"We pick up everything we need from the garden: carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, aubergines, peppers..." said my mother on the phone the other day. This is a living Paradise, I thought, as I have to buy everything from the shops. The days I used to do the same when living with my parents back in Romania seem so far away that I even forgot the taste of fresh peas. The little patio of the rented terraced house I live in at the moment is not great for gardening. I miss so much the days when I made pickled cucumbers, fruit compote and various salads with vegetables from my parents' garden. Nothing compared with spending my holidays weeding, hand picking the harvest and watering the plants. The smell of green and the humid earth always made a strong impression on my senses.
After nearly 15 years spent in a city in Romania and another six years spent in the UK, I miss living close to the nature that I was so fond of in my childhood. As I grow older I feel like going back to the roots, exploring my heritage and bringing some Romanian cooking and customs into the household.
My husband and I were lucky this year as a gardener friend of ours gave us some bean seedlings. After explaining what we needed to do to accommodate them on our patio, we made all the necessary arrangements to grow them. The result was totally unexpected, as from 12 plants I managed to cook green bean soup for the whole summer – the smell of cooking it reminds me of my happy childhood. I am now saving some of the bean pods to mature and use next year.
Green beans soup
1, 2 or more handfuls of green beans, trimmed and broken into bite-size chunks
-1 onion, finely chopped
-1 pepper, finely chopped
-1 parsnip, grated
-1 carrot, grated
- enough water to cover the amount of vegetables (you can also use vegetable or chicken stock)
- 1 tin of chopped tomatoes or tomato passatta
-1 raw egg yolk
- 3 to 4 tablespoons of Greek yoghurt
-fresh herbs (parsley, dill, basil) finely chopped
Cook the chopped onion with the oil (olive, sunflower) on a low heat until softened, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped pepper and cook for a couple of minutes more. Add the carrot and the parsnip and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the beans and then pour the boiling water or stock to cover the vegetables. Add seasoning to taste but if you use vegetable stock you may not need extra salt. Bring to the boil then simmer for 20-25 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 3 to 4 minutes then switch off the heat. Separate an egg yolk and mix it with the yogurt then add it to the soup. At the end, you can either add the herbs to the soup, or you can add them straight in the serving bowl to retain their flavour. You can use parsley, dill or basil, but I personally prefer parsley for this soup.
If you wonder what you can do with the egg whites, there is another Romanian recipe: berry mousse. Although it is more popular to use (wild) strawberries for this mousse, raspberries and black berries work just as fine. If you live in the countryside or have quick access to lanes, hedges, hills and woodlands, wild strawberries are everywhere if you know where to look. You can take your family and go on a half day “hunting” trip armed with small food storage boxes and enthusiasm. It is a very relaxing activity for both children and adults. In my childhood, there was a hill and a birch forest nearby where at least half a dozen children would gather and we all went wild strawberry picking. Today I am continuing this legacy as it brings me a lot of joy. The best season is at the end of June but because of the British climate, you can find them all through July. The fruits are very aromatic and rich in vitamins B, C and E.
-1 raw egg white
-100-150g of sugar, according to taste
-150g of berries
-15ml lemon juice
In my experience, there isn't any restriction as to the quantities. Use as many egg whites as you wish from one to five for a big portion and multiply the other quantities accordingly. Wash the berries, mash them with a fork or in a blender then add half of the sugar. Leave the mix for about half an hour.
Whisk the egg white by hand or in a food processor until firm. Add the remaining sugar and the lemon juice and keep whisking until firm again. Add the mashed berries to the mousse while mixing and whisk again until firm. When finished, put the mousse in glasses and keep them in the fridge for a couple of hours. Serve straight from the fridge, with whipped cream, if desired. This is a refreshing dessert for any season. In the winter you can use jam or frozen berries.
As I don't have the luxury to preserve my own fruits and vegetables or to make tomato juice, what I do to relive the Romanian autumn is to cook aubergine salad. The bitter smell of baked aubergines reminds me of a cosy home.
-2, 3 or more aubergines
-home made mayonnaise
-optional onion and/or garlic
Grill the aubergines or bake them directly on the electric hob or outdoors on a barbecue (the smell is quite strong). Make sure you cook them evenly on each side, so you have to turn them every 4-5 minutes. Once baked, put them in the sink to rest then peel them. This is a fairly messy process, so be prepared and patient – the effort is worth it. As much as possible, pick out the burnt skin pieces with a sharp knife. Put the peeled aubergines on a slanted surface to allow the juices to flow out. (At this stage the aubergines can be bagged and frozen for later use.) Blend the aubergines with the optional onions and/or garlic.
-1 raw egg yolk
-1 hardboiled egg yolk
-100-250 ml vegetable oil (depending on how much mayonnaise you need)
-1 squeeze of lemon juice
-1 spoon (or more if you prefer) of French-style mustard
Mix the two yolks together then add the oil little by little while mixing the content continuously. You can use a food processor or an electric whisk. If the mixture curdles, adding the lemon juice will fix it. Add the mustard to the mix and season to taste. Add to the aubergines and serve as a spread on bread or toast. You can use the hardboiled egg white together with red or green pepper pieces to ornate the serving bowl.
There are other salads you can use the mayonnaise with. All the ingredients in the recipes below are to be mixed together. These salads could be part of the Christmas feast or as spreads in a buffet meal at parties.
-1kg or more of boiled carrots, finely grated or squashed with a fork
-grated cheese, according to taste
-squeeze of lemon juice, according to taste
-4 (or more) boiled potatoes, sliced
-1 onion, sliced
-1 hardboiled egg, sliced
-pickled cucumber, sliced
Photographs by George Totorean