though I was pleased at how close it came, and it brought back many wonderful memories. For a simple dish that amply repays the investment of time, you might want to give this a try.
    Last edited by Gypsy Boy on March 3rd, 2008, 6:24 am, edited 1 time in total.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #2 - March 2nd, 2008, 10:45 pm
    Post #2 - March 2nd, 2008, 10:45 pm Post #2 - March 2nd, 2008, 10:45 pm

    This looks just sensational and really speaks to my . . . um, heritage :D Thanks for taking the time to create such an informative post; one I will surely reference again in the very near future. I really would like to make this dish before the weather warms up.

    The use of rice seems fairly unusual to me. Not that I've spent a ton of time in eastern Europe but in what little time I have spent there, rice was not very common. I remember seeing it almost exclusively in fillings for stuffed cabbage and peppers. What kind of rice did you use? Also, regarding the smoked pork, is the simmering just intended to 'hydrate' the meat? Smoked pork is generally an item that's already cooked, so I'm curious about what the simmering imparts, other than the additional flavor which accompanied your personal choice to use beef broth as the simmering medium.

    Great stuff, thanks again! :)

    By protecting others, you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you'll only destroy yourself. --Kambei Shimada

    Every human interaction is an opportunity for disappointment --RS

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain
  • Post #3 - March 3rd, 2008, 6:15 am
    Post #3 - March 3rd, 2008, 6:15 am Post #3 - March 3rd, 2008, 6:15 am
    Plain ol' white rice (medium grain). And you are precisely right re simmering the neck. Though it wasn't likely necessary, my thought was the more "hydrated" the better. As it is, the sauerkraut keeps the dish moist, but I thought that the simmering might have added a little help in that regard.
    As to the use of rice in Eastern Europe, you're right, at least in my experience. I don't know the culinary history of the region sufficiently well to speak to its appearance, the more so since the amount used in the dish is relatively small and, frankly, unlikely to be missed.
    None of my cookbooks shed any light on the appearance or use of rice in the region, although virtually all of them include some dishes, such as fried rice (!) and rice pilaf. (Interestingly, my Polish, Czech, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian books have a fair number of recipes with rice.) The explanation, I think, comes from the history of the region which, as I am sure you will recall from grade school, was under Turkish dominion for centuries. Indeed, well into the 19th century for much of Romania. And the substantial Muslim populations, especially throughout the former Yugoslavia and in Albania, confirm that (culinary) heritage.
    Every single cookbook I consulted from the region uses rice, sometimes quite a bit. I was astonished to find essentially the same dish in my Czech cookbook, where it is called a risotto! (Rizoto s vepřovým masem a zelím, or risotto with pork and sauerkraut). The only differences seem to be that the pork isn't smoked and the paprika and garlic (the heart and soul of the dish, to my mind) are missing.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #4 - March 3rd, 2008, 6:27 am
    Post #4 - March 3rd, 2008, 6:27 am Post #4 - March 3rd, 2008, 6:27 am
    Well done, Gyspsy Boy! Looks like our beloved Bridgestone, the Swedish chef, will have some company if you become the Romanian chef on LTH.

    As a lover of Romanian food, I can attest to the authenticity of your recipe. The smoked flavors and the broth flavors are often left out by those who attempt to re-create sarmale and other Romanian cabbage dishes.

    Multumesc foarte mult!
    Man : I can't understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.
    T. S. Eliot: Ah, but you're not a poet.
  • Post #5 - March 3rd, 2008, 11:07 am
    Post #5 - March 3rd, 2008, 11:07 am Post #5 - March 3rd, 2008, 11:07 am
    Looks great! I don't think I've ever had that particular dish, but with smoked pork and sauerkraut, I'm sure I'll be making it soon. :) Keep the recipes coming!