A Polish Country Dinner

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I was listening to The Splendid Table about a month ago when Lynn was interviewing Anne Applebaum who has authored a new cookbook: From a Polish Country House Kitchen:  90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food.  Visit this link to hear the podcast for yourself.    This was late January and we were up to our necks in root vegetables here in Tunis so I knew I would be able to identify with the book.

In 1988, Anne and her Polish husband, along with her inlaws, bought a broken down manor-house in Northwest Poland.  Over a decade, they renovated the house, along with the grounds and gardens, part of which was a large greenhouse.  Deer, wild boar, and geese can be hunted on the property and many types of fish are caught or farmed locally.  They preserve what they grow in the harvest season, in the traditional ways, and use what they have in the lean months in masterful ways.

I have been inspired and a little haunted by this Polish way of eating.  I was in Poland last winter and I still carry an unshakable sadness for one of the most tragic places I’ve ever been right next to a curiosity to more deeply know one of the quaintest and most beautiful places.

I was cooking this afternoon.  I needed four onions, but I only had two.  Rifling through the refrigerator, I found a bundle of leeks that had been stored for a couple of weeks.  They hadn’t yet been cleaned so they were still dirt caked and were also beginning to yellow on the outer layers.  A more finicky me would not have bothered with them and would have composted the entire bunch.  The compost can be a great rationalization sometimes when you just don’t want to bother with produce that will take a little work.  But, I needed the onions, now.  The produce shops were already closed for their afternoon siesta and I needed my dish to simmer in the meantime.  This is where the country cook comes through.  I washed and trimmed the leeks, finding plenty of good onion left to use and then slow-cooked them in a braise that was delicious.  I think that many of these old country recipes began from meats, vegetables, and fruit preserved using methods that were possible given the climate and technology of the time to provide foods of interest and variety in the bleak months, but since then, generations of cooks have refined the techniques until they have become exquisite dishes in their own rights.  They have evolved from necessity to art.

I became a little obsessed with the idea of cooking a Polish feast and I thought about it and planned it for weeks.  The atmosphere of the meal was simple with lots of candlelight, rough linens, and pottery,  and the menu was entirely Polish.  Here is what we had:

Blini with Smoked Salmon and Caviar
Barszcz or Borscht (the Russian name)
Pierogi:
     Potato and Ricotta, with Fresh Peas, and Bacon
     Sauerkraut and Wild Mushroom
Braised Pork Shoulder with Sour Cherries
Brown Sugar Pavlova with Fresh Strawberries and Creme Fraiche
Mint Tea
 

Here are a few photos.

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Cooking a disciplined dinner like this is really a massive laboratory exercise, especially when you are cooking recipes that are all new to you.  I learned many things.

1.  Even when you have stuffed the borscht stockpot, the massive one made for industrial kitchens, with beef on the bone, many, many onions, leeks, celery, beets, carrots, porcini mushrooms, and garlic,  simmered and simmered, and then reduced the final consume, it can still be a bit thin on body.  It wasn’t all that I expected, in the end, and I will keep trying to find “my recipe” that makes the borscht I am tasting in my head.

2.  After two complete pre-party pierogi run-through batches, I still prefer the peirogi dough recipe I referenced last summer when we were making crab peirogis.  The addition of sour cream or creme fraiche to the dough not only gives it a tender bite, but also makes the dough taste like more than flour.  Following is the abbreviated version.

Dough: 3 eggs, 8 ounces sour cream or creme fraiche, 3 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 tsp. salt, 1 tablespoon baking powder

Blend all ingredients and 1 cup flour in mixer with a dough hook.  Gradually add remaining flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until dough pulls away from the bowl and is not too sticky to work with.  Beat dough a few minutes more, then let rest for 5 minutes before beginning to roll.

3.  If you find, like some Polish country cooks do, that moths have hatched an entire colony in your precious stash of dried sour cherries, cranberries work just as well.

4.  Not many people could tell you what Polish food is, but when they taste it, they love it.

Whole-Milk Ricotta Cheese and Milk-Braised Pork

I am not a fearless dairy woman.  Last summer, I documented my lifelong squeemishness about cowy milk containing thick chunks of cream or downright butter.  I like a pasteurized layer of separation between me and the bovine source of my dairy.  But, in every place I have lived outside of the US, there are only extremes in dairy production and no middle ground.  One either buys raw milk, still steaming, delivered directly from farmers in metal cans or you buy ultra-pasteurized milk in UHT boxes, with all culture cooked out of it to allow it a shelf life of years.

I have been wanting to dabble in the queso-arts lately, but I’m not brave enough to flag down the local farmer who I see delivering milk from the back of his truck, using a giant dipper to pour it into the residents’ own jugs.  I think that is a beautiful thing and I should try it, but actually I don’t have the language skills to even approach it.

