October 31, 2011

Oktoberfest – Don’t forget the Potato Salad

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action” (Ian Fleming).  Potatoes are my enemies, actually boiling potatoes.  I have to be honest.  I hate having to boil potatoes because, for some strange, inexplicable reason, I always manage to overcook them and they come out watery and way too soft.  I then become frustrated, I start hitting the floor with my right foot as if I would be a raging bull ready to attack the facing matador; I slouch and cross my arms, and I refuse to accept any kind of help or suggestion.  Horrible!  At that point, the best thing to do is to just stay away from me.  

So, that’s why I don’t make too much potato salad, although I love it.  But I did want to try my grandmother’s potato salad for Oktoberfest week.  I just couldn’t leave out the potato salad!  Maybe, fourth time the charm.  Throughout the entire cooking process, my heart was racing as if I were running the marathon.  I was nervously sweating while wondering whether I would turn fork tender before the potatoes.  By the time my potatoes were perfectly cooked, (although I checked them ten times before I turned off the stove) I was exhausted, ready to go to bed and forget all about the potato salad.  However, thinking that I overcame the most difficult part made me realize that I could actually bring this dish to the finish line.  And I did.  It’s a very easy dish to make once you’ve past the stage of boiling the potatoes, which for me is always nerve-racking. 

Potato Salad
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Yields 4 servings


·         2 pounds (1.25 kg) potatoes, such as Red, Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes
·         1 small to medium yellow onion (depending on how much you like onions in a salad), sliced
·         Olive oil or vegetable oil
·         Salt and pepper
·         A pinch of paprika (optional)


Slice the onion; put it in a medium bowl and season with 1 teaspoon of salt.  Mix well and let it sit in the salt for 30 minutes until it softens. 

Meanwhile, put the potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water.  Bring to a boil and cook the potatoes for 20-25 minutes, uncovered.  Drain the potatoes and let them sit until just cool enough to handle, about 10-15 minutes.  Peel the potatoes and slice them. Put them in a large bowl.

Drain the onion with your hands and mix it in with the sliced potatoes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Drizzle with olive or vegetable oil and stir well.  Serve with a pinch of paprika on top.  Enjoy!

Note: Instead of oil you can also use mayonnaise.      

This is a very simple dish.  You can serve it as an appetizer, as a side dish, or as a light lunch.  The only thing that you may want to take into consideration is to have Life Savers, Tic Tacs, or any kind of hard mints on hand, afterwards. 

P.S.:  Happy Halloween!

October 25, 2011

Oktoberfest – Pork and Sauerkraut, please!

When I was 12 years old, I went to a tennis school in Augsburg, Germany, during the summer. Back then, I was playing professional tennis and my dream was to become the next Steffi Graf.  At that age, I was well on track to achieve that goal; hence, my parents’ decision to send me to a tennis school.  Unfortunately, the injuries just kept coming.  Five years later, my tennis career was over.  

In the summer of 1997, I was playing a lot of tennis, going to long and challenging practices, winning tennis tournaments, playing more tennis, and more tennis, and even more tennis.  It was during that summer, on one of the few breaks from tennis, when my dad took me to a German beer garden for the first time.  There were wooden benches, live music, good traditional German food, and lots of beer. 

It was early afternoon.  The weather was nice and warm, the sky was clear, and we were just in time for lunch.  I remember that both my father and I ordered the Pork Schnitzel with French fries.  Of course, my dad also had the local beer.  I don’t recall specific details about the food, but I do recall the unique and joyful atmosphere.  That was my first experience with a German beer garden.  These days, we love to go to the Hofbrauhaus in Pittsburgh.      

The pork schnitzel, which we had at the beer garden in Augsburg, was very similar to what my grandmother frequently makes.  German food has always been a staple in our family.  However, today I don’t want to talk to you about the boring breaded pork (maybe we’ll talk about it some other time), and I want to introduce to you a very interesting version of the traditional German Pork and Sauerkraut dish.  This dish is a classic of the German culinary world, but traveling through Austria and Hungary, by the time the dish made it to Romania, it assimilated several local influences.  Furthermore, my grandmother put her own spin on it, and created her own version of this classic dish. 

