Eastern European Cuisine
The food of Eastern Europe enjoys a long-standing reputation that can be summed up by one word: heavy. But the region's food culture is shifting, just like its politics and economic fortunes. Kojo explores the region's dishes with the author of a Polish cookbook and the owner of a local restaurant specializing in Czech cuisine.
Recipes: 'Polish Country House Kitchen'
From a "Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food" by Anne Applebaum amd Danielle Crittenden. All rights reserved.
Cherry Vodka (Wiśniówka)
Makes one 34-oz/1-L bottle of vodka
“Life is dandy, cherry brandy!” So goes a line from a poem by Russian writer Osip Mandelstam—meant to be ironic, of course, as he lived in the darkest days of Stalinism and died in the Gulag. Cherry brandy, cherry vodka, cherry liqueurs: These are the obvious consequence of Eastern Europe’s famous and abundant cherry orchards, of which there are just as many in Poland as there are in provincial Russia. Do note that this recipe works for any kind of fruit that is not too sweet. In particular it is worth trying with black currants or Polish jagody—wild blueberries—if you can find them.
The quantities given here are for a 34-oz/1-L jar, but do reduce them (or increase them!) in proportion to the bottle you are using.
1 1⁄8 lb/510 g fresh sour cherries (or black currants or jagody)
25 oz/750 ml clear vodka
1 to 2 tbsp sugar (optional)
Pit and halve the cherries. As in all vodka recipes, it is important that the flesh of the fruit be somehow exposed.
Fill a jar with the cherries, but do not pack it. Pour the vodka on top and seal tightly. Leave in a dark place, preferably for at least 2 weeks—or up to 6 months. At the end of that time, open the jar and strain. If you have a veryfine-mesh strainer, that will do. If not, use an ordinary strainer lined with a cheesecloth or even a coffee filter. Set the strainer over a large bowl, ideally one from which you’ll be able to easily pour afterward. Pour the vodka mixture through the strainer and allow the fruit to sit, seeping liquid, for a good hour or so, stirring a bit and pressing if need be to make the liquid go through.
Now taste the vodka. Add sugar if you want an after-dinner liqueur, or leave it out if you want something sharper. Pour (or ladle) into a decorative bottle.
Chicken Soup (Rosoł)
Serves 8 to 10
We don’t know why it is that so many people so seldom make chicken soup from scratch. This is, after all, the ultimate comfort food. Though it might not really have all of the magical flu-curing properties attributed to it in both Polish and Jewish folklore, it is extremely healthful—the main ingredients, after all, are water and vegetables. It’s certainly much healthier than the store-bought versions, which usually contain high levels of sodium and preservatives. A large pot can serve a dozen people; children eat it with gusto. The leftovers can last for several days, and can take many forms, the meat converted into chicken salad or chicken sandwiches, the broth used as a base for other soups. Chicken soup requires no culinary expertise, and it involves only the most humble ingredients. The actual preparation requires very little time: Though the soup does need to boil for a couple of hours, you needn’t watch it while it does so. You can even turn it off halfway through cooking and then finish the boiling-down process later in the day, to no ill effect. We’ve done it many times.
For all of those reasons, chicken soup, or rosoł, is the most basic, most beloved, and most frequently cooked dish in many Polish households. There are as many recipes as there are cooks. The one we are using here is most definitely for chicken soup, not chicken stock: The latter can be made with a handful of bones and leftovers, but the real thing requires actual meat, uncooked, if it is to have enough flavor to make a real meal. The trick to a really flavorful soup, in fact, is to use two kinds of meat—here we use chicken parts and a piece of beef on its bone—as well as more vegetables than you are usually instructed to use. (If you’d like a more delicately flavored chicken broth, you can omit the beef bone.)
Do feel free to add whatever you have in your garden or find at the market, remembering that some vegetables have quite strong tastes and can change the soup’s flavor. Polish cooks sometimes put a slice of savoy cabbage into their rosoł, and Anne occasionally tosses in a zucchini as well. Another popular Polish addition is lovage, an herb that was once very popular and featured in nineteenth-century cookbooks, but has gone out of fashion. It is sweetish, bearing a distant resemblance to fennel. Anne has it in her garden, and if you can find it—farmers’ markets might have it in spring and summer—it adds an unexpected depth. Most
Poles would draw the line at garlic: rosoł is supposed to be rich but delicate, and garlic would overpower the rest of the soup.
