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Updated Polish recipes satisfy memories, appetites

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Something's missing.

I'm standing in my kitchen, having just parboiled not one, but two heads of cabbage. I've stuffed and rolled the leaves, and now they're baking cozily in the oven. But something's not the same.

At this point, the kitchen should be redolent of that fragrance I remember so well from my childhood: the unmistakable, pungent perfume of cooking cabbage.

At this point, I should be flinging open the doors and windows, as we did when my mother made cabbage rolls — aka golabki (go-WOMP-kee) — oh, those many years ago, to chase the heady scent out of doors.

But instead, I'm standing in my kitchen marveling at ... the absence of that essential aroma. I peer through the oven door. Yes, the gas is on and the little pigeons (that's what “golabki” means) are definitely baking. So why can't I smell a thing?

I sniff the air, once, twice. Three times. Ah, there! Ever-so-slight, the faintest hint of the familiar bouquet teases my nostrils — and wafts away.

Well, I think, these are not my mother's golabki.

And that's not a bad thing.

For years as an adult, I've mostly avoided the kind of cooking that my Polish mother did back in the 1960s. Golabki, pierogi, kapusta (ka-POO-stah), kluski (KLOO-skee) — all the specialties of her kitchen are foods I've made only a handful of times.

If I thought about Polish cooking, it was to daydream — purely idly — about opening a restaurant where I'd serve lighter, smaller, updated versions of the old standards. A sort of Polish nouvelle cuisine, if you will.

Well, in “From a Polish Country House Kitchen,” Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden have beaten me to the stove, coming up with smart twists on the tried-and-true. Their cabbage rolls, for instance, call for Savoy cabbage, a more expensive variety that lacks the telltale sulfurous scent of the regular green stuff and dresses up the little pigeons in prettier, daintier blankets.

Still, in testing the authors' excellent, elegant recipes, I found myself wandering the lanes of memory, back to my mother's kitchen and the foods she made for us.

Sauteing their ground turkey patties, or klopsiki ( klop-SHEE-kee), I had a perfect Proustian madeleine moment, suddenly recalling the version my mother had thrown together for many a weeknight dinner. The patties were ground beef, not turkey. We called them kotlety. There was none of the more healthful light browning and then baking that the cookbook calls for. My mother's meat cakes were fried, full-on, and served with mashed potatoes and grated carrots. A quick meal to feed the hungry horde.

The dish was simplicity embodied, a contrast to the authors' fancier concoction, which is served with a potato-chestnut mash and topped with a sophisticated Madeira sauce. But in my memory, Mom's tasted just as good.

The one thing my mother never made was bigos ( BEE-gohs). That is perplexing, because this classic Hunter's Stew is always described as practically Poland's national dish. Yet I didn't really discover it till I visited Poland for the first time in my early 20s. My sisters and I theorize that maybe she didn't cook it because it's more of a country dish, whereas she was a city girl, from Warsaw. But so much of Polish cuisine is country-based, so that doesn't really explain it.

No matter. She did make kapusta, a sauerkraut-cabbage combination. Hers was championship quality. That's really the base for bigos, even in the Applebaum-Crittenden recipe. You start by heating up sauerkraut and cooking a head of sliced green cabbage, just as my mother did for her kapusta.

So I put a pot of cabbage on the stove, and soon the water is bubbling and the cabbage is simmering its way to tenderness. I sniff the air and yes. No hunting this time. There it is.

The scent of childhood.

Zofia Smardz is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

Rich Turkey Patties in Madeira Sauce With Potato-Chestnut Mash (Klopsiki Z Indyka)

The Polish ground beef patty — klopsik ( klop-SHEEK) — is surely an ancient predecessor of the American hamburger. But unlike their modern American descendants, klopsiki do not rely on pure Texas beef for their flavor, and they are never served with buns. Instead, they contain spices and egg yolks, which help them hold together, and they are accompanied by a sauce — and, of course, boiled potatoes.

