For richer, for poorer

Romanian polenta with sheep’s milk feta
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  April 8, 2010

ROMANIAN COMFORT FOOD A handful of ingredients, a bellyful of satisfaction.

Laura Coroi saw my “Immigrant Kitchens” poster at the YMCA and introduced herself. She’s from Romania and loves to cook. So days later we are in her yellow house in Yarmouth where she lives with her husband, Bogdan, also from Romania, and their two kids, Alex and Sabina, who were born in the States. On the counter are four hard-boiled eggs, a bag of Bellino polenta, butter, and a white tub of Bulgarian feta. Her eyes are wide just looking at this cheese (which you can get at Micucci’s).

As we cook Laura shares what it was like growing up in Bucharest in the ’80s. She remembers wearing her winter jacket in the classroom because the government turned off the heat. She cut off the tips of her gloves so she could wear them while she took notes. “You would like the subway to last forever,” she says — it was the only place that was always warm. One time she came home to find her mother crying. They were dizzy with hunger (the government rationed just a pound of meat and three eggs for protein per person per month!) but worse, she couldn’t offer her cold daughter a simple cup of tea. The government controlled the water, too. At their house, it wouldn’t go on until 7. And then her grandparents, parents, and siblings all had only a half-hour to wash themselves, their clothes and dishes, and to gather water for cooking. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor. Laura’s father was an aerospace engineer. This was communism.

Bogdan is mimicking his grandmother, wrestling the thickening polenta with a wooden dowel called a facalet. Laura laughs at him and at both their grandmothers’ pride in keeping the lumps out. In an ovenproof dish she mashes a hunk of cheese into crumbles with a fork. Then she layers slices of hard-boiled eggs over them, pours the polenta over the eggs, and puts the dish in the oven.

All that talk of rationing brings up the story of how she came here. In her 20s she was working in the office of a nuclear power plant near Bucharest. Bogdan worked there too, in construction. Their families had been friends a long time, but she wanted to know more. Like, what would it be like to spend the weekend with him on the Black Sea coast? Laura’s father offered Bogdan his rationed gasoline (one person could get just five gallons a month). Bogdan sucked the siphoning tube, shoved it into his gas tank, and listened with excitement to his tank filling. The coast proved positive. The couple married in Bucharest, and soon after Bogdan was accepted to study at the University of Missouri’s nuclear engineering department. She followed, and got into graduate school there, too. Fifteen years later, he works at a Maine hospital, determining radiation amounts for cancer patients, and she encourages her son’s dream of attending MIT by strategically placing physics books around the house.

Bogdan and Laura serve their favorite dish, mamaliga cuo she branza (polenta with egg and cheese) in his grandmother’s Romanian pottery. Each bite is at once creamy and mild, salty and oozing, with that powdery egg yolk balancing perfectly in the middle. She calls it comfort food. Indeed, it’s thick and steaming and satisfying. It’s double comfort to know that it doesn’t take much to make. Just four ingredients: polenta, egg, butter, and feta. Plus water. I always take that one for granted.

For how-to photos and the recipe, visit the author’s blog at Lindsay Sterling can be reached

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