Thursday, January 29, 2015

Polish Cook Books 101 - Picking Your Next Favorite!

We have a lot of cook books in our house, including all of the better Polish recipe books sold on Amazon from the past 25 years.  Laura is a dedicated collector and has never met a cookbook she doesn’t like!  Well, that’s not quite true…she has her favorites and also her share of duds, seldom to be opened a second time.  The favorites can be spotted right away by the dog eared pages and the food stains all over the recipes.  You’ve got a few like that, right?

If you’re not a collector, or maybe you don’t cook so much, or you can’t read your Mom’s notes on those old index cards, or your “go-to” Polish cook book is 50 years old and falling apart, then you should read on…because this post is all about how Laura’s picks a great cook book – one to which she’ll return over and over again.   

1 – No E-Books – while we love our “his and hers” Kindles, that e-books are too hard to read (and keep clean) in the kitchen! And if it falls in a sink full of dirty dishwater, your goose is cooked – literally!  

2 – Pick books with great photos – lots of them!  Not only does that make the book more fun, but the right images will show you how the dish is supposed to look when finished.

3 – Pick books that are “reader-friendly” – is the type size easy to read?  Are the ingredients and measurements organized in some intuitive way?  Are the directions clear and understandable?  Does the author include hints, tips or notes that will help you execute the dish properly? 

4 – Pick books with a variety of organized recipes - your book should cover several courses of a basic meal and maybe several special meals, i.e. holidays.  There are thousands of books that only deal with a very small slice of food, i.e. only Sunday brunch, or only vegetables, or only pork, or only wine-enhanced recipes…so be sure the niche is not too narrow.  It’s great to explore in depth a narrow slice of a meal, or a small perspective, but those books always have to be supplemented with other books – just to round out the meal.   

5 – Pick books that match your skill level - does the book start with a lesson in hard boiling eggs for the novice cook, or do the recipes require 30 hard-to-find ingredients, 30 prep steps or 30 days to execute?  Those may be interesting to read but not very practical.  Most classic dishes of any culture can usually be prepared in several styles, ranging from the ridiculously complex approach that a professional chef might take, or a simpler process that is more appropriate for most of us.  And oh yeah…try to make sure the recipes have been tested…too many recipes are just “invented” and end up in the compost bin because they just don’t work. 

Our two classic books meet all these criteria, plus you can get them personally dedicated and signed by the authors.  That makes them even more appreciated as a gift or for your special “go-to” collection. And if you see us at one of this summer’s heritage festivals, be sure to bring your phone and we’ll do a selfie. 

There are more than 40 Polish books available on line, but if you go past the cover page, you’ll discover that many were written in Europe and translated into English – which is risky for our modern kitchens.  Or they were written a quarter century ago.  Or they were written with the authors’  “creative spin” - so they no longer look, smell or taste like what our Moms or Babcias made.   Just to be clear, our books were specifically written for anyone who wants to preserve our culinary heritage and enjoy the dishes the way they were made by countless generations that came before us.   

So if you’re looking to round out your collection with two winners, or if you have a gifting occasion coming up, just click on the "Add to the Cart" button and in the PayPal Instructions box, be sure to tell us to whom we can dedicate your books.  Smacznego!   

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Let's Have a Latke & Vodka Party!

Happy New Year, i Szczesliwego Nowego Roku!

Polish Potato Pancakes, known in many circles as Latkes, are versatile, delicious and absolutely fun to eat.  Better yet, they are inexpensive and exceedingly simple to make.  They pair really well with flavor-infused vodka…so what better excuse for a party, especially now that cold weather has set in.  You can serve them in many different ways, such as with savory sauces like mushroom, or sour cream & onion, or with apple sauce on the side.  Another style is with a bit of smoked cheese on top.  The traditional style in the Polish mountain region is with the local delicacy called “Oscypek,- smoked sheep’s cheese sold from street carts all over Zakopane and other mountain towns.  

So let’s make a party!  Make up as many potato pancakes as your guests can devour.  You can do them well ahead of time since they freeze well.  Have some traditional ones with onion, and try some varieties in the potato mix:   zucchini, carrot, red bell pepper – you should have at least three varieties and feel free to go crazy.  As yet another option, you could substitute sweet potato for the basic white Russets that we always start with.  

Then come the sauces – mushroom or sour cream & dill would be the Polish ways.  But if you’re feeling adventurous, try something different such as:  curry-lime yogurt,  creamed spinach,  cilantro-lime sour cream,  and of course apple sauce that has been kicked up a notch with cinnamon or a touch of curry or paprika.

Yields 10 to 12 pancakes
2 pounds Russet potatoes, shredded
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 medium onion, grated
3 tablespoons flour
Canola oil

In a large skillet, heat oil to about 375 degrees.  In a bowl, mix the potatoes, egg, salt, pepper, onion and flour   Drop the potato mixture into the skillet and flatten the mix so each pancake is about 1/2 inch high.  Fry until golden brown -- 5 to 6 minutes on the first side and 3 to 4 minutes on the other side. 
Tip:  An electric frying pan or skillet work well to keep the heat evenly distributed. 

Mushroom Sauce
2 cups mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups light cream
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté mushrooms and onion in hot butter until onions are golden.  Sprinkle flour over the mushroom and onion mixture, stirring.  Continue to cook stirring constantly until the flour is incorporated.  Gradually stir in the cream.  Simmer until sauce is thickened.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Sour Cream, Onion & Dill Sauce
2 cups sour cream
2 tablespoons finely grated onion
salt and pepper
chopped fresh dill, to taste

Mix sour cream, onion and dill.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Now come the adult beverages -- a nice red wine will always pair well, but this is the perfect time to try a few flavor infused vodkas.  Vodka has the unique characteristic of taking on some flavoring of anything that is added to the liquid, in just a few hours.   Start with a decent Polish potato vodka…Luksusowa is a brand that we use because it is very smooth and relatively inexpensive.  Stay away from the really cheap stuff because it will have a noticeable “bite.”  And we never buy the high end brands for flavoring because we’re changing the taste anyway, so why spend the money? 

(image courtesy of

Peter’s Dad always made lemon vodka – just put one or two sliced lemons into a mason jar, fill with vodka and wait a day or so.  The longer you wait the better.  Cherry vodka is very nice…again place some pitted cherries and a half cup of sugar into a mason jar and you’ll be enjoying it very soon.  If you’re feeling brave, try putting a couple of tablespoons of prepared horseradish into your vodka, let it sit and strain before drinking.
The biggest rule of all is to keep your vodka ice cold.  We                                                 just leave ours in the freezer all the time.  

Remember all this can be made days and weeks ahead of time – it’s fun, unique and will make a party that everyone will be talking about for weeks after.   But please drink responsibly and don’t let your friends drink and drive.