This version eschews red meat in favor of lighter turkey, uses a Madeira sauce instead of the ordinary brown sauce, and replaces traditional boiled potatoes with a potato-chestnut mash.

The potatoes can be cooked in advance and kept warm in a dry saucepan while the turkey patties are being made. The patties can be frozen; reheat in a baking dish in a 325-degree oven until warmed through. Adapted from “From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food,” by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden (Chronicle, 2012).

For the patties:

3 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened, plus 4 tablespoons ( 12 stick), melted

2 pounds ground turkey breast meat

18 teaspoon peeled, freshly grated ginger root


Freshly ground black pepper

Freshly squeezed juice of 12 lemon (1 or 2 tablespoons)

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon flour

12 cup homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce

14 cup Madeira

14 teaspoon sugar (optional)

For the potato-chestnut mash:

3 large (about 1 12 pounds total) skin-on baking potatoes, cut into quarters or sixths


4 roasted or store-bought, cooked chestnuts

4 tablespoons ( 12 stick) unsalted butter, softened

Freshly ground black pepper

Dash heavy cream

To prepare the patties: Combine the egg yolks and softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held mixer. Beat on medium speed to form a lightened, but not fluffy, mixture. Scrape down the bowl and beaters; the rest of the mixing will be done by hand.

Add the ground turkey and ginger. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Use your clean hands to gently yet thoroughly incorporate, being careful not to over-mix. Use all of the mixture to form 12 small, thick oval patties.

Pour the melted butter into a shallow bowl. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, begin dipping the patties, one by one, in the butter, then add them to the skillet. Cook until browned nicely on both sides, being careful not to overcrowd the skillet and being sure to press gently on the patties for even browning. As they are done, transfer the browned patties to a roasting pan that's large enough to hold all the patties so they don't touch each other. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until they are cooked through. Test by poking their centers with a fork; the juices should run clear. Remove the pan from the oven, sprinkle the lemon juice evenly over the patties, then cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.

To prepare the sauce: Once the patties are in the oven, add the butter to the now-empty skillet, over medium-high heat. Swirl it around as it melts, using a whisk or wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits in the skillet.

Once the butter's foam subsides, quickly whisk in the flour, and when well mixed, pour in the broth and the soy sauce. Continue stirring or whisking until smooth, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for a few minutes, until thickened. Stir in the Madeira and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, to form a smooth sauce. Taste and add the sugar, if desired. If the sauce thickens too much, thin it with a little broth. The yield is 34 cup. Keep warm.

To prepare the potato-chestnut mash: Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan, add water to cover and a generous pinch of salt. Boil over medium-high heat until cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and return the potatoes to the saucepan.

Add the chestnuts and mash together with the potatoes until well incorporated. Add the butter and season with salt and pepper to taste, then stir in the cream, and mix until somewhat smooth. Keep warm (not too long!) over a double boiler until ready to serve.

To serve, place one or two patties atop each equal portion of potato-chestnut mash. Finish with a spoonful or two of the sauce.

Makes 6 servings.

Hunter's Stew (Bigos)

1 34 pounds homemade or store-bought (one 28-ounce can) sauerkraut, drained


4 thin slices Canadian bacon (about 2 12 ounces total; may substitute 4 strips raw bacon), diced

1 small head green cabbage (1 12 to 2 pounds), cored and cut into thin slices

Small handful of dried mixed mushrooms (about half of a 34-ounce package)

8 ounces boneless venison, cut into 1-inch pieces

8 ounces lean boneless stew beef, cut into 1-inch pieces

8 ounces lean boneless pork or veal shoulder, cut into 1-inch pieces

14 cup flour

3 tablespoons vegetable oil or lard, divided

1 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped

1 cup dry red wine

8 ounces smoked kielbasa or other spicy hard sausage, cut crosswise into thick slices

1 cup pitted prunes, each cut into quarters

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the drained sauerkraut, 2 cups water and diced bacon in a large saucepan over medium heat. When the liquid starts to bubble at the edges, cover and cook for 20 minutes or until the bacon is cooked and the sauerkraut is tender. The mixture will be fairly soupy.

