Ciorbă - Romanian Sour Soup with Meatballs (Gluten Free)

When my mom and I were first creating a new life in the US, she would sometimes make a Romanian soup called "Chor-buh" spelled Ciorbă. Now it's much later, and the internet tells me similar soups can be found in Turkey, and the word is derived from the Persian "shorba."  I looked farther and found similar soups in other cultures so the recipe changes a bit depending on which location it comes from.  I'll try to stick to the Romanian version in this recipe. This version is a bit of a production to make, but results in a delightfully bright colored soup with fresh flavors, anchored by rich meatballs. The highlight of any weekend.

The full name of this recipe is Ciorba de Perisoare, which sounds like "Chore Buh de Perry Shore Eh."   Soup with Meatballs is the translation.  Romanian has the honor of being the closest living language to Eastern (vulgate) Latin. It's a shame I've forgotten nearly all of it. Famous Romanians include Elie Wiesel, Nadia Comăneci and Stan Lee.  The invention of Rummikub is an interesting anecdote about Romania too.  Although when I heard that story, I heard the inventor had traveled in the East and had come up with a way to approximate Mah Jongg.  Some of the rules certainly apply to both games. Fans of rare cookbooks will appreciate hunting for The Romanian Cook Book (1951).

There are already many "quick and easy" recipes out there.  This recipe is not one of them.  This is a slow food, real food recipe that I hope you'll try at least once.  I would even call it gourmet because Escoffier would be proud of the flavor development in the soup stock though he might take issue with some other aspects.

My mom used to make this without any help (I was too young for the straining part), but, of course, moms have superpowers.  Ciorba is a wonderfully nutritious soup to add to your repertoire.  Just think how mysterious it will be if you tell people you're making "Chor-buh." (It's the hot new soup, didn't you hear??)

About Making Ciorbă

The process of making Ciorba, in a nutshell, is to make an ultimate bone broth with vegetables and bones, then strain it.  Then cook meatballs in the rich broth.  Finally add fresh carrots, potato and bell pepper.  Add a souring agent (discussed below), and cook another 15-30 min until the new veggies are tender.  Serve with chopped parsley on top (not optional in this soup).  The flavor notes should be tangy, herbal and a bit earthy (from the meatballs and carrots). If you're using marrow bones, the marrow can be served on croutons with the soup.  That was how I was served it as a child.

If you're going to the trouble of making an intensely flavored broth, you may as well make a lot because it's just as much work to make it once as it is to double or quadruple the recipe.  So this recipe is made in bulk and then later you can reuse the broth with more meatballs or other ways suggested at the end of the article.  If you decide to make less, be careful of the long cooking times which can evaporate water very quickly and lead to burning. Making half of this recipe will help with how heavy the pot is during straining, but doesn't save much time.

I haven't had the experience of having the broth spoil because it was left out of refrigeration too long, but don't take chances, don't let it get down below 130 deg F.  This is a recipe of the old world though, and an American size refrigerator wasn't common until after the 1980s there.  So I suspect the sourness of the soup was really a means of preserving it.  If you used a probiotic like bors, it would keep the soup from spoiling.But I suspect it was both, regular boiling and occasional top ups with Bors that kept the food safe to eat before refrigeration.

The Souring Agent (Borş)

Bors is pronounced like Borscht, except it's made from soured grain.  In Romania the tradition is to use fermented rye or wheat.  Obviously, any bors made from gluten grains is out, but successful bors can be made from brown rice and nearly any whole grain. A paleo version might dispense entirely with the grain and use something else that's a soured vegetable, such as sauerkraut.  My mother used sauerkraut so I will be doing the same.  She did say it wasn't traditional though, just a decent substitute.  I like it, but feel free to use something more authentic.

In Romania, certain people were known to be good at souring grain and people would buy bors from them.  If you're interested in full authenticity (or as close as possible without using gluten grains), feel free to try making some bors from a safe grain. Bors, under the name of rejuvelac is still consumed in the US by health conscious people in search of a homemade probiotic with a less intense flavor than kombucha.

Lovage Levisticum Officinale

The Herb, Lovage and More Details

 Lovage is easily found in much of the world but hard to find in the US.  People either grow it, or look for it in a farmer's market.  Sometimes a vegetable bullion will contain it, or you can find it under the name leustean.  However, be very canny about foreign sourced ingredients.  Most of them give little thought to gluten free.

I don't put paprika into Ciorba.  I think it's OK if you do though.  The flavors do meld nicely, but I consider that to be not totally Romanian.  I'd rather add more black pepper. As much as I love Hungarian food, I'm trying to avoid a fusion techinique in this version. I'm already a fusion of Hungarian and Romanian, let that be enough. :)  Also, it would turn the color orange instead of gold.

