Rachel’s Tocanita de Cartofi

This delicious, traditional Romanian stew is the perfect warm meal for a chilly fall day.

By Elizabeth Czajkowski | Food Columnist
October 21, 2021
tocanita de cartofi and mamaliga 1
Rachel’s Tocanita de Cartofi. Photo: Elizabeth Czajkowski.

As the leaves change colors and the coolness of autumn seeps into our days, the inevitable craving for cozy sweaters, pumpkin spice lattes and warm, comforting meals descends upon campus. If you, too, have been caught up in the fall frenzy and are searching for the ideal hot dinner to cook this week, look no further!

 

Senior Rachel Varvara brings us a delicious, traditional Romanian dish called tocanita de cartofi, or chicken and potato stew. This nourishing, steaming pot of stew filled with hearty boiled vegetables and chicken thighs is sure to bring warmth to your bones and happiness to your heart. Best of all, it’s super easy to make. Simply chop up your veggies and chicken and throw it all in one pot to cook on the stovetop.

 

“The majority of Romanian food is made with stuff that you can grow from a garden,” Varvara told me. Her parents moved to America from Romania in the late 1990s. “So, a lot of vegetables, and usually some sort of meat as well.” 

 

Rachel serves her yummy tocanita de cartofi with mamaliga, which she describes as a side dish akin to polenta, and a dollop of sour cream. 

 

“[Mamaliga] is made with cornmeal,” she said, “and we usually eat it with cheese and sour cream.” Sour cream, according to Rachel, is a staple in the Romanian diet. “You put it on everything,” she added with a laugh.

 

A few other trademark foods in Romanian cuisine include delicious homemade cheeses from the countryside; salata de boeuf (a dish with beef, vegetables, and mayonnaise); fermented foods like cabbage, pickles, and roasted peppers; and Rachel’s personal favorite: sarmale or cabbage rolls. Unlike the easy prep-work of the cartofi, sarmale takes much more time and skill to prepare and roll. Often, women will gather and spend the whole day preparing this dish. You can find variations of sarmale throughout Europe. 

 

“Romanian food has a lot of influences from different parts of Europe,” Rachel explained. “Especially because Romania hasn’t always been independent. It’s always been under one kind of regime or another—whether it was the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians and even the Russians.”

Rachel’s love of cooking began at a young age and was deeply inspired by her mamaia, her maternal grandmother. Whenever a new grandchild was born, Mamaia would come from Romania and stay a few months to help Rachel’s mom around the house. 

 

“Whenever she was here, if you wanted to spend time with her, you’d help her in the kitchen,” said Rachel, who fondly recounts memories of cooking together and baking cakes, breads and pastries. Mamaia, with her loving demeanor, long, flowing skirts, and traditional head scarf (a sign of modesty) would teach young Rachel how to mix different ingredients and let her beat the batter.

 

Rachel not only appreciates the delicious cuisine of her heritage, but also the Romanian values that shaped her as she grew up. Though she was born in the States, for much of her adolescence, she was completely immersed in what she referred to as the “Romanian bubble.” Until first grade, she only spoke Romanian and spent most of her days at First Romanian Baptist Church of Chicago.

Rachel holding a traditional Romanian dish called tocanita. Photo: Elizabeth Czajkowski.

Two important values that Rachel’s upbringing ingrained into her are that of hard work and strong faith. Hard work, harnic in Romanian, is a common theme in Romanian children’s stories. Rachel’s culture taught her the importance of diligently attending to the small yet important tasks of life and cherishing “what’s on the inside.”

 

Moreover, her family, especially her grandparents, emphasized the importance of having strong faith. When Romania was under the Communist regime, there was rampant Christian persecution. “I grew up hearing stories about Christians having to pray in secret, and pastors, people and churches being arrested and thrown in jail for many years,” she said. These stories shaped Rachel’s understanding of the power of the Christian faith in a way that American culture could not convey. Rachel’s family also possesses a unique legacy of faith as her ancestors were “one of the earliest to convert to Protestantism in Romania.”

 

Despite the many political and social struggles of the country, Rachel stated with pride that she has “a really big heart for Romania.” Drawing from her travels to the country, she told me of the “underappreciated natural beauty” of the land—“the Carpathian Mountains, the Danube Delta, the beaches of Constanza.”

 

“There’s so much good in Romania,” Rachel said. “And the people there are some of the best you’ll ever meet.”

 

Thanks to Rachel, we have the privilege to see, rather taste, a glimpse of this beautiful culture. If you’d like to experience delicious Romanian cuisine and fill your belly with something warm during these autumn weeks, keep on reading for the recipe for Rachel’s tocanita de cartofi.

 

(Adapted from Fotog Foodie):

 

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 red pepper – diced
  • 2-3 onions – diced
  • 2 celery stalks – diced
  • 1 carrot – diced
  • 6-8 potatoes or one bag of small potatoes – cubed
  • 6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs – cut in 1/2 inch pieces
  • about 6 cups of chicken broth
  • 8 oz. can tomato sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste

 

Directions:

  1. Heat olive oil in large pot on stovetop over medium heat.
  2. Add onions, pepper and celery. Sauté until soft.
  3. Add potatoes and carrot and cover with chicken broth (just enough stock to cover it).
  4. Add chicken thighs and simmer for about 35 mins or until the potatoes are cooked.
  5. Add tomato sauce, salt and pepper. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
  6. Serve in a bowl and enjoy!

Wheaton College, IL

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