Meanwhile, combine the cabbage and dried mushrooms in a separate large saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Drain in a colander.

Use paper towels to pat dry the venison, beef and pork or veal shoulder. Place it in a large resealable food-storage bag along with the flour; seal and shake to coat evenly. Shake off any excess flour from each piece of meat. Discard any excess flour.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil or lard in a Dutch oven over medium heat; the pot should be large enough to hold all of the meat and vegetables. When the oil is hot, add the onion and stir to coat. Cook for about 10 minutes or until softened but not burned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a bowl.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil or lard to the pot. When it's hot, add just enough of the meat so that it can brown on both sides; about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate; repeat in batches to brown all the meat (no need to add more oil).

Increase the heat to high; add the wine and immediately use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return all of the meat plus any accumulated juices to the pot, along with the onion, sausage, prunes, cabbage-mushroom mixture and the sauerkraut-bacon mixture with all of its remaining cooking liquid. Season generously with salt and pepper, then stir to combine. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally, until a rich, dark-brown broth has formed and the meat is falling-apart tender. If the mixture seems like it's getting dry, add water during cooking as needed. It should be moist, but not watery.

Serve hot, or cool completely and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Makes 10 to 12 cups, or 8 to 10 servings.

Sour Cucumber Soup (Ogorkowa)

In Poland, when they talk about cucumber soup, they don't mean the pallid white stuff. Ogorkowa ( o-goor-KOV-ah) is made with sour cucumbers, otherwise known as dill pickles.

This works better if you use homemade sour pickles, but good sour dill pickles — not the sweet kind — from a jar are a fine substitute. They don't have to be kosher dills, but those are often high quality.

This recipe comes from Wlodek Szemberg, a Polish friend of co-author Danielle Crittenden, who first introduced her to the exotic possibilities of Polish cuisine by serving her this soup at a dinner party more than two decades ago; the memory of its surprise and deliciousness remained strong. The result is hearty and deeply fragrant of dill.

Served with dark bread and butter, it makes a complete meal.

The soup (minus the dill) can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Adapted from “From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food,” by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden (Chronicle, 2012).

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 medium-size leek, white and light-green parts, rinsed well, then cut into 12-inch pieces

1 medium-size carrot, trimmed and cut into 12-inch pieces

1 medium-size parsnip, peeled and cut into 12-inch pieces

12 medium-size celery root (celeriac), peeled, or 2 celery ribs, trimmed; chopped into 12-inch pieces

5 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth

3 large (about 1 12 pounds total) baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 12-inch pieces


32 ounces homemade or store-bought sour dill pickles in brine


Freshly ground black pepper

14 cup heavy whipping cream

Generous 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the leek and stir to coat; cook for about 3 minutes or until softened. Stir in the carrot, parsnip and celery root, then add the broth. When the liquid comes to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Place the potatoes in a separate pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook for 7 or 8 minutes or until they are cooked through yet still slightly firm. Drain.

Meanwhile, strain the pickles, reserving their brine. Use a cheese grater or grater attachment in a food processor to coarsely grate the pickles. Add to the cooked vegetables in the pot, along with the pickle brine and the cooked potatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook (over medium-low heat) for 5 minutes.

Use an immersion (stick) blender to puree the soup so its texture is not ultra-smooth; you want the end result to still be a little chunky. Mix in the heavy cream.

Add the chopped dill just before serving.

Makes about 12 cups — 12 first-course servings or 6 main-course servings.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls With Mushroom Sauce (Golabki z Sosem Grzybowym)

This version of Polish golabki ( go-WOMP-kee; “little pigeons”) calls for Savoy cabbage, whose delicate leaves make for easier rolling than green cabbage. The sauce makes the dish.

Depending on the size and number of cabbage leaves, you might have some leftover stuffing, which can be shaped into meatballs and baked. For this recipe, it's helpful to use a large pot that has a strainer insert. Leftover cabbage leaves can be refrigerated for a day or two, then coarsely chopped, sauteed in butter and seasoned for serving as a side dish for another meal.

