Thursday, May 26, 2011

Party food...Polish-style

Witamy! Polish cuisine lends itself particularly well to cocktail parties, buffet dinners and any other forms of entertaining where food is the star attraction.  We recently signed our books at Salt & Pepper Books in Occoquan VA, and the owner, Christine Myskowski, served samples of our Cucumber Salad (page 21) and Chocolate Mazurka (page 81).  The Cucumber Salad is a heavenly side dish that is light, refreshing and gorgeous on the plate. The dressing of flavored sour cream with generous sprinkles of fresh dill makes this dish a winner every time.  Plus in our book there’s a neat little story about how this salad got its Polish name - Mizeria – and it has nothing to do with being ill. The Chocolate Mazurka has a shortbread-type dough, a semi-sweet icing and has been a winning holiday confection for generations, even for first-time bakers.

We just had a book release party in our home for folks who supported us while we were working on Polish Classic Recipes.  Laura prepared a buffet of eleven different dishes. all recipes from the book. Right next to the Hunter’s Stew (Bigos Mysliwski) -- which is perhaps one of Polish cuisine’s most iconic preparations containing tangy sauerkraut, bits of savory kielbasa and pork loin, dried mushrooms -- we displayed a decadent, silver ice bucket with a very smooth Polish vodka.  Everyone who did shots with me agreed that the Bigos and mini-sized Cabbage Rolls (Golobki, page 46) went down much better with a taste of ice cold spirits.

The Plum Cake (page 77) was a huge hit and worked well in the cocktail party setting because Laura prepared the batter in mini-cupcake pans instead of the traditional 9-inch pan. So, the result was a platter of 1-inch rounds of bite-size of cake, each hiding a piece of succulent plum.  Our guests absolutely loved this!

It’s starting to be strawberry season in the Washington DC area, and our Chilled Fruit Soup recipe (page 38) is an unusual, refreshing starter for any party.  But the great thing is that it is ridiculously easy to make:  puree some strawberries, blend in butter milk, sour cream, and a bit of sugar...chill...and you’re good to go!  How easy is that?

Many thanks to Dan Dalcin, our food stylist and soon-to be-chef for helping prepare dishes for the book release party.  Dan and his Dad, who really worked his fatherly butt off the entire day, pitched in and  together they styled about 150 canap├ęs, just like Matthew Aron Roth’s “extreme” photos on pages 10, 11, 12, and 13.

There was more and I could go on and on, but I’ve run out of space. Smacznego!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dill, beets, sour cream, dried mushrooms, caraway, and more...

Witamy!  One of the questions we’ve been asked a lot is how Polish cuisine differs from other cuisines.  The first top-of-mind answer is easy -- it’s our use of dill, parsley, dried mushrooms, sour cream, caraway, etc. -- that makes traditional Polish cooking so unique.  I know this is a gross over-simplification, but top-of-mind associations for some of the popular cuisines are that:  Italians love marinara,  Indians appreciate curry,  Mexicans use chilies,  the French love butter, Vietnamese love fish sauce, and so on.  And Poles use dill - a lot!   But as I thought about it some more, and checked with the writings of culinary historians and real experts, the whole story was formed over hundreds of years.

Poland’s history was a huge influence on her cuisine.  Poland sits kind of in the middle of the continent – between Scandinavia to the north and Italy to the south, between Germany and France to the southwest, and the pre-war influences of Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania to the east.  Each region had an influence on what Poles cooked and ate, evolving from generation to generation.  Plus, way back in time, history books talk about the middle eastern spice merchants who often stopped in Poland to trade their spices, dried fruits, nuts etc, for Polish amber, while heading for Germany and France.  Over the early years Poland was invaded many times by her neighbors, and there were many inter-country marriages among the nobility.  So each of these historical events left behind distinctive influences on the food - especially in the more refined dishes favored by the cosmopolitan societies of large cities.
So this sort of sounds like Polish cuisine ended up being a mish-mash of everyone else’s.  That may or may not be true, but I leave that to culinary historians to debate.  From my own personal perspective, Polish cuisine is the sum of its delicious parts – parts I grew up with such as cabbage rolls, plum tarts, lazy pierogi, walnut tortes, cucumber salads, beet soups, dried mushrooms, dill and more dill, sour cream, caraway, comfort food, refreshing food, sophisticated food, rustic food, --  it’s all good and a lot of it is in our new book. Smacznego!


Here is a meatless recipe for Barszcz – a delicious, traditional beet-based soup.

6 vegetable bouillon cubes
3½ cups water
2 one-pound cans of red beets (not pickled)
1 14-ounce can baked beans, rinsed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoon chopped dill  (fresh is best)

Dissolve bouillon cubes in a pot of boiling water. Drain the beets and add all the beet juice into the water.  Rough-chop 1 cup of beets; keep the rest for another day. Rinse the beans, add to the soup mix and bring to a boil.  Add lemon juice, half the dill and rest of the seasonings.  Remove from heat and pour into soup bowls.

Top with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill.  Goes really well with a hunk of crusty bread, sweet butter, and a glass of hearty red wine.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Signing virgins no more!