Szekely-Gulyas (Pork and Cabbage Goulash)
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Yields 4-6 servings


·         1 green cabbage of 3.5 – 4 pounds (1.5 kilograms)
·         3-4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
·         3 large onions, sliced
·         Kosher salt
·         1 Tablespoon Hungarian paprika (10 grams)
·         2 – 2.5 pounds boneless pork chops, cubed (1 kilogram)
·         2 – 2.5 cups water
·         1.5 cups tomato sauce mixed with ½ cup water
·         2 dry bay leaves
·         Sour cream (optional)
·         Good bread (optional)


Cut out the core and slice the cabbage.  Put it in a large bowl and season with 1 Tablespoon of salt.  Mix well.  Let it sit for 1 hour. 

Meanwhile, put a large pan on medium heat.  Add the oil and the onions.  Season with salt and cook the onions until translucent, about 10-12 minutes.  Add the Hungarian paprika and stir.  Add the pork and cook together with the onions and paprika for 10-15 minutes.  Add the water to cover the meat and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down and simmer for about 30-40 minutes until the meat is cooked. 

Strain the cabbage between your hands before adding it to the pan with the rest of the ingredients.  When the meat is cooked, add the strained cabbage and stir well.  Add the tomato sauce mixed with water and the bay leaves.  Bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down and simmer for about 45-50 minutes, until the cabbage is tender.  Season with salt to taste.   

I love to serve the goulash with a dollop of sour cream on top and with good bread because I really enjoy dipping the bread in the sauce.  Devine!  The best thing about this dish is that it’s even better the next day.  As it sits in the fridge, the flavors will develop further.  You’ll definitely enjoy these leftovers!

October 20, 2011

Oktoberfest – Dessert first

It’s time for Oktoberfest!  Since Adrian’s company celebrated Oktoberfest, today, I’ve decided that this week will be Oktoberfest week for me, too.  Thus, I’d like to share with you some German recipes – better said…Romanian recipes with German influences.  Let’s start with a little bit of history!

As you may know by now, I’m originally from Transylvania in Romania.  Transylvania, which means “beyond the forest” in Latin, is the western region of Romania.  It is also the largest and most visited province of Romania.  Most people, when they hear about Transylvania, they immediately think of Dracula.  Dracula was, in fact, Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian king who lived in the 15th century.  Although, Dracula’s Bran Castle is perhaps the main tourist attraction in Transylvania, we shouldn’t overlook the beautiful scenery created by the Carpathian Mountains, the historic cities, the architecture and, most importantly, the food, all of which define this amazing region.  

Transylvania was under foreign authority for almost a thousand years, although its existence dates way before then.  Transylvania was occupied by the Hungarians and the Habsburgs, who later created the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.  For centuries, Romanians, Hungarians and Germans were the main ethnic groups in Transylvania.  Therefore, the cuisine reflects a plethora of Hungarian, Austrian and German flavors while maintaining its Romanian identity.  Our food is diverse and rich in flavors, decadent, and fully satisfying.  At the same time, it is simple and easy to make using basic everyday ingredients.  As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always believed that the simplest ingredients produce the most memorable dishes.  

I hold a special place in my heart for desserts.  And let me tell you, growing up, my grandmother spoiled us with mouth-watering sweet creations.  There wasn’t a meal that wouldn’t end with some sort of dessert.  Cakes, tortes, pies, crapes, cookies, pudding, you name it, we’ve always had dessert.  And the Vanilla Pudding Apple Torte was one of my favorites.  Regardless of season, this sweet treat will make your taste buds dance with joy and fully satisfy your sugary cravings.                

Vanilla Pudding Apple Torte
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Yields 12 servings
Special Equipment: a 9-inch round pan


·         Butter for coating the pan
·         4-5 medium Gala Apples or any other firm apple
·         Heaped 1/2 cup (75 - 80 grams) walnuts, chopped
·         ½ Tablespoon (5 grams) ground cinnamon
·         5 large eggs, at room temperature
·         1/3 cup (75 grams) sugar, plus more to coat the pan
·         7 Tablespoons (70 grams) all-purpose flour
·         1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder
·         1/8 teaspoon (0.5 grams) salt

Ingredients for the Vanilla Pudding:

·         1 packet Dr. Oetker Vanilla Pudding
·         3 Tablespoons (50 grams) sugar
·         2 cups (450 ml) milk


Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).  Coat the 9-inch pan with butter and sprinkle generously with sugar.  Peel and slice the apples and place them in the pan to cover the entire bottom.  Sprinkle the walnuts on top and then the cinnamon.  Bake the apples for 20-25 minutes until they soften but still hold their shape.  Take them out of the oven and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the flour and baking powder and keep close at hand.  Separate the egg yolks and egg whites.  In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar with an electric hand mixer on medium speed for about 2-3 minutes until the sugar dissolves.  In three batches, beat in the flour and baking powder mixture.  

