Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Hunter’s Stew (Bigos) - the King of Polish Comfort Food

Witamy i życzymy wszystkiego najlepszego na nowy rok!

Welcome, and we wish you all the best for 2019.

We’re having a party to celebrate the New Year.  Lots of friends and neighbors will be invited to socialize and enjoy an early supper.  There was never any question that the dish of choice will be Hunter’s Stew, or better known in Polish circles as Bigos.  This is classic and traditional comfort food at its very best. 

The base is sauerkraut to which we add kielbasa, bacon, pieces of pork and / or beef roast, dried mushroom for distinct flavor, some onion and tomato for background, and basically stew the heck out of it for several hours -  it’s even better if prepared the day before, giving all the flavors time to marry and cohabitate with each other. 

The recipe below is a classic Warsaw version handed down from Peter’s Grandmother.  But truth be told there are a “gazillion” varieties of this hearty dish since every town and every village in Poland, and probably every cook has their own version.  As we travel to various Polish heritage festivals around the U.S. with our books and programs, we’ve noticed that the cooks at every church use some Babcia’s recipe.  Each is a bit different and each is always popular so that Bigos is often the first dish on the menu to sell out.  The beauty of Bigos is that the proportions don’t matter that much and the flavors will all come together, no matter how you change things up to make it your own.  

For our New Year’s day party, we’ll serve it with some boiled potatoes and black bread on the side.   For the adventuresome guests, we’ll be sipping shots of ice cold Polish vodka.   (Peter likes Luksusowa potato vodka because it is very smooth and a great value for the price).  For the others, we’ll have a hearty red wine or Polish beer – all of which pair beautifully with Bigos.  For dessert, we still have too many platters of Christmas sweets which are still delicious.  We’ll put them out and pray they go fast. 

Serves 5-6

1/4 cup dried mushrooms
1/2 cup water
2 pounds sauerkraut
1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced (optional) 
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
5 peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 cup fully cooked Polish sausage, sliced and quartered
1 cup leftover meat (pork, beef, veal) chopped in 1 inch pieces
1 cup coarsely chopped bacon, pre-cooked to render fat

Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water until soft.  Transfer the mushrooms and their water to a small pot and simmer for about 30 minutes.  Drain the mushrooms but be sure to save their the liquid.  Chop the mushrooms into rough pieces. 

Wash the sauerkraut twice, thoroughly squeezing out the water each time.  In a large pot, combine sauerkraut, mushrooms and their reserved liquid.  Add the apple, tomatoes, peppercorns and bay leaf.  Add a little water or broth if needed, and simmer for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Be sure the liquid doesn’t all boil off. 

Pre-cook the bacon at least half way to render most of the bacon fat and rough-chop.  Add all the meat and bacon.  Cover and simmer 1 hour longer, stirring occasionally.

This dish tastes much better when reheated the next day.  Serve with potatoes, and crusty dark bread.  Pairs well with either icy vodka, hearty red wine like a cabarnet sauvignon, or beer. 


PS:  This is a great crockpot dish – cook on high for 2 hours then low for about 6 hours.  Reheat the next day until hot throughout. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Growing Up Polish at Christmas - A Conversation With Peter & Laura Zeranski

Laura and Peter recently recorded a conversation about growing up with Polish holiday traditions, for Polcast – an excellent podcast on a wide variety of Polish issues, which you can hear at: www.mypolcast.com -Episode 59, available now. We’d like to share with you a transcript of that conversation. 

Everything in red are Laura’s comments and everything in black are Peter’s words.

(Laura): So unless you’re living totally in a jungle somewhere, you know that shopping malls and most stores have already been decorated for Christmas for a very long time – even starting before Halloween. 

(Peter): When we were growing up, Christmas was never this huge commercial spectacle as it is now.  My Mom told stories about Christmas in Poland before WW-II, -- that the celebrations were always simple and no one even sang carols until Christmas Eve. 