The cabbage rolls can be frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat in a baking dish in a 325-degree oven for about 25 minutes.

Adapted from “From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food.”

For the rolls:


2 large heads Savoy cabbage (2 34 to 3 pounds total)

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

14 cup coarsely chopped onion

4 cups cooked white rice

1 pound raw, coarsely chopped pork or chicken breast meat (thigh meat will be juicier, but white meat works as well)


Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth

For the sauce:

1 ounce dried, mixed mushrooms or porcini mushrooms

2 cups just-boiled water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons minced onion

1 pound mixed fresh mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and coarsely chopped (go for an exotic mix, but if your market offers only portobello, cremini and shiitake, those will work as well)

1 tablespoon flour


Freshly ground black pepper

14 cup white wine or dry vermouth

14 cup heavy cream

Freshly squeezed juice of 12 lemon

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare the rolls: Fill a pot (large enough to hold a submerged head of cabbage, and preferably with a strainer insert inside) with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the first head of cabbage and parboil for about 10 minutes. Transfer the cabbage to a colander in the sink to drain until it is just cool enough to handle. Repeat with the second head of cabbage. Discard the cabbage cooking liquid.

Gently discard the cabbages' outer leaves, some of which might be soggy or torn. Those will be used to line the baking dish, as will any small leaves you might accumulate. It helps to cut off some of the coarse stem at the bottom of each leaf as you work. Your goal is to have 16 to 20 medium-to-large leaves for rolling. Use paper towels to pat each of them dry.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small skillet over medium heat and add the onion, stirring to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is lightly browned. Transfer to a food processor and let cool for a few minutes, then add the rice and chopped meat; season generously with salt and pepper. Pulse until incorporated yet not mushy; you should still see individual grains of rice.

Spread the 16 to 20 cabbage leaves on a work surface and divide the filling evenly among the leaves, placing it near the bottom of each leaf. If any stem remaining on the leaf seems especially tough or thick, you can use a vegetable peeler to pare it down. Roll up the leaves, tucking in the sides so the stuffing is contained.

Line the bottom of a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish with the torn/small cabbage leaves. Rest the rolls on top, seam sides down; they can be crowded together, as long as they don't overlap. If you run out of room in one baking dish, start a smaller, second one, lining it in the same way.

Pour in the broth, which should come no more than a third of the way up the sides of the rolls. Use the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter to dot the tops of the rolls. Bake for 40 minutes to 1 hour or until the tops are golden and slightly crisped.

Transfer the cabbage rolls to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm (in the turned-off oven). Discard the leaves lining the baking dish, but reserve the broth, which will be added to the mushroom sauce.

To prepare the sauce: Soak the dried mushrooms in the just-boiled water for at least 30 minutes, until softened. Pour the mushrooms and soaking liquid into a bowl through a fine-mesh strainer lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth. Squeeze the mushrooms to extract as much of the moisture as possible, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse the mushrooms with cold water, pat dry, and coarsely chop.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and stir to coat; cook for a few minutes, until it is translucent. Add the chopped fresh mushrooms and soaked dried mushrooms, and cook, stirring often, until all the mushrooms are soft and golden.

Sprinkle the mushrooms with the flour, then season lightly with salt and pepper, stirring constantly until the mushrooms are well coated. Slowly add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid, continuing to stir until all of the liquid is blended and the mixture has thickened.

Add the wine or vermouth, then the cream, then any broth remaining in the cabbage rolls' baking dish, stirring constantly and allowing them to cook for a minute or two before adding the next ingredient. Add the lemon juice and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, to form a sauce that is rich and thick. If the sauce remains thin after 15 minutes, increase the heat to medium and cook at a gentle boil, stirring. The yield is about 4 cups.

Pour the hot sauce over the cabbage rolls, and serve immediately.

Makes 16 to 20 rolls — 6 first-course servings or 4 main-course servings.

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