Sautéed Chive Mamaliga with Feta-Yogurt Cream

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Yield:

    6–8

    servings

Appears in

There are those who would deny mamaliga’s place in the culinary pantheon, where it is exalted right up there with pastrami and carnatzlach in Aaron Lebedoff’s nostalgic song from the Yiddish stage, “Rumania, Rumania.” True, its illustrious landsmen (compatriots) resonate with more jazz—and garlic—but peasant-bred mamaliga is so deeply comforting to eat. Like its Italian cousin polenta, this velvety cornmeal porridge will happily accommodate your flavor mood of the moment, cradling savory braises, stews, and grilled meats or rich cheeses. And mamaliga, like polenta, can be served immediately after it is boiled, or baked with melting cheese, or, my favorite method, cooled, sliced, and lightly fried, as in this recipe.

I like to accentuate the corn taste by lightly toasting the meal first and by using unrefined corn oil to sauté the firm, cooked slices. For dairy meals (Romanian and Italian Jews often make it from white corn-meal on the dairy extravaganza of Shavuot), mamaliga is usually prepared with milk and butter and seasoned with a sharp cheese like feta or a milder Balkan sheep’s milk cheese, bryndza. I mellow the saltiness of the feta with spicy scallions and the sour tang of yogurt, a cool complement to the crunchy fried crust.

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups yellow or white cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
  • cups milk
  • Salt
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus additional for greasing the pan and as needed for sautéing
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh chives or ½ cup finely chopped scallions (use white and green parts)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2–3 tablespoons oil, preferably unrefined corn oil, plus additional as needed

Feta-Yogurt Cream (See Cook’s Note)

  • cup coarsely grated feta cheese
  • cup yogurt cream or sour cream
  • ¼ cup finely minced scallions
  • Chopped fresh fragrant herbs, like mint or dill (optional)
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Method

  1. In a large, wide, heavy-bottomed saucepan (enameled cast iron is ideal), toast the cornmeal slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the kitchen is filled with the fragrant aroma of grilled corn and the golden color begins to deepen slightly. Watch carefully so the cornmeal doesn’t burn.
  2. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the cornmeal cool to room temperature. Add the milk, cups of water, and 1 tablespoon salt to the cornmeal and whisk until thoroughly combined. Simmer over moderately low heat, stirring frequently to prevent lumps from forming, until the mamaliga is very thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 30 minutes. It should no longer taste raw or grainy. If necessary, cook 5–10 minutes longer. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the butter and the chives or scallions, and season with pepper to taste and more salt if needed.
  3. Transfer the mamaliga to a 13-by-9-inch, lightly buttered or oiled baking dish or a baking sheet with sides. Smooth the top, let it cool, and refrigerate it, covered loosely with wax paper, until firm, about 2 hours. (It will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 3 days.)
  4. Make the feta-yogurt cream. Stir all the ingredients together and adjust the seasonings. Allow the flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes.
  5. Cut the mamaliga into thin slices or triangles in the baking pan. In a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons of the oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Fry the mamaliga slices in batches, carefully turning once with 2 spatulas, until golden and crisp, 2–3 minutes per side. If necessary, add more oil and butter to the pan, but make sure the pan is hot before adding additional mamaliga. Serve the mamaliga topped with the feta-yogurt cream.

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