When I was in London two weekends ago, we went to the venerable royal provisioner temple of Fortnum and Mason.  Mostly, we bought English cheeses that we can’t get here:  cheddar and Stilton.  I will now admit, though, that I tucked in two quarts of very creamy whole milk with a cheese-making project in mind.

The process for making ricotta or cream cheese is actually as simple as claim says.  The difference between the two is the ratio of butter fat to milk:  more fat= cream cheese, less fat= ricotta.

Once the curds have been lifted from the whey, the whey can be used in a very nice meat braise, like milk-braised pork shoulder.  This was another of the recipes I piloted during my month-of-endless-cooking in April.  The leftover meat is fantastic shredded into tamales or on tostadas.

Whole Milk Ricotta and Cream Cheese

© 2010 Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift

Makes 1 1/4 pounds

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon high quality whole milk
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Instructions

1. Line a large colander with a layer of cheesecloth and place in the sink or over a bowl if you want to save the whey. Wet the cheesecloth to hold it firmly in place.

2. Over medium-high heat, bring the milk and salt to a gentle simmer in a heavy large pot. Stir in the lemon juice and continue to simmer gently until curds begin to form and float to the top, 1 to 2 minutes. They will first look like spatters of white, then gather into soft, cloud-like clumps. When you see the liquid begin to clear of cloudiness and the curds are firming up but not hard, scoop them out with a slotted spoon or sieve.
3. Let the curds drain thoroughly in the lined colander. If very soft, press gently to extract a little moisture, but take care not to dry out the cheese. Turn into a bowl, cover and chill.

Refrigerated cheeses keep for a week, but the ricotta is at its best eaten fresh.

 

Milk-Braised Pork

From Wood-Fired Cooking, Mary Karlin

Ingredients

  • 1 (3-4 pound) boneless pork shoulder, some fat trimmed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 onions, coursely chopped
  • 3 juniper berries
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs rosemary or savory
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk (or whey)
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

Directions

Season the pork with salt and pepper.  Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or heavy casserole over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer.  Add the pork and sear all over until well browned.  Transfer the pork to a plate and set aside.  Remove all but 3 tablespoons of fat from the pot.  Return the pot to medium heat and add the onions, juniper berries, bay leaves, and rosemary and cook until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and continue to cook until the garlic is lightly golden, about 3 minutes.  Return the pork to the pot and pour in the milk.  Cover and place in the oven (350 F) to braise for 2 hours, turning the pork 2 or 3 times during the course of cooking.

Uncover the pork after 2 hours and cook for 30 minutes, or until the meat is fork-tender.  Transfer the roast to a plate and tent with aluminum foil.

Remove the bay leaves, rosemary, and juniper berries from the milky sauce.  Skim any excess fat from the top.  The milk may have curdled in the cooking process.  Using an immersion blender, process the sauce until smooth.  Add the nutmeg and walnuts.  Return to the oven to heat through.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Slice the meat and serve with the sauce spooned over the top.

Greens Soup

This recipe is the follow up to the vegetarian stock that I previously posted.  As I wrote there, I planned to make a soup of greens that I heard described on The Splendid Table (NPR).  Anna Thomas was the guest and she just published a new cookbook:  Eating Well.  From listening to the interview, I believe that Anna’s definition of eating well means eating whole foods, extracting as much of the foods’ flavor and nutrition as culinarily possible and I definitely agree.