I did add a bit of turmeric for nutritional value and because the soup should look golden.  The gold color comes from the carrots, so don't be shy with adding them, but I like a little insurance.  Why not, since turneric is so healthy and won't be noticed?  I added seaweed because, it won't change the flavor much.  You can get away with the turmeric if you're serving it to a Romanian, but the seaweed is definitely pushing tradition too far. I noted that it's optional in the recipe.  Feel free to leave it out.

I'm left wondering what people added to ciorba before bell peppers entered Europe.  It's always a part of Ciorba though.  I add tomatoes because mom told me to.  But that too is a New World food.  I'm guessing it was once eggplant or tamarind. But tamarind would make it cloudy and dark.  So it must've been something else. Oh well, it's a mystery.  If you know the answer to this mystery, please comment and tell me.

Ciorbă - Meatball Soup, Romanian Style

This is slow food, do this on a weekend!  It's also a large quantity, requires heavy lifting, and the leftovers are intentional. Schedule some help with a friend or a relative and make an occasion of it. There are also simpler ways to make it, but this version is optimized for highest nutrition and gluten free. The recipe is wonderful for a large crowd because it's cheerful and crisp, not at all the bland, grayish soup that might result from long cooking recipes.

Stages of Cooking Ciorbă

  1. 12 hours: bone broth making (shop meanwhile)
  2. 4-8 hours: continue to simmer bone broth, add vegetables
  3. 1 hour: strain and prepare meatballs and fresh veggies
  4. 30 min: form each meatball and boil in soup
  5. Last 30 min: Add vegetables, parsley and souring agent
  6. 1 hour: preparing the leftovers for storage
This is really 4 recipes in 1:  bone broth, vegetable/bone stock, meatballs, and a fancy herbal soup that requires the other 3.
NOTE: You will need 2 stock pots (yes two), a full size pasta strainer with slits (not big holes) that reaches across the mouth of the stockpot and won't fall in.  At one point you'll have to strain the liquid . Get help if you need it, for this part, it's heavy and hot!  For safety reasons do not use a large bowl to strain into, too easy to tip it over and spill hot liquid.

    Bone Broth Prep

    Bone Broth.
    4+ lbs cattle or poultry bones include rib bones if you have them
    Water to fill a stock pot 3/4 full  (use the largest stockpot you have)
    teaspoon peppercorns
    teaspoon salt
    juice of 1 lemon and some zest or lemon skin shavings

    Allow the combination to simmer for at least 12 hours. I often leave it simmering overnight and resume cooking the next day.  Don't worry about the color, it will become golden and the clarity improves from the egg in the meatballs. This is an early stage.

    While simmering, almost-cover the pot so the steam condenses on the lid and drips back in.  This slows the evaporation and, if you did close the pot completely, it might bubble up too much and cause hissing and rattling on the stove. If you have a cover with a handy dandy hole in the top, then cover it completely, it should be fine.  Keeping it at a simmer takes some watching and adjusting the stove as you go.  Check it at least once an hour. No need to stir, but just make sure it's simmering.

    → If you just want bone broth, you can stop here, chill, remove the fat (and save it I hope, it's full of nutrition from the marrow), and store the broth for use in other recipes.  Generally, don't store fat with liquid, it spoils quicker.  The approved old style way to save it is to boil the skimmed fat in a pot on the stove briefly to evaporate the water.  Careful not to burn it. Then it will store longer. Grandma didn't skim the fat because it was bad, she did it to prevent spoilage.

    Vegetables for the stock

    Ideally the bones will be cooking for a total of 24 hours to fully release all their goodness into the liquid.  After 12 hours have passed I add the first group of vegetables which will be strained out later.  I also add the first group of herbs and a tangy liquid, or a few tangy liquids.
    Bell pepper is always included.

    1 cup white wine (optional)
    1 cup sauerkraut with liquid
    OR 1 whole package American Style Kimchee with liquid
    OR  1-2 cups Bors if you have it
    juice of 1/2 lemon, and a few shavings of peel (again)
    2 Tbsp dried tarragon (should buy this brand new here's a good store for it)
    OR  5 of  6 inch stalks fresh tarragon (in those jewel cases in produce aisle)
    3-5 stalks of celery, chopped small, plus leaves
    5-6 carrots chopped small
    *If you have any greens from veggies, like carrot tops, chop and add them*
    1 whole onion, chopped small but not too tiny
    1-3 whole bell pepper and its seeds and ribs for flavor, chopped 
    4-5 Roma tomatoes, chopped
    3x6 inch piece of kombu seaweed, broken into bits (optional, purely for nutrition)
    Vegetable soup base or bullion (optional, see below)

    Saute some of the veggies before adding, for richer flavor (optional).

    At this point, traditionally you'd add Vegeta, but it's not GF as far as I can tell.  You can be closer to authenticity by adding a gluten free chicken or turkey bullion cube or this vegetable soup base (with lovage in it), but it shouldn't be necessary.  