And they certainly didn’t have Christmas movies on TV playing in October and November.  Back in the day, Christmas was always a time of anticipation and excitement. 

Our traditional Polish Christmas Eve supper is called Wigilia, which means vigil or waiting for the birth of Jesus, and it was totally based on traditions and dishes that had been handed down for generations upon generations.   It’s the most historical and anticipated meal of the year.  Generations of Polish Babcia’s would prepare food for weeks and weeks, just for this one special feast. 

Now things are a bit more modernized, but the traditions still live.  The meal is meatless.  It is customary to set an extra place at the table for the lonely traveler who may knock at the door. 

There are a few sprigs of pine branches on the table, from the holy manger.   In the country villages of Poland, it might have been a thin layer of hay under the tablecloth.

Always twelve dishes were served, symbolizing the twelve apostles .  And poppy seeds were always a part of Christmas Eve supper as a symbol of peacefulness, and honey for sweetness.  There is a magical delicacy of noodles with poppy seeds, honey and raisins, in our first book called: Kluski z Makiem.

The feast should begin as soon as the first star is visible in the sky.  When I was maybe 5 or 6,  I remember running out on the porch and looking up, waiting for that first star to peek out, so we could get started with the sharing of the wafer – an important tradition that we still follow.   I was always so hungry!

The white, almost translucent wafer is a symbol of love, friendship and forgiveness. It’s like a Communion wafer only rectangular like a small postcard.  It is broken into bite size pieces and shared with everyone at the table along with wishes for a happy and healthy new year.  Peter’s Mom would always use a communion wafer blessed in Poland and mailed over.  Now we get our wafers from a nearby Polish church or even through the internet.  

Our own menu is right out of our heritage cookbooks.  We start with clear Barszcz - peppery, deep red beet broth, the rich color of a fine Cabarnet wine.  This classic formal version doesn’t contain any vegetables and is served in our best fine china tea cups.  Sometimes it is  served with little dumplings called "uszka."

A second appetizer, always served with the Barszcz, are crepes stuffed with a savory mix of mushroom and sauerkraut, breaded and sautéed lightly in the pan, just to crisp up the outside.  

Our daughter and son-in-law would be perfectly happy if they were the only item on the menu and I always have to make extra.  For our young granddaughter who hasn’t acquired the taste of sauerkraut yet, I just stuff her crepes with sweetened ricotta cheese and she loves it. 

Wigilia is meatless.  Herring or carp is the traditional fish course but back in the 50’s in Canada, they were hard to find in the winter.  My Mom would buy a very fresh salmon and actually freeze it whole in a block of ice.  

Today we serve haddock or flounder or cod or whatever white fish is fresh and available.  Vegetables Polonaise, that is a colorful variety of fresh vegetables topped with a mix of breadcrumbs and butter, and some sort of potatoes round out the main course. Little potato pancakes, sometimes called Latkas, or in Polish - placki kartoflane, are absolutely heaven on your plate. 

For dessert we always serve a variety of Polish baked goods as well as American Christmas cookies.  The Polish Nut Roll and Poppy Seed Roll are always requirements.  I usually make a dozen or so for sharing with friends.  Peter loves trading sweets with our Greek neighbors – our Poppy Seed Rolls for their wonderful Baklava. 

We also love Kolaczki  a very traditional cookie of delicate dough squares wrapped around fruit preserves. 

And our Gingerbread Honey Cake – Piernik - which is so popular and easy to make.   And our dessert table wouldn’t be complete without a stately Warsaw Fruit Cake which is not loaded down with cloyingly sweet candied fruit.  

Peter likes to pour a little Polish brandy over his slice, just for an added kick.
Or a lot of brandy...

A compote of 7 or 8 dried fruits was also traditional for many years but I’m not a big fan. When I got older I’d kick up my Mom’s version with that same bottle of Polish brandy, while she wasn’t looking.  Somehow I always got caught but seldom punished.

