As a Roman province, then Turkish ruled by Greeks, Romania was a gateway for trade between the Middle East and the inland Western Europe. Some of the luxury goods transported in Byzantine, Roman and Hellenic times went through the ports at the Black Sea. Two of those goods were olives and olive oil barrels.
The Greeks were sent by the Ottoman Empire to act as rulers of two Romanian vassal principalities: Moldova and Walachia between 1711-1821. They belonged to very influential Greek families established in Phanar, the Greek quarter in Constantinople. Therefore, the period is known as the Phanariote era in Romania’s history.
The Phanariots had a huge cultural impact on Romanian society. They imposed an opulent style, similar to the one in Constantinople. They were rich, very fashionable, powerful, and in striking contrast to the local noblemen. When you visit Bucharest, you can recognise a certain middle eastern style in the beautiful city mansions in which they used to reside.
Food wise, they brought with them an incredible variety of desserts, and also added quite a lot of new dishes to our culinary repertoire. Don’t be surprised to find Turkish stuffed cabbage, moussaka, aubergine and butterbean dips, vegetable salads with cheese, kebabs, flat breads, taramasalata, and olives in our cuisine. These dishes are as much Romanian as they are middle eastern.
The olive casserole that I’m going to make today is very popular during Lent, served on its own with crusty bread. When Lent is over, we usually add chicken thighs or meatballs to make a week day family meal.
As you can see, my version of this olive casserole is more in line with what I like to eat at dinner time. Pork is my favourite meat so I am making tender, lemony meatballs, served on top of the olive casserole. You can of course add pasta, if you’d like.
For the olive casserole:
400g mixed pitted olives
2 celery sticks – diced
2 garlic cloves – chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
200ml vegetable stock
1 tbsp oil
1 pinch of salt
1 pinch of chilli flakes
For the meatballs:
500g pork minced meat
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
1 tsp sage – you can use fresh herbs, chopped finely
2 slices of white bread, soaked in water
Make the casserole: put the tablespoon of oil in a frying pan. Add the leeks and gently fry for 5 min. Add the chopped garlic, celery and soften for further 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock and olives and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Make the meatballs: put all the ingredients together and mix well. Wet your hands and put a little of the mixture in the middle of your palm (no more than half a tablespoon) Roll into a small ball and set aside. Do the same with the rest of the minced meat. Heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the meatballs until dark brown. Set aside on a kitchen towel. Just before serving, put them in the olive ragu to reheat.
Serve: you can use a pasta bowl or any shallow bowl. Put 3 tablespoons of the olive ragu, then place a few meatballs on top. Sprinkle with a little lemon zest.