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt on medium speed until they hold medium-firm peaks.  Carefully, fold the egg whites into the egg yolks, sugar and flour mixture.   Pour the batter over the apples, walnuts and cinnamon.  Bake for 25-30 minutes at 350°F (180°C) until golden brown and a tester comes out clean.  Let it cool for 5-10 minutes in the pan.  Invert the torte on a platter and let it cool.

The Vanilla Pudding

In the meantime, in a small bowl combine the vanilla pudding and sugar.  In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk to a boil.  Add the pudding and sugar mixture.  Turn the heat to medium-low and whisk until it thickens, about 15-20 minutes.  Take the pudding off the heat and immediately pour it over the apple torte.  Let the vanilla pudding and apple torte cool completely before serving.  

Next up on my Oktoberfest adventure, I am going to show you how to make one of my favorite dishes from Transylvania: Szekely Gulyas (Pork and Cabbage Goulash).  Stay tuned!  Until then, I hope that you enjoy the vanilla pudding apple torte and the aroma of freshly baked apples infused with sugar and cinnamon! 

October 16, 2011

The ultimate comfort food

Well…folks…the weather is getting windier and rainier here in Pittsburgh.  The sky is gray and the atmosphere is moist.  Shortly, we’ll have to adjust to the winter time, gaining one hour, but losing daylight.  The days will become shorter and shorter and the weather colder and colder.  Christmas will be here in no time, and soon we’ll see the first snowflakes comfortably laying themselves down on the ground for the months to come.  Wow…funny how time flies. 

Actually, it’s not that bad if you think about it.  I know that winter is fast approaching, but we can’t just overlook the holidays and the comfort food that they bring along, which always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.  At the end of the day, the only thing, which you’ll want to do after a comfortable meal, is to sit by the fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa in your hands, totally ignoring the world outside.  I think that I’ve already started that pattern.  Although, the Pittsburgh hills are still multicolored, and the leaves on the ground have not been replaced by snowflakes yet, the rainy weather doesn’t give me the strength and energy to put a foot outside the door. 

The good thing about that is that over the past few days, I’ve been mastering the art of the ultimate comfort foodchili – with and without meat.  And by the way, these are not your usual suspects in terms of chili, but interesting versions of the classic.  Nonetheless, while I was passionately cooking as if I were stocking up on chili for the entire winter, something unexpected happened.  Someone knocked on the door.  I wasn’t expecting anyone and I can assure you that I wasn’t eager to answer the door while I was diffusing a delightful aroma of onion, garlic and chicken.  However, when I opened the door, the florist greeted me with an immense and superb bouquet of roses, lilies and gerberas.  My hubby does know how to make me smile!    

White Bean Chicken Chili
Adapted from White Bean Chicken Chili by Giada De Laurentiis

Yields 4-6 servings


·         2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
·         1 large onion, chopped
·         4 garlic cloves, minced
·         2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut in 1 inch cubes
·         Salt and black pepper
·         2 Tablespoons ground cumin
·         1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
·         1 Tablespoon dried oregano
·         2 teaspoons paprika or chili powder
·         3 Tablespoons flour
·         2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
·         1 pound frozen corn, thawed
·         4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
·         ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
·         Grated Parmesan cheese
·         Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley


In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook until translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for up to 1 minute.  Add the cumin, fennel seeds, oregano and paprika (or chili powder – I use paprika just because that’s what I always have on hand; in Transylvania it is mandatory to have paprika in your spice cabinet), and toast them for about 1 minute.  

Make some room in the middle of the pan and add a little bit more olive oil.  Add the chicken, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. (FYI:  Giada’s recipe calls for ground chicken, but I actually like it better with cubed chicken breasts.  You can also use turkey, beef, pork, or anything that satisfies your tummy.)   

Stir the flour into the chicken mixture and cook it for about 1 minute.  Add the beans, corn, red pepper flakes and chicken broth (if you are using beef, add beef broth – you can always just add water, but then make sure you carefully season everything).  Bring the mixture to a boil scrapping up the brown bits that cling to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.  Turn the heat down and simmer, uncovered, for 65-70 minutes until the liquid has reduced by about half and the chili has thickened.  If you don’t want too much heat in your chili, add the red pepper flakes right at the end and simmer for 10 more minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste. 

Ladle the chili into serving bowls.  Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley. 

I have immediately fallen in love with this delicious chili.  It is so easy to make and the parsley at the end brings all the flavors back to life and gives freshness to the entire dish.  