    Add the ingredients and turn up the heat a bit until it comes back to a simmer, then turn down a tad.  If your stove is electric this may take some finagling, but get it back to a slow simmer.  As it cooks longer, and more water evaporates, you may need to add a bit of water and turn the heat down farther. It seems to me the richer the stock, the lower the boiling point becomes.  So be vigilant and check at least once an hour, plus any time you hear any sound from the kitchen.
    About the tarragon.  Traditionally, it would be lovage used here, and it wold be fresh, chopped.  But lovage can be hard to find.  And whenever I've found it from Knorr or some such international supplier, it usually doesn't fill me with confidence about being gluten free.  So unless you grow lovage, or you find it in a local farm market, you will have to find something similar, for me that's tarragon + lots of celery.  If you didn't order ahead, you can always use Herbs de Provence, but  now we're getting really far from tradition.  You might want to save this recipe for when you have some quality tarragon or lovage available.  
    If it's time to go to bed, the best plan is to turn the heat down another notch, crack the lid a bit so there's no chance of boiling over from a closed lid, and leave it like that.  If you feel unsafe doing that, just turn it off and the heat will last till morning when you can resume.

    Prep Vegetables for the Finished Soup 

    Potato (or Turnip for a pre-New World version)
    Bell pepper (no seeds or ribs this time) - red or yellow if you have it

    Harmonious extras:
    Squares of savoy cabbage or bok choy (not trad but really yummy)
    Parsnip (harmonious flavor)
    Summer Squashes 

    Probably not a good choice for this recipe:
    Fennel bulb
    Broccoli (not sure why, just instinct says no)
    Pumpkin, Spaghetti squash, butternut squash and similar hard squashes

    You will end up with about 1/2 or 2/3 stockpot full of liquid, pick three or five veggies and add a cup of each, chopped large (you can leave bok choy as whole leaves) to a bowl. Store in the fridge until needed. You won't have time to chop later.

    Setting up for the Straining

    There's a reason they call it straining!  Be careful and organized.  Get out a second stockpot and a pasta strainer that has slits and fits across the top of the empty stockpot.


    • Stockpot 1:  contains bones, vegetables and soup
    • Stockpot 2:  is empty and has a sturdy and stable strainer on top with every precaution taken to be sure it won't spill when you pour liquid into it.  
    • Your helper:  Is either going to be pouring or will be wearing silicone oven mitts (that can't be soaked if there is a spill) and holding the top of the strainer and second stockpot.  Both of you are taking precautions to avoid any possible splashes.  
    • Children, curious bystanders and pets:  Are closed out of the room.

    I really can't overstate the danger of straining hot liquids in the kitchen.  This is way more heavy than pasta.  And you have to cleanly capture all the liquid so it's more tricky.  Also, bits of food will be sloshing into the strainer and may cause splashes, especially if you missed a bone or two.  Go slow. If it's too scary, just let it cool down.  After an hour cooling off, it should be much less dangerous. 

    Strained soup.
    1. Fish out the bones very carefully with tongs.  They will have become much smaller especially if they were joints. But they can still cause a splash. Reserve them if you plan to look for marrow, otherwise discard. 
    2. Put Stockpot 2 into the sink so it's lower. With room on the nearby counter for Stockpot 1. 
    3. With both people wearing protective gloves, carefully tip the full stockpot until it starts pouring into the strainer and stockpot 2.  No need to rush, a steady stream is OK.  
    4. You may need to stop halfway, and put the strained veggies in a bowl, because the strainer is full. 
    5. When stockpot 1 is empty, lift the strainer with the vegetable matter out, and place on top of stockpot 1.  
    6. Put Stockpot 2 (now full) on the stove to continue cooking and put the heat on low to bring it back to a simmer.  We'll be adding meatballs next. 
    7. with the back of a soup ladle, press the vegetables down so more liquid is released and the mash is drier.  If the mash has large lumps, put it through a food processor so it's finer.  It's going to replace breadcrumbs in the meatballs.  Any liquids from the pressing can be returned to the soup.

    → If you just want an ultimate vegetable/bone stock, stop here and find another use for the vegetable mash (a great source of softened fiber that your belly bugs will love).  Store the stock and use in other recipes.

    → Paleo trick, not traditional in Ciorba:  If you used chicken bones, or poultry bones, they should be so soft now, that you can grind them up for a burst of minerals.  Depends how hard-core paleo you want to be. You wouldn't notice them in the meatballs.  Chop them to be sure they're soft enough, then put them through the food processor.  To be sure they're all ground up, put them through a large tea strainer.  Duck bones are especially tasty, I consider them a Scooby snack for the cook.  If you'd rather not take a chance on the bones, your pet might appreciate the ground bones, as a nutrition additive.