The only absolutely required vegetables are carrots, parsnips, onions, leeks, and celery root (though if you haven’t got any of the latter, ordinary celery will do). In Polish markets you can buy these particular vegetables grouped together in bundles known as wlosczyzny, a word whose origins appear linked to the Polish word for Italy, which is Wloch. Allegedly, this is because Poland’s Italian queen, Bona Sforza, brought soup vegetables to Poland from Italy (along with the tomato) in the sixteenth century. True or not, the name remains.
We call for 5 qt/4.7 L of water here, but if you haven’t got a pot large enough, you can always add more water during the boiling-down process. Danielle reckons you need a seriously large chicken here, incidentally, and says that if yours is small, then use two.
5 to 6 lb/2.3 to 2.7 kg chicken, whole or cut up, bone-in (breasts, thighs, drumsticks, neck if you have it)
1 lb/455 g veal or beef on a bone (this can be shanks, ribs, anything cheap)
About 5 qt/4.7 L water (depending on the size of the pot you are using; there should be enough to cover chicken)
1 large onion, halved (no need to peel—the skin gives the soup a lovely color)
5 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled, and thickly sliced
2 large or 4 medium parsnips, trimmed, peeled, and thickly sliced
2 leeks (white and green parts), trimmed, halved lengthwise, and rinsed
½ head medium celery root, peeled and coarsely chopped, or 3 celery stalks, with leaves, coarsely chopped
1 slice savoy cabbage, or ½ zucchini (optional)
4 whole cloves
4 allspice berries
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 sprigs fresh dill, plus a generous handful of chopped for garnish
1 thin slice lemon
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
Handful of fresh lovage leaves (if you can get them; optional)
5 to 6 peppercorns
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Wash the chicken thoroughly. Put in large soup pot with the meat bones and add the water and onion. Bring to a boil, remove any foam that has risen to the top, and cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 30 minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients except for the salt and ground pepper. Cover and cook at a low boil until the meat is tender and the chicken is falling off the bone, about 2 to 2½ hours.
Remove the chicken and let rest in a colander set over a bowl to collect the drippings. Remove the meat bone and discard (or give to a deserving canine friend). With another large colander, strain the soup into a separate pot, bowl, or food storage container. (The latter is helpful if you are planning on refrigerating the soup overnight to allow the fat to harden, making it easier to skim. Many Poles don’t bother with this, reckoning that the melted traces of chicken fat are precisely the magic ingredient that cures the flu). Press the vegetables against the colander to extract all their tasty juices.
Now here’s where you decide which, if any, of the cooked vegetables appeal to you to serve in the final soup. Stop here if you want a clear, minimalist broth (if you are going to add matzoh balls or homemade noodles, for example). Skim the fat off the top (or refrigerate overnight and then skim, as noted above), and season with salt and pepper.
For a more robust meal, pick out the carrots, parsnips, and celery root from the colander. Slice these more or less elegantly and add to the skimmed broth (you can also add these after cooking the matzoh balls or noodles).
Now deal with the chicken. Remove to a carving board and pour the collected drippings into the broth. Shred the white and dark meat into more or less spoon-size pieces—your call as to whether you want to include the skin (a frugal Pole would, but neither of us finds it especially appetizing at this stage), and set aside. (If you’re refrigerating the soup overnight, you can still go ahead and add the vegetables and shredded chicken. They won’t interfere with the fat hardening. Or keep them separate in another container if you prefer, and add to the soup when reheating. Just don’t add any noodles yet). You can refrigerate the soup for up to 1 week (in which case, skim off the hardened fat as directed and add the chicken and vegetables, if using, to the stock so they don’t dry out. The soup can also be frozen at this point).
When ready to serve, reheat the soup and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Using a slotted spoon or ladle, distribute the chicken pieces and vegetables (if using) evenly and elegantly among the soup bowls, and ladle the hot broth on top. Garnish each with a sprinkling of chopped fresh dill.