Witamy! This weekend we lost our book signing virginity. Saturday we were at the open house of The Polish Embassy in Washington DC, where over 1500 people visited.  Our table was in the room with food samples which could not have been better.  Location! Location! Location!  The embassy officials expected a lot of people, so we brought a carload of books to sell. Our friends Karen and Joe arrived at the Embassy well before the doors opened and were verbally “supporting” our efforts to unload the car, through the big black iron fence.  Our son-in-law BJ Ketchem was with us to take the money and was a great help all day. We were shown to our “home” for the next 7 hours and got set up.  A box for the cash...posters...copies of the book on the table, and a box of Sharpies for signing.  We were told that a fresh Sharpie is the weapon of choice for autographs – good black color, writes smooth, and the ink dries right away.

Here’s what our table looked like, and here also is a picture of Laura signing one of the books.  Karen and Joe were among the first to come through and bought the very first book we ever sold at a signing event – thanks to our Dance Budz!  We got the signing process down pretty quickly but had to be very sure that we had the spelling right for the dedications...I did screw up a couple of times but recovered seamlessly.

Right across our room were a few long tables holding the food – two types of pierogi, kielbasa, a tiny cup of Polish beer and chairs around the room for weary Embassy visitors to take a load off.  All the embassies of the European Union participated in the open house, and a lot of folks were making every stop.  The food smelled amazing - ALL DAY LONG!  It was killing us sitting there with those aromas wafting past our noses.  I did sneak through the line a few times - had to test the food you see.  The Embassy had sent trucks up to New York to factories where pierogi and kielbasa is mass-produced.  I have to say that the pierogi were pretty good for not being home-made...the dough was light and the fillings were quite flavorful.  One was with sauerkraut and the other was with a shredded meat.   The kielbasa was aromatic and had a great crunch.  I didn’t try the beer because we were working. By 4 PM we sold and signed quite a few books.  Great exposure for these fledgling authors and a great time was had by all.

The next day, Mother’s Day, we were signing books at Kielbasa Factory in Rockville Md.  This is a serious Polish deli frequented by many Poles in this area.  Many varieties of kielbasa, ham and other traditional meats, imported foods and other products from Poland, all the latest magazines, folk art, and of course our book.  Laura got an bright red apron that said “Pierogi Queen.”  Here is a picture of us with owner Krystyna Ahrens.  Traffic was a bit light because of Mothers Day and because the local Polish Church had an event at the same time, but never-the-less we sold and signed quite a few books during our time there.  Gratefully, we were able to study the deli cases and plan out what goodies we need to buy for an upcoming party starring dishes from our book.  So it all worked out well, and we promised to come back to Kielbasa Factory closer to the holidays, when folks from all over the area will flood the store to get their holiday goodies.

By the end of the weekend we were beat and couldn’t wait to dive into a festive adult beverage and just “veg” in front of the tube.  And we did – on both counts!


Prune Vodka
With our party coming up, I’d like to serve a traditional Polish drink to accompany the bigos, stuffed cabbage rolls, kielbasa, vegetable salad, and other dishes from our book.  Poles love flavored vodkas, and Prune Vodka is a very traditional recipe that goes back hundreds of years.  It’s a not-so-distant cousin to Slivovitz (plum brandy) since prunes are nothing but dried plums.

1 cup of dried prunes, pitted and sliced
1 bottle of good Polish vodka  (Luksusowa is a mid priced brand of Polish potato vodka that I think is especially smooth, but you should choose your favorite.)

Add the prunes to the vodka; stick in the freezer for 3 to 6 weeks.  Shake the bottle gently every 2nd day.  Just before serving, strain vodka through double thickness of cheese cloth.  Stick bottle back in the freezer until the last minute.  Serve ice cold.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mother's Day treat...

Witamy! Mother’s Day is not a historically Polish celebration, but it should be because without our Mothers, Grandmothers and Great Grandmothers, we wouldn’t be enjoying the traditional dishes that have been passed down from generation to generation. This is the main focus of our new book – to give Polish Americans, and everyone else interested in trying classic Polish cuisine, the opportunity to share the delicious foods with friends and family.

When thinking of the world’s great cuisines, Polish food does not immediately come to mind.  That’s because of the popularity of foods as such pierogi, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage rolls, boiled potatoes, beets, and other hearty foods popularized by hard working souls in the country farms and villages. But in truth, there is a huge library of culinary recipes that are very elegant and refined, including appetizers, soups, salads, savory entrees, and fantastic sweets and pastries – many of which are featured in our book.

One of our favorite deserts for dinner parties is the Plum Cake on Page 77 of our book.  Today we will share a variation on that classic recipe, with a new twist that makes this dessert a really great way to close out the Mother’s Day meal that you might be planning, if you choose not to fight the crowds at a local restaurant.  Smacznego!

Fruit Cupcakes, Polish Style
Serves 8 to 12

1       cup sugar
1/2    cup unsalted butter
1       cup flour
2       eggs
1       teaspoon baking powder
10     small peaches, peeled, pitted, and cut into small wedges (canned peaches will work just fine)
2       teaspoons sugar
1/2    teaspoon cinnamon
         confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the sugar and butter.  Add the eggs to mixture and beat well.  Add the flour and baking powder and mix until totally incorporated.  Using a nonstick cupcake pan with 12 cups, spray each cup with PAM or other cooking spray. Pour the batter into each cup, filling it only half way, leaving room for the batter to rise while baking.  Place a peach wedge, on top of each batter cup - they will sink slightly. Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle lightly over the batter.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove cakes from the pan and cool. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar just before serving.

Note: Even though we’ve called these cupcakes, the batter is more like the texture of a coffee cake than traditional American cupcakes.