Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Week 37: A Journey to Poland

When I planned this year’s weekly schedule to include Polish cuisine, I was thinking of my friend Tony and his family.  His parents were born in Poland, and every time they visit, we have kielbasa from their favorite Polish deli in Chicago, and his mom makes a casserole similar to cabbage rolls that she layers like lasagna with cabbage and ground beef.  To say the least, we are always happy to see them, and I knew they would enthusiastically offer guidance for a week of Polish cuisine.  To read about Polish cuisine is to be overwhelmed (or maybe underwhelmed) by dishes of meat, cabbage, and potatoes, but to sit on the couch with the Pogorzelskis and talk about Polish cuisine is another matter entirely.  As I considered this week’s plan, I selected menus that represented a range of dishes familiar to me, new to me, and beloved by Tony and his family.

Pierogi are dumplings traditionally filled with potato, sauerkraut, ground meat, cheese, mushrooms, or even fruit.  Although their likely influence is the Far East, the actual name pierogi has roots in early Slavic populations, and the dish is a staple of Eastern European cuisine even today. 

wild mushroom pierogi
tossed in onions and butter
When selecting a filling for my pierogi, I ventured outside the realm of potatoes, but sought out a filling with Polish roots.  I discovered that mushrooms appear in so many Polish dishes because they grow prolifically in Poland, and mushroom foraging is a beloved Polish hobby dating back centuries.  It is even referenced in what is considered Poland’s national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz, written by Adam Mickiewicz.  Interestingly, when I saw Tony’s parents last weekend, they had sweet, plump mushrooms that his dad picked in Colorado over the summer lightly preserved in vinegar.  That was a delicious treat!  Even better, it illustrated the significance of mushrooms in Polish communities.
For my first night of Polish cuisine, I made Wild Mushroom Pierogi using a recipe from The Gourmet Cookbook, and I must say it was absolutely delicious.  I was surprised to discover how simple it is to make fresh pierogi.  The dough of all purpose flour, cake flour, egg, and water rolled out easily and the seams sealed without any issues.  The filling of porcini and cremini mushrooms, onion, garlic, butter, and parsley had a rich, earthy flavor.  After boiling the pierogi, I tossed them with onions sautéed in butter.  I could eat this dish any night of the week and be happy. 
strawberry pierogi
Before this week’s project, I was familiar with savory versions of pierogi, but I had never heard of dessert pierogi.  When I told Tony about my Wild Mushroom Pierogi, he immediately responded that I had to make strawberry pierogi like his mom’s.  When I asked her how to make it, she said to just cut strawberries in half, dip them in sugar, wrap the dough around them, and boil them.  That’s it.  Also, she serves them with sweetened sour cream spiced with cinnamon.  I followed her instructions and made a delicious strawberry dessert pierogi.  My only issue was that I should have cut the dough into larger rounds, because I couldn’t fit an entire half of a strawberry in my dumplings.  That aside, the dish turned out brilliantly!
I must admit that when I read about pyzy, I did not immediately add it to my list of dishes for the week, but when I asked Tony’s mom to tell me about traditional dishes, the whole family joined in when she explained how to make pyzy.  Everyone agreed that I had to include this in my plans for the week, and when she explained that the final step for the dish required me to toss the dumplings in a mixture of bacon and onions, I knew I had to try it.

Pyzy is a dumpling of potato “dough” filled with seasoned ground meat and tossed in bacon and onions.  The potato dough includes mashed, cooked potatoes and finely grated raw potato squeezed in a tea towel to remove its liquid.  Egg, flour, and water are added to the potatoes to create the “dough” texture.  The filling is generally made with ground pork or ground beef (I used pork) and seasoned with breadcrumbs, onion, salt, and pepper.  To make the dumplings, I rolled out balls of the dough, flattened them, and wrapped them around a teaspoon of the filling....this was not an easy task.  The dough is extremely sticky, and I added quite a bit of flour to it so that I could work with it.  I thought for a minute that I was going to be throwing it all away and calling for takeout, but I finally got the hang of it.  When the dumplings were made, I boiled them in water.  To finish the dish, I cooked bacon and onions together and tossed in the dumplings to season them.  For me, the best part of the dish is the bacon and onion mixture.  My dumplings were heavy and a bit gummy, but I think that’s the way they are supposed to be.  For me, this dish wasn’t as good as I had hoped, but the fact that it holds such a special place in the hearts of the Pogorzelskis made me love it.


The hubs loves kielbasa and sauerkraut, so when I read about bigos, Poland’s most heralded National Dish, a stew of meat, cabbage, and sauerkraut, I knew I had to make it.  More commonly called Hunter’s Stew, the dish was originally a dish saved for Polish aristocracy, because a peasant could never afford the large quantities of meat required for the dish.  Its modern iterations include kielbasa, chicken, and beef, but the dish traditionally included wild game, such as venison, pheasant, and wild boar.  A set recipe for bigos doesn’t really exist, because its ingredients vary based on families and geography; however, I discovered a few key points that distinguish bigos from other similar dishes.  One distinction is the fact that bigos includes more meat than cabbage.  Another is the fact that bigos is never eaten on the same day it is cooked.  Although its ingredients provide rich flavors, a proper bigos does not reach its full and proper flavor profile until it rests for at least two days so that the flavors of the sauerkraut and meats have permeated the full dish.

Like mushrooms, bigos represents a strong tradition in Polish cuisine and is also immortalized in Adam Mickiewicz’s epic Pan Tadeusz:

Bigos is no ordinary dish,
For it is aptly framed to meet your wish.
Founded upon good cabbage, sliced and sour,
Which, as men say, by its own zest and power
Melts in one's mouth, it settles in a pot
And its dewy bosom folds a lot
Of the best portions of selected meats;
Scullions parboil it then, until heat
Draws from its substance all the living juices,
And from the pot's edge, boiling fluid sluices
And all the air is fragrant with its scent."

I opted to make a bigos with kielbasa and beef chuck roast.  I stewed it on the stovetop for over an hour, and then I refrigerated it for three days.  I slowly brought it back to temperature over low heat in a dutch oven.  Wow!  I could not believe the bold, comforting flavor of this dish!  I mean, all of the elements for greatness were there, but it also seemed like the type of dish that sounds so great until you taste it and find it to be heavy and bland.  Not the case at all!  We ate almost the whole pot.  I loved it!  This would be the perfect dish for a cold wintry evening.

In retrospect, I enjoyed this week’s Polish dishes much more than I expected.  The flavors of the wild mushroom pierogi and bigos really surprised me, and the strawberry pierogi offered a sweet twist on an old savory favorite.  In addition to great food, this week offered a fantastic time to learn about a country’s traditions from a family I have grown to love over the last few years.  All in all, a spectacular week of food and friends!

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