            If you’ve got the vegetarian stock already packed away in your freezer, this can come together after work.  If you need to start from stock, then this is a weekend project, but worth it.
            I won’t summarize the recipe first, but I do need to comment on the onions.  Anna made a big point about caramelizing those onions to what may seem like an absurd degree.  Her rule of thumb was when you think you’ve overcooked them, go another ½ hour.  The bit of water you sprinkle over them once they’ve browned, and lidding the pan, keeps them from burning and steams them a little.  I almost had caramelized onion paste when I finished and that’s probably about right.
            This is not a bright, springy type of green soup.  Recall all of the browning of vegetables that has occurred both in the making of the stock and in the soup.  Additionally, the Arborio rice base you create before cooking the greens sets a nutty, warm palette.  You will need to finish it with good salt and fresh lemon juice to bring up some pop.  I also especially enjoyed the lingering heat of the cayenne and don’t think that drizzle of olive oil is optional.  Buy the grassiest, first-cold-pressed olive oil you can find and top it off with just a touch.
            The soup is an excellent team player.  Just on its own, it might be a little heavy.  I had it once alongside a sparkling salad of fennel, parsley, and cranberries, with a citrus dressing, and they were perfect mates.  We all went home that night and dreamed of dancing vegetables.  I had it a second time with a brunch of potato/gruyere quiche and blood orange juice and couldn’t imagine a more delicious combination than that.  Make it up, pack in the greens, and pair it up with just about anything.
Basic Green Soup
From Eating Well, by Anna Thomas
Yield:  8 servings
Ingredients
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 tablespoons, plus 3 cups, water, divided
1/4 cup arborio rice
1 bunch green chard (about 1 pound)
14 cups gently packed spinach (about 12 ounces), tough stems trimmed
4 cups vegetable broth
Big pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or more to taste
Drizzle of first, cold-pressed olive oil
Instructions
1.  Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over high heat.  Add onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low, add 2 tablespoons water and cover.  Cook, stirring frequently until the pan cools down, and then occasionally, always covering the pan again, until the onions are greatly reduced and have a deep caramel color, 25-30 minutes.
2.  Meanwhile, combine the remaining 3 cups water and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a soup pot or Dutch oven; add rice.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes.  Trim the white ribs out of the chard (save for another use, such as stir-fry or another soup).  Coarsely chop the chard greens and spinach.
3. When the rice has cooked for 15 minutes, stir in the chard greens.  Return to a simmer; cover and cook for 10 minutes.  When the onions are caramelized, stir a little of the simmering liquid into them; add them to the rice along with the spinach, broth, and cayenne.  Return to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring once, until the spinach is tender, but still bright green, about 5 minutes more.
4.  Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender until perfectly smooth or in a regular blender in batches (return it to the pot).  Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice.  Taste and add more lemon juice, if desired.  Garnish each bowl of soup with a drizzle of olive oil.

It Begins with the Stock

I make chicken stock regularly.  This ritual has been a staple in my life for years and though I have wished for a vegetarian stock that is the chicken soup equivalence, I have yet to discover one that satisfies me.  I have tried many:  organic store bought, concoctions involving brewer’s yeast, but I’m sorry to say that they have, for the most part, come out tasting strongly of a strange, particular ingredient or else… dish water.  Usually, when a recipe calls for vegetable stock I substitute homemade chicken stock.

            I love The Splendid Table on NPR.  I feel happy in the radio presence of Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host.  She is wise, yet so fresh with food.  She is also constantly affirming of all the guests on her show, taking a sincere interest in their culinary discoveries and implying that she is eager to learn from them, too.  Even Amy Sedaris.
            I am on a trajectory this week to make a greens soup that was described by a guest on The Splendid Table, Anna Thomas, who wrote a book called Eating Well.  I am going to save her greens soup recipe for a few days because I first need to make a deeply flavored vegetable stock.  I turned to the experience of Lynne Rossetto Kasper on this.  She has a recipe for a Hearty Vegetable Broth.  Her words, “There is nothing weak-kneed about this vegetable broth.  It’s big flavors hold their own in any dish…”
If you are used to tossing a bunch of raw ingredients in a pot, covering them with water, and walking away to let them simmer when you make stock, you may find this is a little more complicated.  To bring up the sugars in all of the vegetables, you cook them down until they are brown and beginning to stick to the pan.  You then deglaze the pan with white wine and let that cook off.  Finally, you add the cooked vegetables to some fresh ones, cover it all with water, and simmer it for a couple of hours.  This process, along with a large portion of sautéed mushrooms, gives the stock depth that I think rivals a beef stock.
Hearty Vegetable Broth
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Splendid Table, NPR
Ingredients:
2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
2 large carrots, coursely chopped
2 large stalks celery with leaves, coursely chopped
4 medium onions, coursely chopped
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, coursely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon dry basil or marjoram
2/3 cup dry white wine
6 large romaine lettuce leaves, coursely chopped
1 large ripe fresh tomato, chopped, or 2 canned plum tomatoes, crushed
A pinch freshly grated nutmeg
About 4 to 5 quarts of water
1.  Heat the oil in a 12-inch saute pan or skillet (not non-stick) over medium-high heat.  Add the carrot, celery, onion, and mushrooms.  Cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spatula, until the onions are golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and basil and cook a few seconds more.
Vegetables caramelizing and beginning to stick to the pan
2.  Add the wine and stir, scraping up any brown glaze in the pan, until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Transfer to an 8-quart stock pot.  Add the romaine, tomatoes, nutmeg, and enough water to cover the solids by 3 to 4 inches.  Bring to a gentle bubble, partially cover, and simmer slowly for about 90 minutes.
Deglazing the pan with white wine
Simmering stock
3.  Strain the broth into a large bowl, pressing down on the solids to extract as much flavor as possible.  Cool and chill.  Skim off any solidified oil from broth’s surface.  Refrigerate or freeze in 1 quart portions or in ice-cube trays.

I felt like I was making an Asian soup with the lettuce and the mushrooms.  The broth has a complex, yet natural flavor and this is only the stock.  On to the greens soup.