After the feasting ended, and everyone let out their belts a few notches, Peter’s Mother always insisted that they sing Christmas carols together, before opening any gifts.

We’d move to the real Christmas tree in the living room, sit uncomfortably on the floor and I’d stare at all the gifts under the tree.  Dad would break out the old vinyl LP records - the old ones from Poland were so scratchy!  It killed me because we had two languages to cover, my Mom couldn’t carry a tune and all I wanted to do was rip open wrapping paper.  
We usually enjoyed some more sweets with the gifts, and after cleaning up, we headed out to midnight mass where we saw all our friends. 

Christmas Day was the aftermath – supposedly a day of rest, of playing with new toys, and for going from house to house visiting friends and trying all the ladies’ baked goods.  I’m told that the neighborhood competitions for the fanciest goodies were absolutely cutthroat.  The tortes, the cookies, the baba’s, the fruitcake...they’re all preserved in our books for those who don’t have Grandma’s recipes.  

And so it has been for us for 45 years together.  At the top of the page you can find our heritage cookbooks which contain all the authentic recipes for a traditional Wigilia.   Our books are also available on most  on-line book sellers such as Amazon, even in far off places like Japan, the UK, South Africa or “down under.”
Laura and I wish you and yours, Wszystkiego Najlepszego na Boze Narodzenie, And Merry Christmas.  

And as always - Smacznego!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Polish Plum Crumble - Placek śliwkowy z kruszonką

This is a really easy Polish dessert that takes advantage of seasonal plums.  It’s typically Polish because it is not too sweet.  In Babcia’s day, plums were only found in the fall but today they are grown around the world and available year round.  This cake uses Italian plums - sometimes also called Empress Plums. 

They are the European-style plum - small, dense, egg-shaped fruit with blue or purple skin and freestone pits. These are also the plums that are made into prunes. 
Italian plums are especially good for baking because they are a little more tart and the flesh is more firm, than the bigger, round deep red or yellow plums.  Italian plums are a little harder to find but when you do, grab a bag full right away.  Peter found these at our local Farmers Market just a few days ago and Laura made this crumble cake right away.  Part of it is frozen so we can enjoy it a piece at a time, and the rest went to our neighbors who love it when Laura bakes.  

Yields 32 small squares

1¼ cups butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
1½ cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ cup milk
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
18- 20 Italian plums, cut in half and pitted

Preheat your oven to 350° F.  Spray the bottom of a 10 x 15 inch pan with cooking oil. Cut a piece a piece of parchment to cover the bottom of the pan and extend over the edges by about an inch (so you can lift the cake out of the pan after it cools). Spray the parchment paper with the cooking oil.  This should prevent the cake from sticking.

Using a mixer combine the butter and sugar until pale and creamy.  Mix the flour with the baking powder and add to the butter in small amounts, alternating with the milk.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating constantly.  Add the vanilla.

In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until stiff.  Fold into the dough and mix lightly.  Spread the dough evenly in the prepared pan.  Distribute the plums, cut side down, evenly on top of the batter, no more than half an inch apart.   (Note:  if your plums are not fully ripe or pretty tart, sprinkle them liberally with sugar and let sit for about 45 minutes.  Drain well before placing on the batter). 

Crumble Topping
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup flour
¼ cup  brown sugar, lightly packed
½ teaspoon cinnamon

Mix the butter and flour until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the sugar and mix well. Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the plums. 

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes (at 350° F) or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  If the crumb topping starts to brown too quickly, place a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the cake.  Remove from oven and let cool.   Cut into squares around the plums.  Goes great with whipped cream or ice cream.

PS:  For a "must-have" collection of great heritage recipes check out our two globally acclaimed Polish cookbooks: Polish Classic Recipes and Polish Classic Desserts - where all the recipes have been handed down from previous generations, but updated for modern kitchens.  Also, listen to us discuss great heritage Polish cuisine in our vignette called Smacznego, every month at:   www.mypolcast.com