Now, for those of you who prefer a vegetarian version, I have the perfect recipe. 

Vegetarian Bean Chili
Inspired by Melanie Fleck’s recipe of Vegetarian Bean Chili (Penzeys Spices, Fall 2011)

Yields 4-6 servings


·         2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
·         1 large onion, chopped
·         1 carrot, chopped
·         1 red bell pepper, chopped
·         Salt and black pepper
·         4 cloves garlic, minced
·         1 Tablespoon ground cumin
·         1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
·         ½ Tablespoon dried oregano
·         2 teaspoons paprika or chili powder
·         1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
·         1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
·         1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
·         1 (15-ounce) can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
·         1 pound frozen corn, thawed
·         ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
·         2 - 2.5 cups water
·         Sour cream (optional)
·         Grated Parmesan or Cheddar cheese (optional)


In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot and red bell pepper.  Season with salt and pepper and cook for 8-10 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.  Add the cumin, fennel seeds, oregano and paprika and toast them for about 1 minute.  

Add the tomatoes, beans, corn, red pepper flakes and water.  Season carefully with more salt and pepper, to taste.  Stir everything together and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down and simmer, uncovered, for 50-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are soft and the chili has thickened. 

Ladle the chili into serving bowls.  Add a dollop of sour cream on top and sprinkle with the cheese.  

Everything works so well together and you don’t even feel the absence of meat.  It is filling, colorful, a bit spicy, and the corn brings a hint of sweetness to the entire dish.  Besides, you know me, I like to add corn to almost anything because corn and I “go together like a wink and a smile”.  Enjoy!

October 12, 2011

B Spot, Lola, Cleveland and four hungry people

A couple of weekends ago, Adrian and I took one of our traditional one-day road trips to Cleveland to dine at the restaurants of our favorite Iron ChefMichael Symon.  We love the American Iron Chefs and we’ve tried the restaurants of almost all of them (I think that the only one left to try is Cat Cora’s), but Symon’s restaurants are the best in our humble opinion.  Please feel free to disagree with me. 

So, on that Saturday, we didn’t sleep in as we do every Saturday, but we drove to Cleveland for a day of food therapy.  This time, we also brought along our good friends Tom and Katelyn to introduce them to some mind-blowing food.  Our first stop, just in time for lunch, was B Spot, Michael Symon’s burger joint, in Woodmere, OH, right outside Cleveland.  You might ask “what’s so special about a burger place?”.  Well, try B Spot and your idea of burgers will change forever.  Plus, it will definitely hit your…B spot.  

At B Spot we ordered the following:

·         One order of the Zorba Salad
·         Two Lola Burgers
·         A Breuben Burger
·         A Philly Witt Burger
·         Three orders of the Lola Fries
·         One order of the B-Spot Onion Rings
·         Four Vanilla Bean Apple Pie Bacon Shakes

Let’s start with the Zorba Salad.  On the menu it’s listed as a big salad.  Well, let me tell you this – it is not big – it is humongous!  The four of us could barely finish it.  But we did.  It was absolutely delicious – crispy, colorful, lemony and light.  Everything you look for in a salad.  Totally satisfying!  FYI: If you are planning on having just this salad (or any of their salads for that matter) without ordering anything else, you are good to go.  However, if you are planning on getting a burger and consider your salad as an appetizer, you might want to think again and share it with someone, or just go for one of the two, that is the salad or the meat.  Having said that, I guess you could always take the leftovers to go.

I had one of the two Lola burgers.  Adrian had the other one.  The meat, just as always, was cooked to perfection, the egg brought that ooey gooey goodness to this mouth-watering affair, and the bacon rounded everything up with its impeccable crispiness.  But, let’s not forget the delicious pickled onions, which finalized this already perfect burger; of course, I had to have more of those and some pickles, too, from the pickle bar.  When the server brought the burger to the table, I just couldn’t wait to dive my teeth into it.  A definite home-run!    

Our friends savored every bite of the Breuben and the Philly Witt burgers.  The burgers were moist and juicy nicely complemented by the tasty sauerkraut and Russian dressing, and the always unbeatable cheezewhiz and onions, respectively.  I guess that Michael Symon just knows how to put an original spin on the traditional versions of the Reuben and Philly Cheesesteak, and how to turn a classic sandwich into a memorable burger.

The Lola Fries were also to die for.  Perfectly crispy with a unique flavoring of rosemary and sea salt!  It was the first time that we had ordered the B-Spot Onion Rings and we were not disappointed.  They were melting in your mouth – a definite must try.     

