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.

A Montana Fourth

Celebrating the Fourth of July, as it should be done, for our family,  revolves around a trip to Montana.  In Montana reside my parents, my sister and her family, and my brother David’s family.  Billings, Montana is also about equidistant between Colorado and Washington which is the spread of my siblings and me.

This brother, David, also happens to own an idyllic box canyon ranch, stocked with Icelandic horses and many other fantasy features of a true western lifestyle.  It is flat-out fun and we love going there, because we love both our family and Montana.

It felt like the extended family made a greater effort than ever to get there this year and one of the things we all said we enjoyed the most about our time together was how we took turns with the meals.  For our part, there was a dinner based on Thomas Keller’s Buttermilk-Fried Chicken that was quite popular, especially with my 23 year old nephew who is living on his own now and really appreciates a home-cooked and free meal.

I also made an Ina Garten plum-apricot crumble to contribute to the Fourth of July barbecue.  This dessert was not-too-sweet, with extra crumb topping, and the plums and apricots bubbled together to form a pleasing pink color.

The main attraction, however, was the breakfast burritos made by my niece, Camilla, and her husband of almost one year, James.  Camilla has struggled with food allergies for many years and has explored cooking with a far greater variety of grains than I ever have.  She owns her own grain mill and for these tortillas ground hard Montana spring wheat, kamut, and spelt.  Camilla and James made and froze the tortillas and the Chili Verde Con Cerdo ahead of time and then cooked the eggs and bacon on the morning of the fourth.  We were absolutely groaning from the deliciousness and it was so much fun to share an interest in food preparation with them.

Breakfast Burritos

Flour Tortillas

  • 4 cups flour (choose any kind of flour such as wheat, kamut, spelt, etc…)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups hot water
  1. Mix all ingredients until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
  2. Take a gallon-sized zip-lock bag and liberally add olive oil.  Place dough in the oiled bag and extract as much of the air as possible before sealing.  Roll dough around in the oiled bag to cover it well then let it sit in a warm place for 20 minutes.
  3. Form dough into golf ball sized portions and lay on a parchment covered baking sheet.  On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into tortillas.  Heat a dry nonstick skillet to medium heat and cook tortillas on both sides as they are rolled. Stack them on a plate as they come off of the pan and cover the stack with a dry dish towel.

Makes between 12-15 tortillas

Serve with any of the following: scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, cheese, onions, green chilies or potatoes.  Smother with Chili Verde Con Cerdo.  Top with additional grated cheese and sour cream.

Finally, what would a family reunion be without cute little boys playing with kittens and eating ice cream sandwiches?

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.

Winter Preserves Pork Ribs

There is a reason why humans invented the preservation methods of drying, candying, smoking, freezing, and keeping foods in airtight jars.  Of course, we all know it was to extend the life of foods a little beyond the growing season and to prevent starvation during the dormant months. The other motivation was to keep foods so they could be transported from an entirely foreign climate which would allow people to enjoy pineapples, and cloves, and even herring when they had no way of harvesting those foods themselves.

            When I travel, I am always picking up interesting dried herbs and spices, dried fruit, potted meats, and fruit preserves.  It is a luxurious feeling to know I have exotic hard spices or a glistening jar of preserves in the pantry, but sometimes, those “special” items get passed over when I am cooking because they require a little bit of imagination or preparation such as toasting and grinding.  Also, it is true that people just don’t eat so many jams and jellies as they used to even though we still love the idea of them.  Rather than waiting for the odd piece of receptive toast, this type of recipe is a great way to use those gems.
            My intent today was to use a good quantity of my pantry items with pork ribs as the vehicle. The recipe is then easily adaptable to your own pantry.  If you think of your basic barbecue sauce you usually take a base like tomatoes, contrast it with mustard and vinegar, and then add a few spices for flavor.  With that formula in mind, I made ribs that were akin to the sticky Chinese style, without replicating that icon.
Spice Mix
2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced or 1 tbsp. dried
Artisinal salt to taste
Grind the following in a spice grinder:
½  tsp. each of cardamom, cloves, dried peppers, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, yellow mustard seeds,  black mustard seeds, and star anise (I also added a Tunisian specialty of dried bitter orange blossoms.  If you want the extra orange essence, you can add some orange zest.)
Mix all spice ingredients together.
Marinade
½ cup black sesame paste
½ cup orange or lemon marmelade
1/3 cup tomato vinegar or ketchup
1/3 cup soy sauce
Stir spice mix into marinade ingredients.
Dice 1 large onion.  In a deep baking dish, layer chopped onions and rib sections that have been covered on both sides with the marinade mixture.  Intersperse so the onions touch all sides of the pork.  Pour 1 cup water around the side of the meat.  Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake at 300 degrees for two to three hours or until the meat is completely tender.  Uncover for the last 30 minutes to reduce the liquid and caramelize the meat.  If the cooking liquid is still watery, remove the meat and reduce the liquid in a saucepan on the stovetop until it thickens.
In a small foil pan or open topped foil packet (approx.. 6” square), combine ½ cup black or green tea, ½ cup dry rice, and ¼ cup brown sugar.  Place in the bottom of a barbecue with a lid.  Heat barbecue to medium heat.  When tea mixture begins to smoke, add ribs for approximately 15 minutes or until they have taken on a subtle smoky flavor.  Remove ribs to a platter.    When cool, discard tea packet.
 Spicy, bright, sweet, smoky.  Very nice for a winter Sunday supper.  What’s in your pantry?