Hot Mead (MiÓd Pitny na Ciepło)
Serves 4 to 6 (makes about 20 oz/600 ml)
Mead—fermented honey—is a Polish drink that goes back to the Middle Ages. In Polish sagas and epics, warriors drink mead before battles. Even now it has an indefinable, and probably undeserved, reputation as a healthier form of alcohol. In Poland you can buy bottled mead, the making of which grows more sophisticated every year. At a dinner organized in Warsaw not long ago by Slow Food Polska—the Polish branch of the international Slow Food movement—Anne was served several extraordinary organic meads, each made by a slightly different method. The company that produces them, Pasieka Jaros, has been researching and experimenting with ancient methods of mead production for more than thirty years.
This recipe is something slightly different: It’s a hot form of Honey and Ginger Spiced–Vodka, which you can make at home. Serve this as a winter cocktail—or after a day spent cross-country skiing—and drink it in front of a roaring fire.
½ cup/120 ml honey
1 cup/240 ml water
3 to 4 cloves
6 cinnamon sticks
1 whole vanilla bean pod (about 3 in/7.5 cm long)
One 1-in/2.5-cm strip orange rind
1 small chunk from a whole nutmeg, or ¼ tsp ground
16 oz/480 ml vodka
In a medium saucepan, bring the honey and water to a boil, skimming any foam from the surface. Add the cloves, cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean pod, and orange rind, return to a boil, and remove from the heat. Let sit for 1 or 2 minutes, then bring to a boil again. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside for at least 30 minutes to steep. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer or a regular strainer lined with a coffee filter or cheesecloth, and again bring to a boil. Pour in the vodka. Stir well and serve piping hot.
Recipes: Bistro Bohem
These twists on traditional Old World favorites are served everyday at Bistro Bohem, a Central European eatery located in the historic U Street neighborhood. Recipes courtesy Jarek Mika, chef and owner of Bistro Bohem.
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cups sauerkraut, drained and minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 container sour cream
1/2 table spoon Kosher salt
1 table spoon baking powder
3 cups wondra flour
To prepare the sauerkraut filling, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion, and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the drained sauerkraut and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then remove to a plate to cool.
To make the dough, beat together the eggs and sour cream until smooth. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder; stir into the sour cream mixture until dough comes together. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until firm and smooth. Divide the dough in half, then roll out one half to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into 3 inch rounds using a biscuit cutter.
Place a small spoonful of the sauerkraut filling into the center of each round. Moisten the edges with water, fold over, and press together with a fork to seal.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pierogies and cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until pierogi float to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon.
Serve with a spoon of sour cream, fresh parsley, little bit of melted butter, some caramelized onion - all of the above together.
Ginger Dark Beer Slow Braised Pork Shank
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 pork shanks, about 1 1/2 pounds each
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
small ginger root, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 thyme sprigs
3 cups of vegetable stock (or whatever necessary to almost cover the shanks)
1 cup of dark beer
In a large, sturdy resealable plastic bag, combine tablespoon each of salt and pepper, one small ginger root, cup of dark beer, 3 garlic cloves, minced, a little bit of olive oil and one onion, chopped. Add the pork shanks, shake and seal and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the pork shanks (without the marinate liquid, which you should set aside for later use) and brown over moderately high heat until browned all over, about 5-10 minutes. Transfer the browned shanks to a deep, heavy casserole.
Add the marinate liquid and 3 cups of vegetable stock (or enough to almost cover the shanks but not completely), add 2 bay leaves and 2 thyme sprigs and place in the oven and bake at lower temperature for about 3 hours or until meat is very tender (around 350 degrees) - turn pork shanks every 30 minutes to keep them mostly submerged in liquid.
When the shanks are very tender, strain the liquid, pressing hard on the solids; discard the solids. Return the liquid to the casserole and boil until reduced to 1.5 cups cups, about 20 minutes, pour the pork gravy over the braised shanks and serve.
Serve with side of boiled potatoes, seasoned with parsley, butter and salt and pepper.