Last but not least, the Vanilla Bean Apple Pie Bacon Shakes.  You may wonder – “bacon in a shake?” – oh, yeah, baby.  And you won’t believe how well they all go together!  Those crispy bits of bacon elevate the shake to a different ball game.  It’s certainly not your regular boring shake.  And if you want something spectacular, add the bourbon.  

Our B Spot stop was a total success and a great start to our day of food therapy.  Ok, I’ll admit, we did some shopping therapy, too, but only because we had to burn some calories.  So, if you are ever in Cleveland, check out the Beachwood Mall in Beachwood, OH, which is only a five minute drive from B Spot.

Restaurant Information:
B Spot
28699 Chagrin Boulevard
Woodmere, OH 44122
Phone: (216) 292-5567

B Spot Burgers on Urbanspoon

For dinner, we had a reservation at Lola, Michael Symon’s fancier restaurant in downtown Cleveland.  Adrian and I knew that we wanted to go to Cleveland in September, so we made our reservation a month in advance.  We usually make our reservation at Lola about a week in advance, that way we are guaranteed a dinner reservation at a reasonable hour, which is before 10:00 PM.  This time we were four people, so our reservation was only at 9:15 PM.  A bit late for dinner, you might say, but for us it was just in time to get hungry again, after the substantial lunch we had at B Spot.  Not to mention we were in for a true carnival of flavor.

At Lola we ordered the following:

·         Beef Tongue (appetizer)
·         “Fois & Figs” (appetizer)
·         Beef Cheek Pierogi (appetizer)
·         Two orders of the Smoked Berkshire Pork Chop (entrée)
·         Venison (entrée)
·         Beef Hanger Steak (entrée)
·         Pumpkin Pie (dessert)
·         Apple & Fennel (dessert)
·         We shared a bottle of Tuscan white wine

As a heads-up, the menu at Lola changes throughout the year, so some of the items might not be on the menu the next time you visit the restaurant.  But don’t panic!  There are a lot of spectacular options to choose from.  We’ve been there several times and we’ve experienced different menus, but we were never disappointed.  Some dishes come and go, some come back.  Keep an open mind, hungry stomach, and you’ll have a lot of fun and unexpected, staggering food combinations. 

The Beef Tongue was delicious.  Being from Romania, we eat a lot of beef tongue, so we are used to the texture and taste of this ingredient.  But in this appetizer the flavor of the tongue is elevated by the blend of mushrooms, celery root, raisins and apple.  All of these make it a very light dish.  This is a great introduction to a unique dish, especially if you’ve never tried beef tongue.  It will make you appreciate it and, who knows, maybe try it again in the future. 

The “Fois & Figs” was rich and creamy but not heavy thanks to the segments of orange, which balanced the entire dish, while the pumpkin seeds added a nice crunch and light toasty flavor. 

The Beef Cheek Pierogi was exquisite; a little piece of heaven on earth.  These little delights of soft sweet dough and juicy pieces of beef just melt away in your mouth, and you are so happy.  No wonder that this is one of the most popular appetizers at Lola.

The Smoked Berkshire Pork Chop was spectacular.  It was tender and succulent, layered on a bed of creamy and rich polenta, which melted in your mouth.  The first time I had this dish at Lola a year and a half ago, it was the best pork I had ever had.  Guess what… it is still the best pork I’ve ever had.  Michael Symon’s specialty is pork… well… it shows.  

The Venison was also incredible.  It had layers and layers of flavors and textures thanks to the amazing combination of chestnut, parsnip, squash and cipollini onions.  

The Beef Hanger Steak was a huge hit, too.  It was tender and juicy, while the pickles cut through the richness of the meat and the chiles gave it a kick of spice.  Let’s not forget about the Lola fries, which accompanied the hanger steak – again, crispy and fabulous, and another layer of flavor and texture.  

We couldn’t end our dinner without dessert.  We just couldn’t.  So, we had two desserts: Pumpkin Pie and Apple & Fennel.  They were so delicious and so different, at the same time.  The Pumpkin Pie was a spin on the traditional pumpkin pie, but richer and creamier, and better.  

The Apple & Fennel, on the other hand, was light and fresh, and a refreshing ending to a great meal. 

In the end, it was the perfect getaway.  We couldn’t have asked for more.  We had great food, great wine, great atmosphere and, most importantly, great company.  You can’t beat that!   

Restaurant Information:
2058 East 4th Street
Cleveland, OH 44115
Phone: (216) 621-5652