    The Meatballs and Chopped Vegetables

    Traditionally bread crumbs are used to hold the meatballs together.  While I could use ordinary gluten free bread, it would likely contain things that aren't really traditional and may change the texture of the soup, such as xanthan gum.  Anyway, I have a lovely vegetable mash just waiting to be a filler for meatballs, and add flavor as well as texture.  I'm pretty sure my mom added only breadcrumbs, but I think she would've appreciated my switcheroo.  She was deeply thrifty.

    The vegetables are already a bit salty.  So be very sparing with salt. The flavor of the meatballs should pop separately from the flavor of the soup.  The flavor is still "herbal" but in the meatballs it's not tangy, it's earthy.  You can use other herbs if you wish, as long as you avoid tarragon so there is a contrast.

    Salt, it comes first because it's tricky.  1/2 tsp max for the meatballs if using vegetables
    2 eggs (one egg per lb of meat), beaten
    Meatball base.
    *the egg replaces the gluten binder in ordinary breadcrumbs)*
    Optional:  2 Tbsp ground flax seed or chia seed (both are binders)
    1 lb each, pork and beef (or two pounds turkey, which is very tasty in this soup)
    1 and a half cups of pressed veggies (per 2 lbs of meat)
    1/2 tsp onion pwd
    fresh ground pepper (3 - 4 grinds)
    2 tsp dried thyme
    2 tsp italian herb mix or oregano, dried
    1/2 tsp marjoram pwd
    1/2 tsp caraway powder (you may need to grind this at home, I've never seen it in a store)
    *don't use cumin, it's way too strong for this*
     strained bone mash, if using 

    In case you aren't using vegetable mash, optional, tear up 2-3 pieces of gluten free bread and soak them in a small amount of soup (a few tablespoons), then add to the meat.  Cooked rice is also traditional in Romanian meatballs so feel free to use that instead.

    A short video demonstrates the rolling of the meatballs:

    1. Turn the heat up a bit so the soup doesn't stop simmering.
    2. Add the vegetables you chopped previously (and should be in the fridge, see above).
    3. Add the other half of the lemon juice (just keeping it tangy).
    4.  Add a sprinkle of turmeric (optional, mostly for color and health).
    5. Let it come back to a fast simmer or low boil. 
    6. Meanwhile, combine the meatball ingredients (your hands work best, use gloves if it's too icky)
    7. Form each meatball, and add it to the soup.
    8. It may help to put a bowl of oil nearby to slick your hands so they don't stick to you as much.
    9. After about 5, gently stir so they don't stick tot he bottom (they won't, but still)
    10. Continue until they are all in the soup. 
    11. Set a timer for 15 minutes after the soup is at a steady simmer, and after the last meatball went in.
    12. Simmer for 15 min and turn the heat off.   (Almost done!!)

    5-8 cloves of crushed garlic
    1/3 bunch of chopped parsley, italian/flat

    Add at least 5 cloves of crushed garlic to the soup, and a handful of chopped parsley.

    Taste after 1 min, and if the tarragon flavor is weak, add a bit more dried,it should be easily tasted in the liquid. Correct for salt or other flavors. 

    It's now ready to serve, add more parsley to the top of every plateful.  And it may be eaten with sour cream or heavy cream, but I like the clarity of the soup and the color. Serve 3-5 meatballs per person, depending on the size of the meatballs.

    My mom made semolina/farina dumplings for this sometimes, for the inevitable day when the meatballs ran out.  But that's definitely not GF.  I'll have to develop something to replace that someday.

    But There's MORE!

    This dish has a lot of leftovers.  I can't even imagine scaling it down, because it needs so many preps.  I suppose if I had the vegetable/bone stock I could make the meatballs and add the veggies and have a fast version of it.  But in practice I use the liquid left after the meatballs are gone in other soups and stews as a rich stock.
    Pack in individual containers.

    First, store 3 meatballs and liquid and veggies in individual food prep containers for that inevitable day (like tomorrow) when you're too tired to cook.  It freezes wonderfully.

    Then you'll have a lot of liquid left, store them in any container that fits, leave one out for your next stew (next week), and freeze the rest.

    When they come out of the deep freeze, they'll probably need some fresh parsley and a squeeze of lemon, or a touch of sherry vinegar and bingo, tangy-herbal soup!
    Enjoy the bounty!

    Things to add to the liquid for a different soup on other days:

    • sliced cooked chicken breast
    • more meatballs
    • cut up sausage (try andouille)
    • tofu, rice and bok choy for an Asian touch
    • winter veggies
    • butternut squash
    • rice - as in, use it as the water to cook rice, yum!
    • add miso and seaweed for a treat, maybe even shiitake mushroom
    • use it with coconut oil as a moistener for mashed potato, or mashed (some other vegetable) to avoid dairy

    Most important, congratulate yourself, you've made something complex and wonderful, totally from scratch.  That's something to feel good about!


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